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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Their stories vary: Some were found abandoned in the mud as infants, others asleep on park benches at four, and still others begging for food at six -- but most of the children from Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus who have made a new life in Israel with the help of the Tikva Odessa Children's Home and its affiliate, the Tikva Israel Student Center, were taken in after the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed extreme poverty on their parents and they were no longer capable of supporting their families.
In 1993, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht created Tikva Odessa to seek out and provide thousands of needy children -- whether orphaned, abused, abandoned or from broken homes -- with a nurturing home, a Jewish education, and, for those who choose to make aliya, an opportunity for a brighter future in Israel.
Tikva Odessa's programming includes an infants' homes, a boys' and girls' home for children aged four to 16, Jewish day schools covering pre-school through high school and an accredited university-level program for youth aged 17-20, all within the Orthodox tradition. Tikva Odessa also involves children in volunteer projects, including providing meals-on-wheels and working with the elderly in their community.
Despite the slew of opportunities and the supportive environment Tikva Odessa offers, administrators insist that the children branch out. "We can't raise these kids in a bubble... it is our responsibility to create a viable community for them," says Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, director of international relations.
With this attitude in mind, each child between the ages of 16-18 has the option of making aliya. "The push is to come to Israel, but if they don't want to, of course they don't have to," says Hassan-Nahoum.
Some children choose to go to North America, others remain in Odessa. Whatever the decision, Tikva Odessa assists them in making the transition to life as independent young adults, whether through providing housing, continuing education or career counseling.
Those that decide to make aliya are first given a psychological test, administered by the Jewish Agency, to ascertain emotional preparedness for the transition to life in the Jewish state. "As a Zionist, I want people to come, but at the end of the day I know that it's hard here in Israel," says Ben-Tzion Feist, executive director of Tikva Israel.
Even if a child does not pass the examination, many times the Jewish Agency will disregard the examination and permit the child to make aliya "because they know that the children have what no one else has: Us, Tikva Israel, to support them," says Feist.
Tikva Israel operates as a continuation of Tikva Odessa, and addresses the financial and emotional needs of the teens who choose to make aliya. Financial support takes the form of securing housing for the teens, providing them with a stipend, and paying for their studies or helping them to find work.
The teens' emotional needs are addressed in a less methodical way, Feist says. "Most of these kids just want someone to talk to," he says. "It's the most significant and hardest part. None of them want to talk about their past, so you have to slowly pull it out... I can know a kid for 11 years, and will suddenly learn something new.
"Just like with your own children -- it [the support] never ends."
Last summer, the Tikva Israel Student Center was opened in Givat Shaul to provide another framework for support by acting as a gathering place for Tikva alumni.
Before the center's opening, support for the young adults was still in place, through guidance offered by Tikva Israel staff and by the educational institutions they attended, but there was no physical space for them to congregate. "The hope was that they would get help wherever they were, but we saw that they needed some extra support," explains Hassan-Nahoum.
The center is open from 9 a.m.-10 p.m. and offers an array of services including Jewish studies classes, vocational training, parenting courses for young mothers, graphic design courses, life-coaching workshops and even day care.
The center cares for approximately 340 graduates of Tikva Odessa. Thirty percent of these graduates are enrolled in high school, 30% in the university and 30% are in the army. Of those in the army, the majority are in combat units. The rest are either working or studying in a yeshiva.
Walking through the center, it's apparent that Feist's goals for Tikva Israel to act as a surrogate family to the young adults are being met. A pool table in one of the rooms is surrounded by some 10 boys, laughing and patting each other on the back; a fitness room is filled with state-of-the-art equipment; a relaxation room offers cozy bean bag chairs and tranquil views of Jerusalem; even a laundry room bustles with students or soldiers who've come home for the weekend.
A few steps from the laundry room is an inviting lounge area, where Feist sits with a few of the boys, chatting. Some of them share stories from the army base. "You have to understand that most of their own families haven't seen them for four years," says Feist.
Feist recalls going to visit one of the children's families in Odessa. Having not seen the family for four years, he expected to be greeted with open arms - a swarm of people asking for pictures, news, stories. To his surprise, the mother opened the door, and before even uttering a greeting, spurted, "Did he [my son] send any money for me?"
Later, sitting in Hassan-Nahoum's office, one of the center's alumni, Daniel, 20, begins to share his story in a mix of Russian and Hebrew. He joined Tikva when he was 9, after his family was overcome by poverty. "Our quality of life was lower than grass," he recalls. At 14, he decided to make aliya, and is now studying at a yeshiva.
When asked what Tikva has done for him, he laughs, averting his eyes for a moment. "Sometimes they're closer than my own family," he says.
"They're in touch with Benzi (Feist) constantly; the phone is always ringing," says Hassan-Nahoum.
"This isn't a typical organization; we feel a responsibility for the kids," says Feist.
When asked what time the center closes, Feist laughs, "It doesn't matter, they just come to my door."
Community plays a central role at Tikva. Teachers from Odessa are flown in to attend weddings and circumcision ceremonies, and this Pessah, 200 alumni joined Feist and his wife to celebrate the holiday at a hotel in Tiberias.
"I realized that they would never go on vacation themselves," says Feist. "They would always think that that money could be going toward something else."
The trip "brought peace to so many," he adds.
The organization has also brought together many couples, and friends who look out for each other as only siblings would, but the main goal, Feist says, "is to turn these kids into decent people, people that can stand on their own two feet.
"The question isn't how do we turn this person into a religious person, but how do we turn them into a person.
"Some are destined to work in a supermarket, others to be lawyers - it doesn't matter, as long as they are decent and self-sufficient people," he concludes.
Tikva Israel is mainly funded by the Tikva Board in the USA. Funding for the children's homes in Odessa is provided in part by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and various private donors. Administrative costs are covered by a corporate donor, so that all donations go straight to Tikva programs for children.