On March 14, a tragic bus accident in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem claimed the life of Rabbi Amram Blau. What would cause heartbreak for any family was felt much more widely, because, at age 80, Blau was known, among social workers and other human service providers throughout Israel, as “the father of the orphans.”
Until the age of 65, Blau served as the director of education for Boys Town Jerusalem. Located in the capital’s Bayit Vagan, Boys Town Jerusalem offers residential secondary education for disadvantaged Jewish boys from a variety of backgrounds.
Upon his retirement, Blau took his skills, experiences and a lifetime of caring for young people and turned his attention toward developing a program, through Colel Chabad, to serve orphans and widows. He worked as the program’s full-time volunteer director for the last 15 years of his life.
Colel Chabad is a vast charitable organization in Israel, administered by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Rabbi Sholom Duchman, director of Colel Chabad, told In Jerusalem that Colel Chabad was founded in 1788 and is the oldest continuously operating charity in Israel.
The institution runs a network of 23 soup kitchens all across Israel. Their food security program works in partnership with the Social Services Ministry and includes food banks, home delivery of groceries or ready-made food to the homebound and offers needy families workshops on how to economize with limited resources.
According to Duchman, Colel Chabad’s food programs assist 10,800 families, including Arabs, Druze and Jews, in 48 cities across Israel. Colel Chabad also runs dental and medical clinics, 13 daycare centers and immigrant assistance programs.
But it is the widow and orphan support arm of Colel Chabad that most captured Blau’s huge heart. Blau personally initiated the Widows and Orphans Project 15 years ago and directed it until his accidental death. Duchman explained that the project has multiple components and its signature feature is that “it’s not a Band-Aid.”
Consistent with Colel Chabad’s expertise in feeding the hungry, the project helps families of widows and orphans with economic needs to get help with food. But thanks to Blau’s vision, it does much, much more than that.
The Widows and Orphans Project provides multifaceted educational support for teen orphans. For some orphans, that means arranging for tutors so they can be academically successful. For others, the project connects them to a young adult who serves as a Big Brother or a Big Sister. If psychological support is needed, it is provided.
The primary goal of the project’s eight social workers is to help these children finish high school and enter the IDF Whatever it takes the orphans to achieve that goal is provided by the project.
The Chesed Menachem Mendel Foundation of the Colel Chabad Widows and Orphans Project also conducts annual mass bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, including a festive party held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Bar mitzvah boys are each given a pair of tefillin, and every family can bring a table of guests. This year’s joint bar mitzvah ceremony was held on April 15.
Bat mitzvah girls from all around Israel are also treated to a joint bat mitzvah celebration in Jerusalem, including a full catered meal, inspirational speakers, music and dancing.
Commenting on these events, Blau once said,
“Family milestones can be much more stressful and difficult, both financially and emotionally, without a parent. It’s heartwarming to see the joy on the faces of these young women and their families in reaching this momentous occasion.”
Constantly innovating, Blau created a scuba-diving program for Jewish boys and girls in 10th grade, giving them the opportunity to go scuba diving for a week. He also organized retreats during Hanukkah for widows and children whose husbands and fathers died in terrorist attacks or from accidents or illnesses.
Duchman shared that, of all Blau’s accomplishments, “his baby was the scholarship program.”
Funded by private donors, students get rewarded for excellent grades; the higher the grades achieved, the more money the student gets.
The remaining parent also gets ongoing support through Colel Chabad. The support may take the form of paid summer vacations, peer support groups, gifts and other services to rehabilitate the families under the project’s care.
Duchman noted that, to his credit, Blau also “made a lot of shidduchim [marriage matches] from among the parents in the program.”
Blau evaluated every family personally to see how they could best be helped. There were 600 or 700 children who finished the program each year, and Duchman boasted that “he had 100% success” getting these students to graduate from high school.
Extraordinarily, of the 1,800 children in the program at any one time, Blau knew every one of them personally.
“He knew every single child, which school he went to, who his siblings were. It was phenomenal. He knew his children like a parent knows his own kids,” Duchman noted.
As was well known in the Colel Chabad world, even at age 80, Blau would regularly attend events and interact with the children in his program’s care.
“His gift was to know everyone’s name and story. People will think it was an exaggeration, but it’s true. He had decades of devotion to these children. He was a spectacular educator and a tremendous historian.”
BLAU CAME from a multigenerational Jerusalemite family. His grandfather led the Agudat Yisrael Party in Jerusalem, and his father was active with the Poalei Agudat Yisrael Party.
The Widows and Orphans Project improves the lives of so many widows and orphans, with an annual budget of just NIS 6 million. That represents just a small percentage of the overall $40m. annual budget for Colel Chabad. Funds for Colel Chabad’s far-reaching charitable work in Israel are raised from private donations, with some limited help from the Israeli government for the food security project.
According to Duchman, Colel Chabad, which was established by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hassidism, focuses on “how important it is to support Jewish life in Israel.” He stressed that “the privilege, the conduit for the blessing of the Jews living in the Diaspora, is supporting Jews in Israel.”
Blau is survived by his wife, Yehudis, their five children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A tribute to Rabbi Blau’s incredible devotion was conducted at the joint bar mitzvah celebration on April 15, and a formal memorial program is being planned for the end of the academic year.
“We have to find someone to replace him,” Duchman commented. “There are two or three people connected to the organization that are his protégés. In truth, there is no replacement for him. He was a very unique individual.”
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