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Home away from home

Jerusalem Post Magazine

Home away from home

06/27/2013 14:07 By ELIA BERGER

AMIT Frisch Beit Hayeled serves as a residence for children whose parents cannot care for them full-time - and American seminary students who live and volunteer there.

Photo by: courtesy
For 29-year-old Na'ama Amedi, a special education teacher from Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, raising her family with her husband Yigal is anything but ordinary.

On a quiet street, skirting an olive grove at Gilo's southern tip, sprawls a modest residential complex: AMIT Frisch Beit Hayeled. At 3:30 p.m., kids step off the school buses, rush past the armed guard, up the steps and into the stone building.

For them - and for the Amedi family - this place is home.

Within an over-burdened child welfare system - according to the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, out of Israel's more than 2 million children, 330,000 are "at risk" - Amit Beit Hayeled stands as a beacon. A foster home to Jerusalem's most disadvantaged youth since 1983, it houses 120 children, ages 5-15, from troubled backgrounds. From family dysfunction, single-parent homes and divorce disputes to domestic violence and poverty, these children have suffered abandonment and neglect.

The facility operates within a family-unit structure - called a mishpahton - which includes foster parents, volunteers and 12 children whose biological parents were deemed unfit to take care of them. Each of the 10 groups has a social worker and a therapist. They work with each child individually, while psychologists deal with the more severe cases. The facility offers medical services as well as pet, music and art therapy; and treatment for parents who want to stay engaged. If possible, kids visit their homes on holidays or weekends.

"It's a 24-hour job," says Amedi, who also has three children of her own. "You give up a lot, but there's great satisfaction to educate and bring up our kids. It's a kind of vocation, she says."

Beit Hayeled is special in another way: Six years ago, in 2007, Midreshet AMIT opened there, creating a place for Orthodox American girls just out of high school to "Live Torah, Live Chesed, Live Israel." The one-year midrasha ("seminary program") combines Torah studies with living and volunteering at the foster home.

AMIT (Americans for Israel and Torah) is a non-profit, New York-based organization whose mission is to provide education and child care for Israeli youth. Founded in 1925, when it bought its first piece of land in Jerusalem, AMIT runs 108 schools and welfare programs and is recognized by the Education Ministry as the official network for religious secondary education in Israel.

More than 25,000 students are part of the system, which began as a social service for the Jewish population during the British Mandate. The network is funded by its many chapters across the United States, and through donations.

During the day, while the children of Beit Hayeled are at school, the American seminary students take courses in Bible, Jewish History and halacha (Jewish Law).

When classes are over and the children return to the dormitory in the afternoon, that's when the hesed ("loving-kindness") begins.

"Israel is giving so much to me and I feel like I'm giving something back to Israel," Rena Sidlow of Mount Vernon, New York, told The Jerusalem Post Magazine. "It's not like any other program where you just sit down and learn all day. So I love how it breaks up the time. Working with the kids is the most special part of my day."

The 18-year-old student, who "never had to do anything on my own" and has learned "how to cook, clean and wash clothes," is one of 47 seminary girls staying at Beit Hayeled this year (the highest attendance the program has had yet). Each family unit is assigned five seminary students, who act like big sisters to their "children" from getting them ready for school in the morning to reading them bedtime stories and tucking them in at night.

"There are lots of activities," recounts a fifth grader, sitting in one of the groundfloor playrooms, "like going to the swimming pool or the playground or doing homework together after school."

And what does she like most about living here? "It's fun. I always sit with my friends and the girls come and play with us. And they stay with us for Shabbat," meaning the seminarians often stay home on weekends rather than making plans off campus.

Other activities include organizing bar and bat mitzvas for the kids, who otherwise would not get to celebrate this milestone because of disinterest on the part of their biological parents. Some divorced couples have remarried and have new lives and families and want to forget about their previous children.

While many facilities offer a joint bar/ bat mitzva for several children together, "it is extremely important for Beit Hayeled to have an individual celebration for each kid," says AMIT vice president for international development, Judith Schwed-Lion. The AMIT girls also raise money for these celebrations, she adds, like when 18 students ran the Jerusalem Marathon and raised more than $3,600 from donors abroad.

Some students even give gifts out of their own pockets. Daniella Moffson, an 18-year-old from Manhattan, New York, took one of her children to buy a new pair of sneakers at the Nike Store for his bar mitzva.

"I feel I'm showing that I'm an American Jew but I'm the same as them," she says.

"Even though I don't live in Israel, we're similar."

And then there's Shirelle Cohen, who has decided to make the full "leap of faith" and become an Israeli. She walks the halls of Beit Hayeled as one walks through a childhood neighborhood.

"That's exactly what it is for me," she says. "It's become a part of life: my home, my little siblings."

Cohen, born in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, moved to Israel when she was nine months old and then back to the States again at age 10. She was 18 when she applied to Midreshet AMIT and came to Beit Hayeled.

"Since I have such a strong connection to Israel I wanted to choose a program that interacts with Israelis," she says. "I thought nothing could get better than my first year, but I was proven wrong."

The relationship with her kids far exceeded expectations and she ended up making aliya, leaving her comfortable Jersey home, her family and her community for a new life in Jerusalem.

Since most religious girls do not serve in the army they do Sherut Leumi (National Service), often involving social work and education. Cohen chose to do her year of service at Beit Hayeled, and when it was over, she was approached by the director of Midreshet AMIT and asked "to come back and be a madricha [leader]."

Now in her third year, Cohen's job is coordinating between the seminary girls and the families to find the right fit.

"I'm the middleman," she says. "I know all the couples and how the system works, and having interviewed the new American girls, I understand what would mesh well."

The work is more important than ever because over the past decade the number of children at risk has doubled. A report by the National Council for the Child says that in 2010, a total of 56,590 students (first grade through high school) were in an out-of-home educational framework. In 2011, 8,861 were placed in welfare facilities, about a third of them following a court order. In the same year, 972 children stayed at shelters for battered women with their mothers, an increase of nearly 30 percent from a decade ago.

One of these, a five-year-old who came from a violent household, arrived after living with her mother at a shelter for several months. When she underwent surgery to remove her tonsils, complications arose and Beit Hayeled staff had to be at the hospital 24 hours a day because legally she could not be left alone with her parents during their visits.

"I spent sleepless nights at the hospital by her bedside," Cohen recalls. "I myself could not imagine going through such a traumatizing experience and not being able to have my parents holding my hand through it all. These memories will stay with me forever."

Indeed, Beit Hayeled creates a bridge between Israeli children who have lost their families and American students who have voluntarily left their own.

"The kids always ask, 'Why would you come from America to Israel; America is a perfect universe so why would you spend a whole year learning and working with us?'" explains Midreshet AMIT's Director Ilana Gottlieb, who immigrated to Israel from Baltimore three years ago. "It's very hard for them to understand that concept."

The idea of self-sacrifice, of leaving something comfortable for something hard, resonates with the children.

"They see it as a personal example that the girls come to Israel to give," says Beit Hayeled Director Motti Asraf. "Before the midrasha opened, volunteers would come and do hesed, but when they came to live here - there is no comparison. It's the real thing."

And it has a lasting impact.

"Motti is in touch with a lot of the kids," says Cohen. "I see 30-year-olds come to visit him." Even though "officially Beit Hayeled is no longer responsible for the kids once they leave, if they have a really good relationship with either the foster parents or the volunteers, the connection remains."

Once the children reach the age of 15 the social worker in charge of their file considers whether to send them back home to their parents, or more likely, to another suitable facility. There are many success stories. According to an AMIT study, "92 percent of the graduates succeeded in escaping the cycle of crime and violence and continued their studies after the army."

For example, Tal Avitan came from an abusive, violent home and was placed at the foster home when he was six years old. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of jail, and his mother couldn't take care of him. After leaving Beit Hayeled and completing high school and his army service, Tal studied film at Sapir College in the Negev.

Today he has his own film business and is a director, a husband and a father.

At Beit Hayeled, "I was taught that if you believe in yourself and you are surrounded by support and encouragement - wonderful things can happen," he says.

"If it wasn't for AMIT, my life would not have developed in such a positive, stable and happy way."

The seminary girls also move on after a life-changing experience.

"We're building the next generation of leaders, especially in their connection to Eretz Israel," asserts Ilana. "We're building the leaders of tomorrow."

When the girls go back to the States many of them become ambassadors for Israel. Living here, being role models and big sisters, gives them something powerful and unique to share with the Jewish community in America.

While theirs is a message of hope, the problems on the ground remain. A growing number of children are in distress, but the welfare system is unable to cope with it; and the waiting list for foster homes is getting longer. The National Council for the Child says that in March 2011 alone, 150 at-risk children were not placed in dormitories because of a lack of room.

But Beit Hayeled etches a silver lining. Whether the bustling Amedi apartment or the quiet study halls, the celebrations or the tantrums, the facility's devotion to hesed is an inspiration. For the Israelis who expand their families and the American seminary girls who leave theirs behind, the spirit of love and charity makes this place a refuge.

"It's hard to be homesick," concludes Ilana, "because everyone has a family."