Gap Year Teens Change Lives in Children’s Home in Jerusalem

Belle Ginsburg in the arts studio. Photo: Miriam Braun

— by Hannah Lee

How do we inculcate a sense of empathy and compassion in our children? What brings them to give to others in need? A small program in Jerusalem has been chugging along, successfully matching young men and women doing their gap year in Israel after high school with the neediest of boys, damaged by neglect and abuse of all kinds, who’ve been referred by court order to the Sanhedria Children’s Home.

Local teens have been valued contributors, from Aaron Meller who taught the harmonica, Belle Ginsburg who led arts and crafts activities, and Shoshana Wasserman who served as Big Sister. They were the weekly volunteers who complemented the professionals in therapy, including music therapy and therapeutic carpentry. They have all been profoundly moved and changed by their interactions with the residents of Sanhedria.

More after the jump.
Founded in 1943 by Rav Eliyahu Chaim Shapiro z”l, a descendent of the renown Rosh Yeshiva of Volozin, Sanhedria welcomed the orphans and refugees of the Holocaust. The original building was bombed during the War of Independence and the facility moved to its present location in Katamon. Sixty boys, aged 6-15, are housed in five family units, grouped not by age, but to form a family unit.

After a decision by the Ministry of Welfare in 2009, Sanhedria established a separate teen unit in Ramot Bet and added a second teen wing in September 2012, also in Ramot Bet. While the Israeli government subsidizes rent, the non-profit charity provides for furniture, equipment, and services. Surrogate parents supervise their daily needs, supplemented by professionals who provide therapeutic and support services.

A former resident of Englewood, Miriam Braun created the chesed (loving-kindness) program after she walked into the facility, looking for a creative outlet after her family grew up. She is now the director of program development and I met her while she was in the United States. Lively and articulate, she was the recipient of an emotional testimony from former volunteer Belle Ginsburg, who spoke of Braun’s dedication to her “sons.”

Braun spoke about the chesed program and how we can support Sanhedria in its mission. She mentioned the Passover tzedakah projects, such for clothing and shoes. The boys get new dress shoes for Passover (and sports shoes several times a year) and since they buy in bulk, they do get a discount from the vendor, but 60 pairs of shoes add up quickly. The boys are not orphans and some do get to spend the holidays with their families, so maot chitim (Passover support) is provided in the form of food baskets that the parents can pick up at the supermarket, to protect their dignity and allow them to shop as other people do. However, once the boys turn 18, they can serve in the Israeli Defense Forces as chayalim bodedim (lone soldiers) because of their court-mandated status.

The niche that Sanhedria serves is not readily found in the United States, although the ABC House runs a facility in Ardmore where teen boys attend Lower Merion High School. The ABC (A Better Chance) model allows poor boys to get a quality education in a public school, far from their families, but Sanhedria focuses on the emotional and psychological needs of boys already damaged by their home environment.


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