Shlomi Nahumson, the director of youth programs at the Israel Defence Forces Widows and Orphans (IDFWO) organization, was in Toronto last month as part of the annual IDFWO trip offered to bar and bat mitzvah-age kids, during which they tour the east coast of North America and spend two weeks at Camp Chi in Chicago.
Nahumson is the founder and director of IDFWO’s Otzma Camp, which serves 150 to 200 Israeli young people between the ages of six and 18 who have had a parent die while serving in the IDF or the national security forces. He spoke to The CJN about his role with the organization, which works tirelessly to support children coping with this immeasurable loss.
What drew you to this organization?
I didn’t lose a direct family member, but I was obviously affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict, as a combat solider myself. I served three years in the Nahal Brigade. I was in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and up until a year ago, I did miluim, which is the reserve duty. I have lost friends to war, so I know what it is to experience a loss, but more than that, I know that this is my duty to be there for the families of the fallen. I know that if God forbid, something happens to me, they will be there for my family. It is sort of an unspoken covenant in the battlefield that I’m honoured to be able to fulfil.
Today we serve over 500 children who experience the loss of a parent in service to the IDF and the security forces. We serve these children through the Otzma camp. Otzma means strength in Hebrew. It takes place in Israel for four to five days each during school vacations on Chanukah, Passover and the summer break.
In these camps, they feel safe, and it is a comfortable environment to grow and have a positive, healthy process of grief, and be able to meet with other peers who share a similar life experience, which is something that they do not have in their immediate environment.
They rarely know other children who have experienced such a loss, and they often find themselves very lonely with these feelings, not being able to have someone to relate to when it comes to dealing with it and coping with the loss.
You were described by Esti Cohen, the leader of the Toronto leg of the tour, as a father figure to the children. Is that a role you strive for?
I know there is only one dad, and I’m not aiming to replace anyone, but what I can tell you is that I’m trying my hardest to make sure that the service we provide to the families is as holistic as possible. I often go to visit them in their homes, I speak to the mothers, I meet with the family members in their homes, and we really try to create a family-oriented environment in these camps. You can see with this trip that I’m sharing a lot of love with these kids, but I’m also creating boundaries for them, which is something I think is extremely important for them to grow and become the best individuals they can be.
Following these programs, do you maintain a relationship with the kids?
Absolutely. The volunteers and myself, we are present during the yahrzeits of their fathers, and we’re present on their birthdays, during the holidays, to say “Shabbat shalom.” We try to be as present as possible in their lives, in between the camps.
A tradition that began a couple years ago is the “Hugs Squad.” It takes place on Yom Hazikaron, where our volunteers come to the military cemeteries. Sometimes even just laying a hand on a kid’s shoulder and being able to say, sometimes without words, that we’re there for them is enough. This day is obviously an extremely difficult day. We go to their homes and this is something that, since we started the program, they know they don’t have to go through alone. Sometimes they even feel lonely within their family, because each family member experiences the loss in a different way.
Do you find it emotionally taxing to be there for the kids in this capacity?
I guess you do need some mental resilience to be able to function in this role. I can tell you that after Operation Protective Edge, we had 24 families join the organization, and I had to go to one home after the other and introduce myself. In many ways, allowing them to break into my heart and trying hard to become relevant to their lives was something extremely difficult. But I try to remember that my role is to bring the joy back to their lives. There is nothing I can do about the past, no matter how much I try. There is nothing I can do to change what happened. What I can do is make the present and the future a lot better for these kids. That is something that I try to concentrate and focus on, and that really gives me the strength to go on when things become difficult.
In the summer after Operation Protective Edge, when we came to Thornhill, to Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto congregation, I was really exhausted that year, emotionally. It was probably the most difficult year I’ve had in my life. I remember all the love and support that people poured on us when we were there. It definitely gave us not only the strength to continue, but the feeling that we are not alone taking care of these families, that there are others all over the world who will do anything necessary for these children to get back on a positive track in their lives. With the help of so many people, it becomes possible.
Is there anything from this experience over the past seven years with IDFWO that you’ve learned?
I learned to be grateful for what we have, because no one ensures for us that we will have the people we have in our lives today in the future. Appreciating every moment we have with our loved ones is definitely something that I take with me from this job.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.