WISCONSIN DELLS – Every summer since 2010, the Jewish Community Center Chicago Camp Chi in the Dells has opened its bunks to a group of Israeli campers.
Between the water sports and top-of-your-lungs singing, the (kosher) bug juice and ropes course, the biggest reason for these campers to be here is the simplest: it’s a chance for them to just be kids for a few days.
That’s special, because of what they all have in common. They’re all children or siblings of fallen Israeli military personnel. This year, they visited the Wisconsin Dells campgrounds from July 24 to Aug. 1.
Dan Ben-Zvi, 28, was one of the counselors. An Israel Defense Forces combat veteran and active company commander in the reserves, Ben-Zvi began volunteering with the Israeli Defense Forces Widows and Orphans Organization – which he calls his “second family” – after starting law school at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya in 2014.
“We are having a lot of fun,” he said, after apologizing for his hoarse voice, the result of a week of singing, chanting and organizing. “The kids are so excited about everything they’re doing, and it gets better every day!”
“These kids come from all around Israel and in their home communities, they’re all different from other kids,” Ben-Zvi said. “Some of them are being hassled for the fact that they don’t have a parent, and some of them don’t have friends, and some just feel abnormal. Then they come to our programs in Israel and at Camp Chi and for the first time, they feel normal. The fact that they feel normal among the other kids makes them flourish.”
By working to make a difference for a small group of the children and siblings of fallen Israeli military personnel, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces exemplifies what defines the Jewish people as a whole, according to FIDF Midwest Executive Director Tamir Oppenheim.
“The bigger picture is, what makes us different from … the other nations?” he said. “It’s exactly those stories, where the Jewish people really care for each other and support each other; it’s what keeps us together and keeps us strong. To show a group of Israeli kids who lost someone in the IDF that is 6,000 miles away, people really care and really want to support them and show their love, and to show families here that Israeli kids are the same tribe, same nation, and to strengthen their connection to Israel through those kids.”
The young visitors to Wisconsin are guests of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Legacy program, created to support the families of fallen soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Every summer, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Legacy sponsors dozens of b’nei mitzvah-aged Israelis, along with their adult counselors, for a 14-day trip to one of three major Jewish communities in the United States. And for the last eight years, one of those destinations has been the Central Region – Greater Chicago and its JCC Camp Chi in Wisconsin.
Back home, the Legacy kids and their counselors are part of the Israel Defense Forces Widows and Orphans Organization, which provides year-round youth activities through the Otzma Program. This year, the Central Region hosted the 25 children and seven counselors of Otzma’s Sharon group.
The Israelis first spent a few days enjoying Chicago and surrounds with local host families before departing for Camp Chi. They then traveled to Toronto for a weekend with host families and visited Niagara Falls and New York City before boarding the flight home. This year, on Aug. 1, the group met Ambassador Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations and himself an IDF “orphan.”