Echoing kindness: Yehuda Kohn and Bet Elazraki Children’s Home

For Yehuda Kohn, giving back to the children in Bet Elazraki echoes what his parents did for him.

Yehuda Kohn WITH HIS wife (photo credit: ALIZA SHTAUBER)
Yehuda Kohn WITH HIS wife
(photo credit: ALIZA SHTAUBER)
Born into a family that was fragmented by the Holocaust, Yehuda Kohn, head of the Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya, has dedicated his life to repairing the lives of hundreds of at-risk children by providing them with warmth, love and a welcoming environment.
Gregarious, open and engaging, Kohn was born in Uruguay in 1959 to Holocaust survivors, who had met in Israel after World War II. Both of his parents had lost their spouses during the Holocaust and its aftermath. His father’s first wife and children perished at Auschwitz, and Kohn’s mother had been separated from her first husband during the Holocaust. After the war, Kohn’s mother was reunited with her husband, and they had a daughter in 1946. While attempting to flee Serbia in 1947, they were captured by the Yugoslavians, who tortured and murdered Kohn’s mother’s husband. The mother and daughter survived.
Kohn’s mother and father met and married in Israel in 1950. The couple had a daughter in 1952, and moved to Uruguay in 1957, where his mother’s family had settled. In 1964, the family – now including Yehuda, his older sister and his half-sister – returned to Israel and settled in Moshav Shafir, a religious moshav near Kiryat Malachi.
“After my father had me and my sister and had built up a new generation – a boy and girl – after the Holocaust, he decided to come back to Israel.”
Kohn served in the army, studied at Bar-Ilan, and became a Jewish studies teacher in the yeshiva in Kfar Sitrin, which is a youth village in northern Israel. He was a successful educator, and later became assistant principal.
Kohn, who was married in 1979, worked in Kfar Sitrin for six years. In 1986, he was contacted by the World Zionist Organization, and became an emissary for the Bnei Akiva movement in Brazil. Kohn and his wife and children remained in Brazil for three-and-a-half years, returning to Israel in 1989.
At that point, Kohn was at a crossroads.
“I didn’t want to teach anymore,” he says, “but I wanted to do something else that had to do with education.”
He came across a small want ad in a newspaper from a children’s home in Netanya that was searching for a director.
Recalling the advertisement, he says, “A children’s home? I grew up on a moshav. Thirty years ago, where would you see a children’s home? In a kibbutz. What is a children’s home in a city?” he wondered.
Kohn and his wife decided to investigate. They arrived at the home in Netanya.
“We asked, ‘Who are these children?’”
The authorities explained that the children had been abandoned by their parents because of drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and other issues.
“We were shocked,” Kohn recalls, “because 30 years ago, no one spoke about this. The real shock was when we learned that most of the children were the second and third generation with the same stories. Their parents grew up as children at risk – sometimes even their grandparents.”
Kohn accepted the job with two conditions – that he and his family would live with the children in the home, and that he could modify the goals of the home.
“Our goal would not be just to give them a warm place to live,” says Kohn, “but to make sure that every child who grew up in the home would become an incredible parent.”
Kohn pondered how he could achieve this goal. The parents of the children living in the home were poor role models for parenting, and it was difficult to grow up in a children’s home without family.
“It was at that point,” says Kohn, “that we understood that parenting has nothing to do with biological connections. To have a child means that you are a father or a mother, but it doesn’t mean that you are a parent. You can be a parent of a child, even though you are not their biological father or mother. Parenting is about being there for your child.”
Kohn developed a system at Bet Elazraki that was based on three principles.
The first principle is the necessity of helping children fulfill their potential and develop a positive self-image. Every morning, the 180 children in the home, who range in age from six to 18, attend 27 schools in the city.
“We have 60 private tutors helping them with their studies, to make sure they are the first ones to raise their hands in class. Automatically, their self-image will go up.”
Kohn says that presenting a positive image extends to their appearance. “We are proud when a teacher calls and asks about the fabric softener that we use in the laundry, because the children from our home have a wonderful smell. A child with a wonderful smell is a child from a good home.”
Second, Kohn provides the children at Bet Elazraki with stability, by his presence throughout their lives, even after they have left the home. At-risk children in Israel move from place to place, he explains. By contrast, he says, “a child who comes to Bet Elazraki has found a home. I will take him to first grade, and I will take him to the doctor when he is ill.” Kohn provides graduation parties for residents upon their graduation from high school, and accompanies them to the army when they are inducted.
“I have now 26 soldiers, seven of whom are commanders,” he says proudly. “I am at every ceremony.”
When they finish the army, Kohn takes them to university, and pays their tuition.
“And when they get married, I go as the ‘mehutan,’ representing their parents, to meet the other side. “I have 62 married children,” he jokes.
While the home does everything possible to make sure that the children remain connected with their parents, he acknowledges that most do not return to their families, because of their parents’ ongoing issues.
Kohn’s third principle is the need to provide strong emotional and mental support.
“One cannot help but be emotionally affected if one is abandoned or has to leave home,” says Kohn, “when you sleep four children in a room and there is no father or mother.”
Bet Elazraki assigns two counselors and three National Service girls for each group of 12 children. There are 11 social workers in the home, as well as psychologists on staff.
Kohn has been leading Bet Elazraki, one of five children’s homes that the Emunah organization operates in Israel, for 30 years. He and his wife, Rikki, have five children and 13 grandchildren, and he has no intention of slowing down.
“This is my life. The children in our home come to us as receivers. Our job is to make the children who come to our home into givers. The moment that they become givers, we know that they will be good parents.”
For Yehuda Kohn, giving back to the children in Bet Elazraki echoes what his parents did for him.
“I grew up in a family that had a huge void after the Holocaust. I always knew and felt this hole, but on the other hand I knew that my parents were there for me. I am doing for these children what my parents did for me.”