“Emunah was my mother’s family, and over the past year it’s been my extended family,” said Ruth Koenigsburg at a memorial gathering for Toby Willig at the Emunah Neve Landy Children’s Village in Even Shmuel, an agricultural settlement 25 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and a five minute drive from Kiryat Gat.
Willig was an ardent Zionist; former national president of Emunah of America; and in Israel, a board member of World Emunah. She was active in many organizations, but the two closest to her heart were Emunah and Young Israel.
In Jerusalem where she lived, Willig conducted a regular Sunday night seminar in English to basically ensure that people who neither spoke nor understood Hebrew would hear from well informed sources about what was going on in the country regarding politics, security and culture. She also organized Emunah tours, taking people to places in Jerusalem and beyond that they might otherwise never have visited. These activities have now been undertaken by her good friend Marlene Werner, who renamed the seminar the Toby Willig Lecture Series.
Willig, who was a news junkie, was well known for attending current affairs lectures by other organizations and for calling radio, television and print media editors and reporters to protest the absence of or lack of objectivity in an item.
She was also a prolific letter writer, calling the Emunah office in Jerusalem every day to dictate a letter to publications in Israel or America, or a thank you note to people who had helped her in any of her many projects.
Following her death, Emunah transferred the copies of all these letters to her daughter. There were more than 5,000 documents.
ALL EMUNAH chapters in Israel and abroad support the organization’s five youth villages and homes for children and adolescents at risk. Both facilities incorporate crisis centers.
The most critical cases are at Neve Landy, which was established in 2003 at the request of the Ministry for Social Services to deal with severely disturbed and dysfunctional young boys aged 6 to 18, who for a variety of reasons could not live at home.
The majority of the 75 boys who live there come from families who live in the South. In many cases, in addition to any other problems they might have, they also suffer from post-traumatic stress due to the Code Red alert that gives them only 15 to 30 seconds to take shelter from Gaza rockets, a situation that has been part and parcel of their lives since birth.
Some also come from dysfunctional families or large, poverty-stricken ones, in which striving to make ends meet leaves little or no room for giving individual attention to each child.
But some of the youngsters also come from good, affluent homes in which there is a loving environment. The fact that a child is loved and well cared for is no guarantee for a normal, happy childhood.
A TOBY Willig memorial plaque was unveiled at Neve Landy on Tuesday. It was set on a large Tree of Life mural, whose branches contain the names of support groups, and whose roots are made up of small brass memorial plaques. One of the women in the large Emunah group which came for the unveiling said that her great-grandson is a resident of Neve Landy and is very happy there.
Her revelation caught World Emunah director Shlomo Kessel off-guard and was an emotional moment for him, in that it confirmed everything he had been saying about individual therapies and activities that give the boys a sense of self-esteem and self-worth, which many of them are lacking.
Later, when the group visited one of the two-story cottages where 12 of the younger boys live, one of the boys wanted to know who they were. When it was explained to him that they were supporters of Neve Landy, his next question was: “So what are you doing for me? What did you bring me?”
Unfortunately, they had brought him nothing. To him, the word ‘support’ indicates something personal, not something nebulous such as financial support or specific gifts that keep the general operation going.
Another boy, when asked whether he was happy there, replied in the negative.
Confronted with this, Kessel explained that this is a standard attitude on the part of younger children because they think that no one really cares about them. If their parents were so willing to let them go, in the child’s mind, this is an indication that the parents don’t care.
Some of the younger boys run away, said Kessel. This is not because they really want to go home, but because they want to see if someone will come after them.
He gave the example of one boy whose family lives in Kiryat Gat. The boy ran out from therapy and the therapist ran after him, finally catching up with him when the boy was on the outskirts of Kiryat Gat. They found a bench, sat down and talked, and then went back to Neve Landy together – because the boy had proof that someone cared.
WHEN THE BOYS first come to Neve Landy, they are included in whatever activities appeal to them, but are not given therapy until their actual problems are assessed, so that an individual therapy program can be devised for them. There are also group therapies that incorporate sport, music and art.
The idea is to combine therapy with fun, or at the very least a sense of enjoyment – like taking care of hamsters, rabbits and birds, which imbues the youngsters with a sense of responsibility.
There is nothing visibly institutional about the village. A casual visitor would not know what it is and what it does, and might possibly wonder why there are no girls and why the only females are adults. But beyond that, they will see boys playing table tennis, basketball, soccer and other sports, or they will see them in one of the cottages sitting in the open kitchen/lounge area watching television.
The environment is made to be as close as possible to a normal family environment, and families are in fact encouraged to visit. There are picnic areas on the grounds where families can get together, and there are also indoor areas for such purposes when the weather is not conducive to sitting outside.
Although an annual group bar mitzvah celebration is held, there are also individual bar mitzvah celebrations with the family members of each boy. Some of the boys go home to celebrate their bar mitzvahs, but for those who can’t, a proper celebration is held at Neve Landy with the participation of family members.
Where possible, the boys go home for weekends, as well as for Jewish holidays. In the latter case, if the boys can’t go home, efforts are made to get other relatives to take them in for a day or two, or for an unrelated host family to do so.
KESSEL WAS very proud of the fact that 95% of the boys and girls in Emunah facilities go into the IDF or civilian national service. This is indicative of the organization’s success in turning them from youth at risk into productive citizens.
While the government contributes to the welfare of youth at risk, it more or less washes its hands of them once they turn 18, leaving them to fend for themselves.
At Neve Landy, those who are in the army or in national service and are unable to live at home can come back to the village when on leave, which allows it to maintain contact with them even after they have managed to find their way in the job market or in higher education.
Among the gifts donated to Neve Landy in Willig’s memory prior to the visit were musical instruments for the Neve Landy band, as well as an enormous punching bag used for boxing training – which can also be used to help get rid of aggression.
The boy who demonstrated the use of the punching bag had a big smile on his face as he donned his boxing gloves. But once he started punching the bag, his expression changed and all his inner aggression was reflected on his face.
Better the punching bag than another person.
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