While most of the country's children will be celebrating Family Day with their loved ones Monday, a growing handful of newborn babies and infants will spend it in the hands of volunteers from the First Hug charity, an organization with a network of people countrywide dedicated to caring for children abandoned in hospital.
"We are a kind of family, even if we are not blood relations," said Tamar Shlezinger, social worker, who runs First Hug (www.tinokot.org.il http://www.tinokot.org.il/) with Michal Koriat. "No baby in this world should go unloved and we are there to give a baby the love and support it needs to develop properly."
Shlezinger explained that more than 50 babies annually are left abandoned in hospitals by their parents. Many of them are born with chronic illnesses or disabilities, or to parents just not able or willing to care for them.
"A nurse in a hospital caring for four or five babies does not have time to give her personal attention to each of them individually," said Shlezinger, herself a mother of four. "Our volunteers create a homey atmosphere for the baby, bringing them everything they could possibly need from diapers to toys and even strollers to take them for walks.
"It is based on the theory of attachment; we try to get the baby to recognize the volunteers as he would his own family," she said, adding that some of the newborn babies with handicaps or illnesses need to be hospitalized for months at a time. "If the hospital asks, our volunteers can stay with the baby 24 hours a day."
However, just as the hospitals are beginning to utilize the additional service provided by First Hug volunteers, Shlezinger said that unless the organization gets an injection of funds within the next month it will have to cease all its work.
"In 2005, we got two very large donations that helped us to continue our work through last year," added Shlezinger. "Our costs are not high, but we do have to pay a social worker to train and oversee the volunteers and we like to buy equipment and toys for the babies."
Shlezinger started the organization five years ago after a fellow social worker told her about a baby left alone in Ichilov Hospital, near where she was living.
"I asked her 'Who is looking after the child?'" recalled Shlezinger. "I knew the hospital staff was doing its best but there was no emotional support for the baby."
Since then, Shlezinger has cared for eight more babies and has also built up a network of more than 2,500 volunteers, some professionals in the field but most just "good people with a kind heart."
One such volunteer is Dvora Wiesbart, a teacher at Levinsky Teacher Training College. She registered as a volunteer 10 months ago and was paired with a severely handicapped and autistic seven-year-old boy, institutionalized in Tel Aviv's Reut Hospital.
"He does not connect with people, he does not talk, walk or eat by himself," said Wiesbart, acknowledging that the medical staff at the hospital are extremely caring but do not have the time to nurture him. "When I go there, if he is not sick, I take him out for walks, stroke him and hug him. I show him all different things like any mother would."
As to the hardships of seeing a child in such a difficult state, with no one to love or care for him in a personal way, Wiesbart said, "I guess it is part of my character. I've asked other friends of mine if they want to volunteer for First Hug, but they say it would be too difficult for them emotionally."
Shlezinger said that the organization's social worker is in regular touch with each volunteer to help them deal with the emotional difficulties of this work. Many of them form strong bonds with the children they are caring for, even if it's only for a few months.
"The volunteers are like adopted mothers and we encourage them to write farewell letters to the babies telling them who they are so that the child will not wonder in years to come who looked after them while they were in hospital," explained Shlezinger, adding that in an ideal situation the baby would go on to be adopted by a "real" family after they leave the hospital.
However, she said that most were sent to shelters run by social services or to foster homes and, in some cases, the baby was so ill that it did not survive.
"Even in that situation," said Shlezinger when a baby lives for just a few months and then dies, if the only love that baby has ever known in this world comes from our volunteers, then all our work is worth it."