Mother of many

Libby Reichman, founder of the Israeli affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters International, on social responsibility.

April 30, 2010 19:23
Libby Reichman.

Libby Reichman 311. (photo credit: .)


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In Libby Reichman’s near-perfect world, every kid from a one-parent home would have an adult mentor, and they would have Sundays free for playing and bonding.

That neither scenario is true – yet – doesn’t mean the native New Yorker hasn’t tried.Reichman, 57, a Columbia-educated social worker, pushed a “Sundays off” proposal into the upper realms of the government in 2001. But as the dream remains unrealized, she dutifully starts her work week every Sunday at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Israel, which she founded in 2003.

“I grew up knowing one person can make a difference if she sees a need and takes charge,” said Reichman, sitting in her office in the BBBS clubhouse, a charming Turkish villa in Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood. “That was a strong message from both sides of my family. My great-grandparents all arrived in New York City in the late 1800s, and both families were very involved with building Jewish life and institutions.” Her father helped form the Young Israel of the West Side.

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Reichman’s great-grandfather, Samuel Friedman, the city’s first Shabbat-observant physician, worked successfully with labor leader Samuel Gompers to champion a five-day work week. His example inspired his great-granddaughter to challenge the status quo in Israel, where Shabbat-observers such as herself have no other full day off.

The Sundays of Reichman’s childhood were for family get-togethers, swimming at the 92nd Street Y and visiting the zoo and ice rink in Central Park.

Libby Marcus and her three younger siblings – all of whom now live in Efrat, south of Jerusalem – were raised in the Belnord, a landmark building at Broadway and 86th Street. Together with a “huge extended family” of cousins, she grew up with an equal appreciation for her Jewish and American heritages.

“We were taught the beauty of the American values of democracy and equality; we took the ideals of the Founding Fathers very seriously,” said Reichman. “At the same time, we had a strong sense of Jewish values and never felt a conflict between the two, but a wonderful synergy.”

Thanks to the unconventional education she received at Yeshiva Heichal Moshe, “a little tiny yeshiva on the West Side,” she skipped two grades and started Central High School for Girls at 12. She finished City College in three years and earned her master’s degree from the Columbia School of Social Work before she was 21.

“I was always dealing with being two years younger than everyone,” Reichman related. At 15, she had to get a special permit to take driver’s ed with the rest of her high-school class. On her second lesson, the teacher picked her up at Central’s building on 10th Avenue and 58th Street, and instructed her to drive home. If he believes I can do it, I must be able to do it, she recalled thinking. “And that became one of my most important life lessons.”

REICHMAN WAS a reporter for her college newspaper. “I was totally involved in the excitement of the ’60s,” she said. “Everyone then had to be ‘different’ in some way, and my claim to uniqueness was being kosher and religious.”

She studied with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of the Lincoln Square Synagogue while in college, “to keep learning and evolving in my understanding of Jewish philosophy and values.” Today, Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat, the Gush Etzion town where the Reichmans moved in 1983, and a Jerusalem Post columnist.

The Marcus family had visited Israel for the first time in 1967, “a very heady time in Israel, when people felt they had gone from the brink of extinction to being saved. I came away with the feeling that ‘they did this for us to have a homeland, so we have to join them.’ From then on, I was committed to living in Israel.”

She returned two summers later to study Arabic at Hebrew University. She met Abe Reichman soon afterward. Married in 1971, the couple moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, where the first two of their four children were born. Reichman worked with emotionally disturbed and at-risk youth. In 1977, they left their comfortable American lives behind.

“I was perfectly happy there, but I didn’t feel genuine praying for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the ingathering of the exiles if we didn’t do it ourselves,” she explained. “That’s very little to base such a huge life change on. I cried every day for at least a year. I had a terrible sense of alienation that didn’t go away for a long time.”

Though the move to Efrat from Jerusalem provided the community she’d missed, her internal struggle wasn’t over. “I really want to live in a calm, tranquil place,” she confided. “My temperament isn’t suited to being here. But a part of me didn’t see spending the rest of my life in suburbia. Even though I was ambivalent, I felt destined for a life with more challenge and meaning.”

Her current challenge arose from a job supervising 3,000 pairs of college-age mentors and needy children as part of a national university-based program.

“After the school year was over, the mentors would come to me and say, ‘How can I leave my kids now?’ And I started thinking there’s got to be something like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America for a kid who doesn’t have a father, to give him a mentor who will come into his life and stay.”

Such a program did not exist, so Reichman founded the Israeli affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters International. Last year, it won the Jerusalem Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Volunteerism.

Now overseeing a staff of nine and accepting referrals from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Gush Etzion, Reichman knows every “sad to tragic” detail about the five- to 18-year-old mentored children – 240 of them last year – including non-Jewish children of foreign workers and refugees. Her own “little sister,” an orphaned Ukrainian émigré, spent four years on the streets and is now studying sound engineering with Reichman’s financial help.

Her Manhattan upbringing instilled “the idea that everybody deserves an opportunity,” she said. “Seeing children of immigrants go to university and become what they wanted to be, I understood that anything is possible if you believe it can happen.”

The grandmother of five travels often to the US to raise funds to support a yearly budget of $400,000. “I want to grow the organization to have thousands of kids, because I know the need is out there,” she said.   

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