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One Family of 44 Names

JAFI Respite Camps for Families of Carmel Fire Victims

In the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, a common location for young families on vacation day trips, a poised young woman is sitting in an auditorium, extolling the benefits of companionship; 'They understand me in the way that others don't - can't. Being here gives me an opportunity to pause for breath.' The speaker is a participant in the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)'s summer camp for relatives of those killed in the Carmel Fires and is one of 70 relatives participating.

On December 2, 2010, the Carmel Forest erupted in flames, exacting irrevocable damage on the lives of many. Wreaking massive devastation on people's entire existences, the fires brutally claimed the lives of 44 prison cadets, firefighters and police chiefs. Those who perished in the flames left behind young spouses and children to confront a life without them. Federations’ historical partner, the Jewish Agency, has established a five day summer camp as part of its work to weave a web of support for the grieving widows, widowers and families.

Created as a way to provide respite from the emotionally and physically demanding daily routine that the spouses endure, bereft of their partner's presence, the camps offer crucial support to the bereaved and have been well received.  The first camp took place in April, over Pesach and initiated the formation of this organic support community.  Since then the participants have been anticipating the August camp. 'I stayed up with my daughter all night the night before, so excited to meet with everyone', says Rachel. The camp enables the bereaved to come together in a supportive, caring environment, most importantly, infused with understanding. 'No one understands us like these people' says Rose, gesturing with her hand to those listening around her.

Meeting with 18 bereaved relatives on Tuesday, August 23, the third day of the camp, Jewish Federations were thanked for their role in providing care for the bereaved.  The group, which included 15 widowed spouses, was representative of the total 44 who had perished. This group had directly expressed a desire to articulate their gratitude to those who had assisted them. Manifestly taking control over their own grieving process, the group had crafted a poem to express their thanks. The poem's message: appreciation of the opportunity to create a new family imbued with understanding and love; 'In one meeting, you created one family of 44 names'. The commonality of experience is unifying; 'They understand every word you say,' explains Michal.

A theme reiterated throughout the meeting, was the sense the bereaved had, of having molded a family from these new faces. 'It's really a family for us. We couldn't have done this on our own – you managed to pick up the phone, contact each of us and facilitate it and that is wonderful for us in a way that our words can't describe; only our hearts.'

Explained Eli Carmeli, JAFI, 'This is the first time they have come into contact with anyone who has assisted them and it means a lot to them to be able consciously to find a way to express their thanks'. The members of the group shared their experiences, thoughts and feelings about what it meant for them to be able to participate in the camp; 'It gives me an opportunity to take care of myself and remember my own needs, not just my children's', says Sivan, mother to a 4 year old.

Regardless of any need for material assistance, the bereaved spouses require emotional assistance. Both the Jewish Agency and specifically its subsidiary, The Israel Experience, have been there for the families, providing continued support, not merely seen in the camp setting. 'The staff come with an instinctive knowledge of what to do. They connect with the children and are there for us, not just for three, four days and that's it, but constantly.' Accompanying the camps are therapists Gili and Batsheva. Emphasizing the need for emotional support for the single-parents and children, they explain, 'There are mothers here who are looking after their children in all physical ways, clothing them, feeding them, but they are unable to open themselves up to providing for their severe emotional needs. We're here as a sort of 'Super Nanny' in some respects'.  

Outside the camps, the bereaved communicate via an internet meeting place which they themselves set up. However, meeting together in a place where they can speak intimately with each other regarding their anxieties, fears, concerns, and deep loss is a boon.  As Rose remarks, 'The level to which we can connect in small groups is not comparable to the level of security we feel here with each other.' Adds Amit, 'We speak on Facebook but it's not the same.'  

'The reality', defines Gili, 'is that not everyone can join in on the internet. The inclusivity of the camp setting means that they can connect with each other far more effectively.' The camp excludes no one; 'It's external to any politics. The group is here together, without a fixed setting and the camp creates a family out of all of the individuals put together.' Gili and Batsheva's brief is simultaneously both simple and complex. We are here for them; that's it – however we can help.' The complexity for the two therapists lies in trying to plumb the depths of those needs. 'We're with them wherever they are', Batsheva explains; 'Some have refused therapy but you cannot overestimate how therapeutic the group setting itself is. They leave refreshed – they take strength from the group'.

Already anticipating the next camp at Sukkot, the chronological spacing of the camps affords the participants an opportunity to take stock of their progress. 'For most', says Batsheva, a therapist for 20 years, 'it's two steps forward and one step back. For others it's two steps back and one step forward: we're here for them'.

Taking care of their own wants as well as those of their children is something much needed for these participants. Describes Sivan, 'I get up in the morning for the children, take them to kindergarten, come back, go to work, come back, occupy myself with the children, lessons, dinner. Each day you feel that there's no time left for yourself. And you also tell yourself, I'm here alone, and that's to say that as much as you can depend on someone, parents, siblings, to look after your children, you're not there. It's a question of responsibility.'

The school vacation is a particularly taxing time emotionally for those with small children at home and lacking the craved domestic infrastructure of being a family. Throughout the school year, there is the imposed freneticism of everyday life but during the vacation, things can tend to fall apart, with seemingly simple challenges indicative of a much greater struggle. 'It was always my job only to make the sandwiches' relates Michal, 'it was my husband who organized all the day trips. Without him here, I don't know what to do with the vacation'.

The intense feelings of empathy, mutual understanding and support pervading the summer camp somehow alter the feelings of isolation, providing needed structured refuge from the day to day routine. 'Here it's a little different – all the children are on vacation. I also feel on vacation. You realize that your own emotions are no less important.' Adds Rachel, 'Throughout a normal day, you're trying to provide for your children's every need. Suddenly, it's possible to find freedom, it's possible to breathe. You can even switch off your cellphone. It provides an opportunity to break away from the normal routine and take a break.'

Says Rachel, 'You have done something here which in my eyes seems genius – disconnecting each person from their normal location and routine'. Giving everyone a change of location and a breadth of time to feel a different person, the camp can alleviate some of their daily travails. 'When we were in the camp together, it felt like we were in a kibbutz – my door opposite yours and everyone's children playing together outside. You feel that you are in a place of safety.' The group wistfully described a wish for everyone to live in the same residence the whole time, 'it's a fantasy I have', says Sivan with a smile.

For some, it's important to avoid the disquieting unease of happening upon a couple who are emotionally intimate. 'Of course we go out with married friends, relatives to places where there is a couple, a father. And it's not that we avoid it – it's good that the children should see it: so that they can be reminded that they had a father. So that they won't forget what they actually had at home – because they did have a father. All of the children here had a father and a mother. They were greatly involved in the lives of our children.'

After being at home off work for two months without any income, Sivan was confronted with a cold lack of understanding from people who, not knowing what to say, stayed silent. She felt no emotional empathy but an abandonment of emotions seen too big to deal with. Sivan makes clear that she feels that the space JAFI has created here is just the space that's needed for her. 'I can say that here I can receive air. Even in the hour or so when we're without our children in a workshop, I feel like I'm cared for and I can begin to breathe, let out a yawn…now that I've got oxygen…'

An overwhelming sentiment was that of concern for their children; 'there is one thing that will be eternally remembered, and as a result, we will be bound by everlasting thanks; for every smile that our children smiled in your merit, for every feeling of excitement that our children have felt in your merit, for every feeling of anticipation that our children have felt, expectantly waiting for the next surprise you will bring them'. Michal describes the importance of security for her child – 'when my child sleeps through the night and doesn't wet the bed, you know something's working'.

The impression gathered from time spent with the bereaved spouses and relatives of those killed in the Carmel fires, was of the strength of understanding, love and support shared unstintingly between those present. The courage of these women was powerfully felt, both in the tears and the hopeful smiles. Certainly, the opportunity for those bereaved to come together and sympathize is invaluable. Says one widow, 'Even in the shiva, in the months after, I felt that the people of Israel was with us.' Their own words proclaim the benefit of the circuit of support triggered by these JAFI camps. It is clear that for these campers, the gratitude towards JFNA, the camp's sponsor, goes beyond the pecuniary and prosaic.

'I am really inspired by these results', says Shep Remis, chair of JFNA, Israel & Overseas, 'and I'm proud that Federations have played such an important role. As always, when tragedy strikes in Israel, we in America also feel the pain, and always respond to do whatever we can to help. The Carmel Fire was such an event, and we can take comfort in the knowledge that we played an important role in the response and recovery, by supporting our historic partners, who provided critical services to those who were affected'.



 Tikva Schein



JAFI camp offers family atmosphere for widows
Outings on the JAFI camp

 Extract from Poem

'On a calm day, our world collapsed onto us and transported us into a place of suffering, pain and tears. Our loved ones changed into angels, aloft in the heavens. On a calm day later, in the time of pain and bereavement, the telephone rang for each one of us and by each person's side, other angels, there below, smiling and tangible. You had the names of parents, a widower, widows, and we didn't even know the other families. In the one meeting that you created, you transported with you many miracles and marvels. In one meeting, you created one family of 44 names'.

families of Carmel fire vicitms on a tiyul
families of Carmel fire victims on a tiyul
JAFI Respite Camp for Families of Carmel Fire Victims
Children's workshop at JAFI respite camp
Children participate in JAFI respite camp for families of Carmel Fire victims
Children take part in JAFI camp activities