For the fifth year in a row, Esti Cohen has worked tirelessly to co-ordinate the Toronto leg of a three-week North American trip for Israeli children who have suffered the loss of a parent who died serving the State of Israel.
“I’m a fighter. I will not give up for these kids,” said Cohen, a Thornhill-based volunteer for Israel Defence Forces Widows and Orphans (IDFWO), a non-profit association that provides programming, as well as social, emotional and financial support to 8,000 widows and orphans of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.
But perhaps the biggest undertaking is the free vacation that bar and bat mitzvah-aged children are treated to, during which they spend two weeks at Camp Chi in the Chicago area, and a week travelling along North America’s East Coast.
Hosted by members of the Jewish community, most of whom are Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto members, the IDFWO group, consisting of 26 children and six counsellors, were in the GTA from July 18 to 21.
Their itinerary included a trip to Niagara Falls, an afternoon at a Toronto entertainment complex called eZone, a barbecue dinner with entertainment by professional musicians and a meal at Bali Laffa.
The trip is free for participants, and although some of its funding comes from the Israeli government, IDFWO mostly relies on donations from sources in the Diaspora.
Cohen said all accommodations, activities and meals for the kids were donated, and any funds raised will go to the IDFWO in Israel for its year-round programs.
Cohen said without the support of the community, she’d never be able to provide the children with this experience.
“The host families have been so warm and welcoming to the children… This morning, a boy was crying on my shoulder, bawling his eyes out. He looked at me and said, ‘You sent me to an angel family.’… They welcomed them, they fed them, they were warm, they listened to them… Each one has a story. And they were bonding.”
One of the participants, 12-year-old Shira Cohen (no relation), spoke to The CJN about her involvement with the IDFWO after the death of her father. She said her father was injured while serving in the IDF about six years ago. He spent three or four years in hospital before he succumbed to his injuries and died, leaving behind his wife and three children.
“All our family was together in the hospital when he died,” she recalled, adding that it has been helpful for her to spend time with a group of peers who have been through a similar experience, having lost their fathers at a young age.
“They talk to me about it, and I know I can talk to them.