For These Israelis, Life After Divorce Begins in a Whatsapp Group

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Divorced parents who found a supportive community in an unexpected place, and camp directors who offer chronically ill children serious fun and a taste of independence

Netali Reuveni and Tali Elbaz.
Meged Gozani

Netali Reuveni, 39, lives in Yokne’am; Tali Elbaz, 41, lives in Carmiel; flying to Burgas

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Burgas?

Netali: We have a WhatsApp group of divorced people, women and men. We talk and meet up, and now we’re going abroad together, about 20 people from the group.

How many people are there in the group?

Netali: Approximately 170. I’m one of the founders and I also administered it until very recently. It’s been going for only two months, so it’s all quite new, and we’re actually refugees from a bigger group.

“Refugees”?

Netali: We were expelled for not following the rules of the group. The larger group has thousands of members. I was divorced five years ago, and I joined the group a year ago. After a few months, I connected with some of the people and we started to hold meetings of our own. That’s not customary, and the administrators didn’t like it, because it’s a for-profit group. They organize large-scale events, like the workers committee in the Electric Corporation, and sell tickets. So naturally they have no interest in small groups meeting on a not-for-profit basis, because they lose money.

Who are the members of the small group?

Netali: We are all working people, parents, who live in the north. Everyone has to be divorced and be between 30 and 45. The reason these groups start up and that it’s important for them to exist, is that we no longer have a common denominator with married people.

Tali: When you’re married, everyone in your milieu is married and you form relationships with moms from the preschool or the classroom, but when you’re divorced you don’t have a common language anymore. I’m not saying that divorced people don’t interest married people. They ask whom you’ve met and want to know where you went out, whom you danced with or ran into. But there’s a sense of an invasion of privacy, and you’re not invited to dinners anymore like in the past.

Sounds pretty traumatic.

Netali: When a person gets divorced, they feel alone and they’re in a crisis, but not everyone can understand that. And when the family breaks up there are a lot of things that you don’t find the right platform for, so the idea is to do things together so as not to feel alone. We have social events, parties, weekends with the kids, we meet in homes – we even did a hafla [Arabic word for a large festive meal]. And you discover that there is life after marriage. It’s like being reborn.

Tali: I felt like I’d found a new family. I couldn’t have met these people just like that, on the street, because you can’t tell just by looking that someone is divorced.

Are there romances in the group?

Netali: It’s not a singles group, but it happens, and quite a bit. A lot of couples come together, because the group is a very convenient platform, but people don’t necessarily want to enter into a long-term relationship; they meet to enjoy something of the moment. When you break, up it’s not always easy to meet again in the group framework. It’s a sensitive subject.

You said you administered the group until recently.

Netali: I chose to stop being the administrator, because I entered into a relationship. The group is enveloping and embracing, but because of the relationship it was less suitable. I’m still there, but administering and being so involved was too much. It’s like someone who’s been discharged from the army and returns to the base. You appreciate the [earlier] period, but that doesn’t mean you want to stay.

Is being in a relationship better?

Netali: Everyone wants to go back to the feeling of a family, something more whole. This world may look cool from the outside, but divorce is far from a sweet dream of parties and vacations. I’d easily give up this world, though not certain people in it. Ultimately many people, myself included, would like to go back to being in a family. I’m happy to end this period. I really appreciate what the group gave me and did for me during the period of being alone; there are true friendships and even more. They are the small family I created.

But there’s nothing like a new love?

Netali: Absolutely.

Can you expand on that?

Netali: At the moment I’d rather not.

Ryan Brownfield and Yakir Sternin.
Meged Gozani

Ryan Brownfield, 38, lives in Columbus, Ohio, and arriving from there; Yakir Sternin, 38, lives in Binyamina

Hello, Ryan, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Israel?

Ryan: I’m part of a nonprofit organization called SeriousFun Children’s Network, and I’m here to visit the Jordan River Village, of which Yakir was one of the founders and is now its director. It’s a sleep-over camp for children with chronic and life-threatening diseases. There are some 30 camps like it around the world, and I visit them to check that everything is operating as it should.

How did you get into this work?

Ryan: It’s a very specific field. I established the [first] camp in Ohio – Flying Horse Farms – and I ran it for years, which is actually what Yakir is doing here.

What happens in the camps?

Ryan: The camps are for children aged 7 to 18. There are basic camp activities – archery, sleeping in tents, rope-climbing – all adapted for sick children. Many of the staff are medical people, such as hematologists, oncologists and nurses.

Yakir: The physicians and nurses are volunteers. In Israel we have about 1,000 volunteers every year, and of course the camp is free for the children.

Ryan: Basically, the camp is intended for children with serious diseases.

What falls under that category?

Ryan: Cancer, for example, but also juvenile diabetes, epilepsy, serious skin diseases. It’s only when children are very close to death that coming to the camp is problematic – we can’t take the risk of not being able to look after them.

Yakir: Our aim is for them to enjoy the camp, to be able to participate actively.

Ryan: It could also be that you’re ill with cancer but your disease has been in remission for seven years – so you’re “too healthy” for our camp.

Yakir: There are three programs in Israel. The youngest children come with their whole family for a weekend. The older ones spend a whole week here, on their own. The week-long camps are each intended for children with a specific disease, let’s say Crohn’s and colitis, or cancer. We also have a special third program for children with special needs, autism or cognitive problems.

What activities do the children like best?

Ryan: In the Ohio camp, the most popular activity was a rope course – rappelling, zip line, monkey bridge. They are also very enthusiastic about sleeping in nature, in a tent under the stars. These are kids whose parents usually don’t dare leave them with their grandparents. We try to create a safe environment for them, so they can go beyond their limitations. Our goal is to alter their self-perception, their feelings about themselves and their capabilities. We celebrate the small successes and build a lot of them, so the child will go home with a great experience of success.

Do the camps have an influence beyond the week or weekend themselves?

Ryan: Parents say that the camp influences the children’s day-to-day life. There’s a Yale University study about similar camps showing that the children return physically stronger and respond better to the medicinal treatment, and that there is an increase in self-confidence. They are hospitalized less.

Very impressive.

Ryan: A large part of the camp [experience] is meeting children with your condition, or someone who is getting better, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the children, especially the younger ones who come with their families, don’t necessarily know that it’s a medical camp. They just have a good time.

For you, is the work emotionally wearing?

Ryan: I love it. It’s not difficult, but if one of the children dies, it’s naturally very sad and heartbreaking. You have to understand that the camp itself does not deal with the difficulties and the disease, it’s pure fun. The only sad part is parting with the children when they go home. It’s work that gives you a perspective.

Yakir: When my daughter gets upset over a pimple, I remind her about a girl with a serious skin disease whom she met in the camp. Her complaint disappears in a flash. I practice perspective in my private life, too, because my third child was born with nonfunctioning kidneys. He had a transplant six years ago, and three years ago was a camper, so I feel I have the right to say that it’s a happy place where children and parents learn to say thank you for a good day. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.