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Hanukkah Camp Brightens Lives of Orphaned Kids from Service Families

Sponsored by IDF Widows, Orphans Organization, Otzma allows children to relax, be themselves around peers who suffered similar losses

Hanukkah is celebrated with the festive lighting of candles.

On the first day of Hanukkah in 2010, the joyous light and gentle heat became a conflagration, as a forest fire broke out on Israel’s Mount Carmel. The flames spread quickly and burned for four days before firefighters eventually succeeded in extinguishing them.

The conflagration killed 44 people, making it the deadliest in Israel’s history. Among the fatalities were 37 Israel Prison Service cadets and officers, who had been sent by bus to help evacuate prisoners from a facility on Mount Carmel. Other fatalities included three police officers, including Haifa’s first woman chief of police; two firefighters; and a teenage volunteer with the fire department.

For many families, Hanukkah would never be the same.

Holidays are often a difficult time for those in grief. They can be especially difficult if one has lost a spouse or parent at a young age, in tragic circumstances. The tragedy is further compounded when the loss happens on the holiday itself.

In Israel, the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization represents the families of the country’s fallen soldiers, police officers, firefighters and other security personnel. Founded in 1991, it offers emotional support, financial assistance and a variety of programs to more than 8,000 women, men and children whose dear ones fell in service to the state.

The organization’s Otzma (“Strength”) camps provide children with three to five fun-filled days and allow parents a little time to rest, knowing that their children are happy and thriving. The camps operate four times a year, during summer vacation and the Passover, Sukkot and Hanukkah holidays.

Shlomi Nahumson, director of youth programs for the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, spoke to The Media Line about the importance of the camps for children who lost a parent in the security services.

“The camps create a unique environment in which children can make connections with peers who have experienced a similar loss. This helps them overcome their tragedies together and forge strong friendships. They are free to be themselves, to laugh and play – and sometimes cry together,” Nahumson said.

Free to be themselves. (Courtesy IDF Widows and Orphans Organization)

The counselors are all volunteers. Some are IDF orphans themselves.

Participants include both Jewish and non-Jewish children, boys and girls, ages 6 to 18, from across the secular-religious spectrum.

A significant number are from the Druze community, which has a strong tradition of service in the military and police. The Otzma framework includes a camp specifically geared for Druze children, held in Arabic and run by Druze counselors, two of whom are IDF orphans themselves.

This Hanukkah, which begins on the evening of December 22, the camp will operate December 24-26 at Hatzeva in the Arava region of southern Israel. Among its approximately 120 participants will be Carmel and Segev Ohayon, 13 and 15, respectively, from Nof Hagalil.

Carmel and Segev’s father, 1st Lt. Hanan Ohayon, an officer in the Israel Prison Service, died in the Mount Carmel fire but remains a large presence in the family – an example of honesty and decency, public service and heroism.

After their father’s death, their mother, Rose Ohayon, joined the prison service, where she continues to work to this day.

Happier times. Segev, Hanan, Rose and Carmel Ohayon (Courtesy Ohayon family)

Carmel told The Media Line that for her, the Hanukkah season is the hardest.

“I think of Dad all year round, but especially at this time of year,” she says.

There are multiple memorial ceremonies to attend – a public ceremony for the families of the forest fire victims, and a private ceremony for family and friends of her father.

The Otzma camp provides a much-needed respite.

“It’s extremely important to me and has helped me get through so many hard times and difficulties,” Carmel says. “My camp friends really understand me. The camp has made me who I am. I wouldn’t think of missing it. The other kids and the counselors are not only friends but family to me.”

She adds that camp is the one place where she can feel relaxed. She can speak as much or as little as she wants about her feelings. It’s not awkward and she doesn’t feel judged.

“I don’t have to apologize or explain why I don’t have a father. The other kids understand me. We all went through the same thing,” she explains.

She and Segev try to attend all four sessions each year and they stay in close touch with camp friends between the sessions.

Rose Ohayon tells The Media Line that, despite her loss, it is always important to her to celebrate Hanukkah. Even during the Shiva, the weeklong mourning period immediately following her husband’s death, she insisted on lighting the Hanukkah candles. And she wants her children to enjoy the holiday as much as possible.

“It’s not easy, but I know it’s what Hanan would have wanted,” she says of her late husband.