Alex, our beloved former Hebrew School head teacher, has been part of a spontaneous and amazing day camp project in Brussels – Project Keitana (day camp in Hebrew) - for Israeli families with kids who suddenly found themselves fleeing to safety in Belgium. Diana Kanter interviewed her recently.
How did this project start?
I was raised in Netivot and Beer Sheva, close to kibbutzim and a military zone. I completed my military service near Gaza. The base where I was stationed was infiltrated by Hamas on October 7 and soldiers were killed. So already stunned by what had happened, it became even more personal for me. My immediate family no longer lives in Israel, but I have cousins, an aunt and close friends who are there. We all felt shocked, consumed by events and basically helpless. I realized that I had to do something constructive to distract myself. My son goes to a Jewish school and they started collecting supplies for the military. When I donated items, it was the first time I felt better.
Then an Israeli friend based here - Liron S. - called me to say that a friend of hers was arriving from Israel with her three children. She offered to accommodate them, but what about the kids? They were all traumatized and she asked whether there was a school that could temporarily host them. The challenge was that some of them didn't speak French, and even if they did, the Belgian schools were closed for the two weeks for the Toussaint holiday.
So she and I sprang into action. We had to do something for our country, Israel. We called Habait Halsraeli – which is part of Chabad and, by good luck, fell on Hani M. and her colleague from the EJCC, Nehama T.
So Project Keitana was born…
Yes, these two amazing women had worked with Ukrainian refugees and so had experience of emergency support for kids. Within two days, we had a wonderful safe space for kids to play and do arts with young Israeli educators Miriam, Chaia and Rivka and teacher Liora. A few times we even had Israeli mums from the community come and volunteer with the kids. In addition, we had a security guard, a driver to pick up children from other parts of Brussels, and delicious kosher food donated by Maurice at Gel Tov. Another helper was David H. who works in Beit Chabad, helping with logistics.
We posted Project Keitana on a WhatsApp group for Israeli mums in Belgium, and on other sites with Israeli connections. By the second week we had 20 kids! The camp was daily from 10.30am to 3.30pm including lunch. Israeli families knew they had a warm and comforting place to go, with a hot meal. It was free, but we asked for financial donations to cover costs and in kind donations of toys and clothes. The latter was important as many families had arrived with just the clothes on their back and it was cold and wet here. The idea for the kids was to have fun, do art, music and play. Politics were absent.
Project Keitana lasted just the two weeks of the Toussaint holiday. Most of the families have now either moved on or returned to Israel, while others have registered with local schools.
How do you feel now that this amazing project is over?
To be honest, the whole experience was an exercise in humility and humanity. Chabad knew I had been IJC’s Head Teacher and they were very open-minded towards me. I had always been reluctant to deal with them as I thought they were very religious. But I have learned not to judge a book by its cover. I would never have met Hani or Nehama otherwise - two women from whom I have learned so much. If you had told me a month ago that as a secular Israeli I would strike up such a spontaneous, warm and constructive relationship with Chabad, I would not have believed it.
And everyone was so collaborative. We mobilised so quickly, no questions asked. And for example, we recently gave gifts to the educators to say thank you - as no-one was paid.
And we need to thank these Israeli families for giving us this chance to do good in the face of tragedy.
If you would like to support Habait Halsraeli or other similar projects, please contact Alex.