Two growing organizations, SAHI and Yad Tamar (Tamar Fund International), harness untapped resources, creativity and goodwill to make a difference in the lives of two hard-to-reach groups who often struggle: at-risk teens and families facing a cancer diagnosis.
“For me, SAHI is a way of life – to help someone who is weaker, to lend a hand,” says 16-year-old Yishai. We are at the weekly meeting for packing and distributing food packages for the Petah Tikva branch of SAHI, which stands for Sayeret Hessed Yihudit (Special Grace Unit).
“SAHI saved me,” Yishai continues. “I was drawn to the underworld, an attractive thing for a 13-year-old with a father in jail. A friend in SAHI gave the counselor my number. I said I wasn’t interested, but he came by after school to bring me to activities.
“They sent me to a one-night workshop to become a leader in SAHI. It taught me how to rely on others, something I didn’t get at home. Now I’m in 10th grade in a military school. I was once a kid who didn’t care about my life or others. My family was collapsing economically. It never occurred to me that I could be responsible for something.”
After his father’s death, SAHI CEO and co-founder Avraham Hayon decided to leave his event production business.
“I realized that the only thing left after we are gone is what we give to others,” he says. A friend put him in touch with Oded Weiss, who had worked for 20 years with at-risk youth. Weiss, SAHI’s founding president and educational director, became Hayon’s mentor.
In 2009, Hayon and Weiss took a walk in Kiryat Gat, locating their target by the number of beer bottles on the ground. “One evening,” recalls Hayon, “we brought mats, pillows, coffee and tea and lit a small bonfire about 100 meters from where the teens liked to hang out. Later, a few of them noticed us and got curious. They asked if we were from the police.
“Here the magic started. We told them we hoped to change the lives of the poorest in the neighborhood, and were looking for responsible people we could trust. So the teens offered. But we told them we need to get to know them first.”
Hayon calls this approach “reverse courtship.”
“Most organizations offer food and barbecues to attract teens to their programs.
“We said we wanted to have a troop of hessed,to reach the most transparent people. Not names provided by the welfare organizations, but ones who aren’t even on the lists. We asked them to look out for people searching for food late at night. We agreed that the following week, we would bring food and distribute it at night so no one would see.
“The gang was enthusiastic. They waited for us and told us they had found a needy family. We distributed the food. That’s how it started.”
HAYON AND Weiss “copied and pasted” their model to other neighborhoods. SAHI currently operates 26 groups reaching 1,000 teens. Two groups serve haredi youth, and another includes children with special needs.
Hayon sees the effect on the children who say, “I identified the families, I collected the food, so I can also deal with my own problems.”
SAHI is the main focus of the non-profit organization Nahah, “Giving as a Way of Life,” which received the Keren Prize for quality of life from the Knesset chairman in 2016. A few years ago at a program in the Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat asked the children, “Tell me how SAHI changed your life.” Hayon recounts one teen’s answer: “‘Mayor, I was a thief. Since I started doing hessed in SAHI, I can’t steal anymore.’ Barkat looked at me and said ‘I want more groups.’” The city continues to lend support via the education administration.
“It’s in the interests of both sides to be in every neighborhood,” explains Hayon, “including the Arab sector. We also plan to build a training center so we can scale significantly. Our vision is ‘From Zion shall go forth the law,’ and we hope to export our knowledge to New York, Chicago, Tehran and Venezuela.
At the meeting in an outdoor sports complex in Petah Tikva, the participants gather in a circle. The group consists of Weiss, teens, young adult volunteers and visitors from a SAHI group in Kiryat Gat. Reut Zohar, the group’s “chief,” called me over to join. After a short discussion of the weekly Torah portion on the importance of kindness, she asked some of the participants to say a few words, not letting me off the hook. After each person spoke, the group gave a little cheer. She then encouraged anyone who wished to dedicate the evening’s activity to a loved one. Going around the circle, several teens mentioned names of five or six people who had died, including a friend who died in last winter’s flood in the Arava.
I suddenly spotted two girls frantically waving their arms at me. They had noticed that I, a religious woman, was standing between two men. They called me over to stand in between them when everyone linked arms for the final cheer.
During the entire session, the teens in the circle remained engaged while seven or eight others played basketball a distance away. But as the call rang out, “For the success of SAHI!” the players on the field chimed in from afar. Meanwhile a row of cars, driven by additional volunteers, waited to bring the teens with the food to the families in need.
“CHIEF” ZOHAR grew up in Petah Tikva and studies education at the Kiryat Ono College. She explains what attracts teens to SAHI.
“The group has girls, boys, one with a kippah, one without, one this color and one another. They come knowing they will be accepted. We don’t look at the negative things – we aren’t teachers and we don’t correct them. So instead of hanging out in the neighborhood, they are here.
“The other day, one of the girls in my group found a credit card in the street. She told me, ‘If someone else would have found it, they would have used it.’” Zohar helped her track down the card’s owner, and went with her to return it.
“They walk in the street and think SAHI. It changes their outlook. These teens go to the shuk, collect the food, and make up packages for people they don’t know,” says Weiss. He and his wife have fostered 11 children alongside their biological ones.
“One day we asked one of the children what he learned in school that day, and he said, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ But a few hours later, he beat up another child. I thought that maybe we raise our children with empty slogans. I asked myself how we can truly educate them with our values. The answer was by ‘doing.’”
“We find these kids on the street. It may be the first time that adults are exposed to the children’s goodness – they have always been told they wouldn’t amount to anything, that they were bad. The two essential foundations of SAHI are a feeling of belonging, and significance.
“The idea is for them to heighten their senses,” Weiss continues. “They see things and don’t ignore them. They notice someone who needs a repair or a ramp, or an old person who is lonely. And they feel they can access the resources to help.”
Weiss recounts a conversation with a SAHI graduate who grew up in a poor neighborhood. He told Weiss how for entertainment, he and his teenage friends would jump on an old mattress and set it on fire at the end of the day. But after SAHI, they tried to figure out who might need the mattress, like a widow with six children, and get it to her. 'How did we learn to burn the mattress?' the young man asked Weiss. He answered his own question. “From the older children. And what are the younger children seeing now?”
URIEL COHEN had lost his grandfather, his wife’s parents and two aunts to cancer. When Yad Tamar founder and chairman Micky Wasserteil approached him for help, Cohen knew he would focus on helping the community and family surrounding the patient.
“Managing my crisis was terrible,” says Cohen, now Yad Tamar’s CEO. “When someone gets sick, there are circles of support. But I didn’t know how to ask for help. I was embarrassed to ask. People didn’t know how to reach me, and when they eventually found me I didn’t know what to tell them.”
Through Yad Tamar, also known as Tamar Fund International, Cohen hopes to change society’s approach toward families of cancer patients.
“My aunt got sick two years after making aliyah from South Africa,” Cohen continues. “You are dealing with the National Insurance Institute, medications, the hospital. Her family couldn’t access help.”
He gives an example.
“One of the hardest things for many patients,” he says, “is staying alone at night. Every night, my cousin had to find someone to stay with her mother. I knew that the organization Ezer Mizion provides this service, so now I make sure that Yad Tamar gives each family a list of organizations providing valuable services.”
Cohen quotes Jethro in the Book of Exodus who told his son-in-law Moses, “Navol tibol” (you will get worn out) from taking on too much responsibility. “My wife and her siblings were overwhelmed in caring for my father-in-law. We have nine children and some siblings have even more.”
Yad Tamar has developed a sophisticated organizational model. Through its Community HUGS units, Yad Tamar galvanizes the community to support the family.
“We find out if there are any clubs, like an army reserve unit. The family doesn’t ask for help and the community doesn’t organize smartly. Someone has to manage it.” Currently 25 Community HUG units, consisting of 4,000 volunteers, remain on call throughout the country.
The Family HUG program, in memory of Mody Enav, operates in parallel to the Community HUG. Yad Tamar matches a representative of the family with a pair of trained volunteers, who help determine the family’s needs.
“We accompany the family for a full year, helping with the smallest details like surgery or insurance. The volunteer remains loyal to that family and stays in touch. It has to be for the long term, not forgotten after a couple of months.”
WHEN DAVID Wizman’s niece got cancer, he found himself responsible for her care. “People don’t know their rights until they are sick,” says Wizman. “Yad Tamar’s lawyer told us everything from A to Z, and wrote a letter to help her get income because of her handicapped status. A letter from a lawyer is more helpful than multiple phone calls.”
After Levana Sabo got lung cancer two years ago, the hospital social worker gave her Yad Tamar’s number. “Ilana and Varda, two volunteers, came to my house,” remembers Sabo. “They helped my daughter get exercise clothes and a discount at a sports club. When we moved house, they helped my husband. Whenever I need something, I call Varda. Ilana and Varda are angels – you can write that. Now I am managing. I have more morale, a little help and also some financial assistance. If I call they will be there.”
Omer Levi, from Ma’aleh Adumim, heard from Yad Tamar a few months ago after she contracted cancer.
“They were interested in me, told me about their organization and offered to go to the shuk,” she recalls. “They told me to ask for what I needed, and offered to send us on a family vacation.” Yad Tamar has sent 700 families and 700 oncological nurses to vacations and one-day outings.
“Half a year ago, I started feeling weak and cold. They found a tumor in my sinuses. For a year, I was hospitalized every other week for a full week. The support of friends, families and organizations cannot be taken for granted. It strengthens you and lifts you up.
“The caring was very important for me, with all their heart, for people they don’t know, was much more important than the material things. They sometimes call just to ask how I am. They took care of filling out forms, National Insurance, transportation. Everything that we needed.”
The organization is named after Tamar Lichtenstat.
“My sister viewed her work as a kindergarten teacher as a holy occupation,” says Wasserteil. “Every day was a day for educating the children of Israel. Every year she had at least one child with special needs: autistic, or in a wheelchair. It brought the children in the kindergarten to a higher level.
“When she got sick, the parents of the children didn’t know. She went to work even on the days she had chemotherapy. But you know, there are hard days, and then she would go to a side room, leaving the children with her assistant, and lie on the floor to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. She was cancer-free for two years, but after it returned, she died within six months.
“My parents worked, so Tamar helped raise me. She was nine years older. When she got sick, I was running a center for children with cancer and I thought we would try to work with adults, too. There was no one offering the help that families needed.”
Yad Tamar receives financial support from the UK Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Welfare Ministry.
By chance, the acronym of Tamar stands for therapy, medicine and rehabilitation.
“We provide support for medical issues,” says Wasserteil, “socio-therapy in addition to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Israel is the start-up nation, but don’t we also have societal values? Yad Tamar has created a model that can be copied and pasted to other countries. It is creating a social revolution.”
For more information: yadtamar.org.il, sahi-israel.org
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