At this time of year, our thoughts often turn to acts of kindness (hessed) and how we can make a real difference in someone’s life.
With this in mind, on behalf of the Magazine, I met one man who personifies hessed – Yehudah Kohen, head of Emunah Sabah Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya.
Kohen has devoted over half his life to nurturing, protecting, educating, and caring for some of the thousands of Israeli children classified as “at-risk,” who live in children’s homes.
Having turned up with a list of topics to discuss, I found myself instead listening intently as this wise man, who describes himself as a “parent” to the 217 youngsters in his care (“Parenting has nothing to do with biological chromosome connection, which means that I can be a parent to these children”), spoke about the daily challenges he and his staff face and the joy which makes his job – or calling – worthwhile.
While some of the children spend the High Holy Days at Bet Elazraki, as they have nowhere else to go, others have the opportunity to go home, which, sadly, isn’t always a good thing.
“‘Home’ is a very strong word,” said Kohen, “In Hebrew, you don’t have ‘home’ and ‘house.’ It’s the same word, ‘bayit.’”
He said he welcomes the distinction between “home” and “house” in English.
“The ‘home’ is where the heart is – where you have people who are there for you; a ‘house’ is a place that you can stay in,” he muses, before continuing: “Some people stay here because they don’t even have a house… We have to be here to establish a ‘home’ for these children, a place which they feel is for them, a place with heart, and people who are there for them.”
While it’s crucial for Kohen to establish a warm, loving “home” for the children, this is not his main priority.
For him, the ultimate goal is to raise these children to be good parents themselves when the time comes: “I am raising these children to develop the ability to be there for their children,” he explained.
Kohen said he was under no illusions about the uphill battle that he faces with each and every child who comes to Bet Elazraki. Each one has already suffered greatly in his or her short life, and arrives on his doorstep damaged – often profoundly.
They come to him because “they need another home,” he stated frankly. “I’m here because there is a problem.”
FIRST, HE stressed that it’s essential for the children not to blame themselves for being taken from their biological parents and placed in a children’s home. They need to “understand that they are not here because they did something bad,” he said; “but that’s what they feel.”
When asked if every child blames him/herself, he replied emphatically, “100%, all of them.” They all think: “If I do something different, then everything will be all right.”
But, of course, he stressed, it’s not the children’s fault, and nothing they do will alter their fate.
When children struggle to understand how they ended up there, Kohen has the challenging task of trying to convince them that they have done nothing wrong.
He starts by working with the parents, although this, he said, is often fraught with difficulty.
“I am working with them [the parents] to say one thing to the child: ‘I love you, but I cannot raise you.’ If that is said out loud, my path to work with the child and to make him or her successful is much easier,” he said.
“But it’s very hard to achieve because the parents don’t want to admit that it’s their fault,” he lamented. “So I have to work on the small things and try to elevate him [or her] from this point.”
The power of words is not lost on Kohen, and he knows how important it is for the children to be reassured on a regular basis: “I am here for you – you will never be alone. I never will leave you,” he often tells them.
And he means it.
Whereas in other children’s homes, the children are on their own when they turn 18, Bet Elazraki provides a “home for life” for every child who lives there.
I learned this when I asked Kohen what happens when one of the children turns 18.
“What happens with your children when they reach 18?” he asked.
I shrugged, feeling rather foolish, “... buy her a present, make her a party…” I mumbled.
“It’s exactly the same here,” he told me, almost offended by the suggestion that it might be otherwise, although he’s wise to the fact that it’s not the same everywhere, which became apparent when we turned our attention to children’s homes in different countries.
“Most of the children who are in children’s homes in Britain… for sure their children will come back unless they’re lucky – it’s generational,” lamented Kohen, alluding to the sad fact that it’s a cycle in Britain which is difficult to break.
But, he asserted, “There is no way you can be a parent if, at the age of 18, you say goodbye to him.”
So, how does this work?
All the children from Bet Elazraki serve in the IDF once they leave school.
During their service, they have the run of the soldier buildings when they come “home” for weekends or holidays. These buildings, comprising three villas, known as the Riklis Buildings, were funded by Ira and Diana Riklis, great friends and generous supporters of Bet Elazraki.
Should anyone run into difficulties in the army, Kohen is always there to smooth things over by talking to their commanders, etc. “This is parental work…. That’s what you would do for your [child],” he stated.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Kohen makes sure that every one of his children who wants to go to university after the army is able to do so, “and it costs us a fortune,” he half-joked, in that familiar tone that beleaguered parents use, adding, “if he wants to go to IDC, it’s NIS 50,000 a year.”
“Who pays?” I asked.
“Very good people who believe in me,” he replied.
More recently, another home was built for those who have finished university and want to come back, such is his unwavering commitment to all of the children, even when they become adults.
“MARRYING OFF” his children is one of the most meaningful aspects of Kohen’s position.
He slips effortlessly into the role of “proud dad” at each wedding, walking his child down the aisle, as any father would on such a special occasion. I couldn’t help but marvel at his office wall, covered from top to bottom with wedding photographs.
Even then, the support doesn’t end, as those who eventually become parents themselves can always turn to Kohen for help: “If you are 46 and you have an issue with your child, I will be here,” he said.
Like all good grandparents, Kohen makes sure to provide all his “grandchildren” with a schoolbag when they start school.
“A few weeks ago, I gave 18 schoolbags for all the ‘grandchildren’ who are going into first grade,” he said as he proudly showed me a photograph of all the bags lined up, ready for their young owners to collect them.
Hanukkah is no different. At last count, he handed out 711 Hanukkah presents, all funded by one extremely generous donor.
I MET Kohen at Bet Elazraki during the holidays when all of the children were off from school. While most went “home” to their families for the summer break, others chose to stay there.
Sadly, there were some who had nowhere else to go – children for whom going home was not an option, as they were “in danger” when they arrived at Bet Elazraki.
Kohen was keen to highlight the difference between children who are “at risk” and those who are “in danger.”
“There are children at risk and children in danger, and they’re two different things,” he began. “In our home, most of the children who don’t go home at all are children in danger. It’s dangerous for them to be in the environment of their houses.”
Those who fall into this category, along with others who choose to stay at Bet Elazraki for the summer, enjoy a vast array of activities arranged to keep them occupied.
“We are now in the middle of the summer. I have around 40 children that have nowhere to go [or prefer to stay here]. They are here with us and, exactly like in a [family] home, we provide activities for them.”
And those children who have nowhere to go will spend Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and all the other festivals at Bet Elazraki, something which Kohen was eager to expand upon as we turned our attention to the Jewish New Year.
“One of the biggest problems in the world is that we take things for granted,” he began, thoughtfully. “As we spend time with our own families on Rosh Hashanah, it’s important to appreciate how privileged we are. Without this, it’s not possible for us to ‘be there’ for someone who doesn’t have what we have,’” he added, sagely.
So, what lies in store for these children?
Not only do they get new clothes and shoes, but everyone on staff makes a special effort “to provide the children with a real feeling of a home…” he said.
In the dining room, great care is taken to ensure that all the children feel that “even though they are ‘stuck’ here because they have nowhere else to go, it’s a special day.”
Talking to the children about how they feel about their situation is something that Kohen encourages at all times, and Rosh Hashanah is no exception.
THE CHILDREN are also joined by girls from Midreshet Torat Chessed (MTC), The Ira and Diana Riklis Seminary, who spend their gap year volunteering there. These girls, also without their families, often form close bonds with the children at Bet Elazraki, making their shared Rosh Hashanah (to name but one festival) experience a memorable and joyous occasion.
In fact, the children’s home often receives guests throughout the year. It’s important, Kohen said, in order for them “to understand who we are and to welcome them to be a part of our home.”
It also helps “to give our children a feeling of a home that is very open. People ask me if the children feel bad, as so many people come to see the place. Not only do they feel good, they feel normal, they feel like a family who has guests coming over.”
In fact, he said, during the pandemic “the main thing the children missed were the guests.”
Returning to the present, I asked Kohen what was expected of the children (most of whom are from non-religious backgrounds) from a religious point of view, and whether the older ones were expected to fast on Yom Kippur.
“Most of them fast, but I don’t care, I really don’t care,” he said. “Fasting is like keeping Shabbat. It’s very personal. I don’t check what they do.”
He was at pains to stress, however, that the home immerses the children in a “religious ambiance” and that great importance is placed on the Jewish festivals and Shabbat for everyone, regardless.
“This place is a religious place. When a child comes here, he knows the regulations,” he stated. All of the children are expected to come to the prayers and festive meals: “They don’t have to stay for it all, but they must dress nicely and be respectful.”
As far as the weekly Shabbat service goes, Kohen said they always start at 11 a.m. so that the children will be able to have a lie-in on Shabbat morning.
For the early risers, he added, “I’m up at 8 a.m., so those who want to, can come and sit and pray with me; then at 11, we continue with all the children.”
“During the week,” he continued, “you can pray for five minutes and put on tefillin or you can pray for half an hour – you decide.”
Ultimately, Kohen said, while he does not force the children to be religious, “they cannot decide not to come. They can decide to come and not to daven, but they have to come. Not for all the time, but they have to respect [the rules] because this is the ambiance.
“They can stay outside of the service a bit and play basketball, etc. That’s OK. But when we’re eating the festive dinner… they cannot leave in the middle – because the festive dinner has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with the feeling of a home.”
FOR KOHEN, this religious ambiance helps the children with discipline and organization. “Religion gives them a bonding and structure,” he said.
Through that, the children have the opportunity to “go to another spiritual level,” Kohen mused, although for him that would be a happy byproduct, but not essential.
“The children see, feel, and experience a religious ambiance, but we don’t teach them to be religious,” Kohen explained.
Before we wound up our meeting, Kohen stressed that the success of Bet Elazraki lay not solely at his door. “I believe that the success rests on the staff,” he added humbly.
Although the staff are endlessly dedicated, patient, and supportive, I have no doubt that Kohen is the main anchor forming and enhancing the lives of countless youngsters who quite simply have nowhere else to go and no one else to guide them.
He takes them in, gives them a warm loving home, sets boundaries within which they can flourish, and sees them on their way, all the while keeping a watchful eye as they venture out into the world.
As the saying goes, “Not all heroes wear capes.”
For more information about Bet Elazraki, how to get involved with their various projects, or make a donation, visit elazraki.org