Rabbi Amram Blau, director of the Chessed Menachem Mendel program of Colel Chabad lights candles with some of the younger participants in the annual retreat for widows and their children.
(photo credit: MOSHE BUKHMAN)
Fifty widows and 240 children who lost fathers to either terrorist attacks, accidents or illnesses are getting treated to a three-day, all-inclusive retreat at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem in honor of Hanukka.
Kicking off Monday night, the 16th annual Colel Chabad Hanukka retreat offers bereaved families a full schedule of activities either geared toward children or just for the mothers, including entertainment, full meals and day trips in and around the capital.
There is no age limit for the orphans as the event caters to babies up to soldiers and national service volunteers.
All of the babies are assigned a counselor to look after them so that the mothers can have a break and enjoy the retreat, while getting a chance to bond with other mothers.
These counselors have all lost a parent and are also part of the Colel Chabad community, which allows for more specialized treatment for these participants.
Colel Chabad is Israel’s longest continuously running social service organization, founded in 1788 with the goal of supporting the welfare needs of those living in Israel.
In addition to this Hanukka event, the organization also offers these families year-round services, including scholarships and afterschool activities for orphans and job training and placement for widows.
Rabbi Amram Blau is the director of the Chessed Menachem Mendel, a charitable organization that works with Colel Chabad, and calls himself a “full-time volunteer” for this retreat for the past 15 years.
According to participants and staff, he is seen as a much needed father-figure to the children, being personally involved with every child at the event, knowing their names and their stories.
At 80 years old, he was involved in the public school system in Israel for 40 years before retiring when he was 65.
Blau said that he always felt a strong connection and desire to ensure the well-being of Israel’s orphans, telling The Jerusalem Post
, “Hanukka is the happiest and the saddest holiday for these orphans. At this retreat, every night when we light candles we allow them to celebrate, to feel joy and to feel welcome and included. I want every child to be happy. The greatest gift I can receive is to see all of these children succeed and to find happiness.”
Menachem Traxler is the director of volunteers for Colel Chabad and has been working for the retreat for five years.
He explained that the most important part of this experience is allowing these families to build a community that will continue after the retreat. “As much as we try to help, it’s more meaningful to get the mothers together to support each other. It becomes a community and mothers build support groups throughout the years which gives them the strength to carry on in light of their losses.”
Ariella Ashkenazi from Ramat Bet Shemesh lost her husband 10 months ago and has five children.
She calls herself a “fresh widow” and told the Post
: “You’re thrown into a situation you’d never expect and you don’t want to feel needy.
Here [at the retreat] I don’t feel needy and we are given a lot of support. The whole program helps us to not feel alone which give us strength and this really motivates us to do our best and not to give up.”
For her, this retreat is also providing her comfort through being around families in similar situations and a chance to recharge and to allow herself and her children to be “spoiled” for a few days.
“At first it was a little strange,” she said, “you know, just widows and orphans. But on the other hand, there’s something really comforting about being together.”
She continued: “Two days to not have to make a decision and to just relax is definitely recharging and to be around such caring people and other families like mine is so empowering.
They thought of everything, and you can really feel that everything came straight from the heart. When we arrived, the children were given Hanukka presents. They thought of every single detail.”