Less than a quarter of children taken out of unstable home environments by the state are placed in the preferred framework of foster care, according to the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, which has called on the public to "open its hearts and homes" to thousands of children in need of a caring family. Ministry Director-General Nahum Itzkovitz told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend that his office was already in the process of expanding the basket of benefits and support systems aimed at enticing more families to take up the foster challenge. Last week, the ministry, together with the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and the National Insurance Institute, announced that it was preparing legislation to allow those who foster children under three to receive 14 weeks "maternity" leave from work during the initial foster phase. "The optimum place to raise a child is with a loving family," commented Shalva Lebovitz, national coordinator for Foster Care at the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. "However, some biological families are simply not able to give their children that kind of support, so the ideal is to give them an alternative family environment." According to Lebovitz, more than 7,000 children - from newborn to teenagers - are waiting in group homes and state institutions to be matched to a suitable family. Foster families, as opposed to adoptive ones, act as legal guardians but encourage the children to be in contact with their biological families. Currently, some 1,400 families are providing foster care for about 1,900 children. "There is a real lack of public awareness about foster care in Israel," she said, adding that she did not think the current economic situation was deterring the public from wanting to become foster families. "It's not about the money, because we compensate the families and provide professional support," she said. "It's about opening their hearts and their homes." Lebovitz noted a marked increase in the number of children in need of foster care. "The figures for this year are not yet available, but there has definitely been a rise in children needing foster homes," she said, acknowledging that monetary problems sometimes lead to a breakdown in family life. Anat Durnowicz, executive director of Orr Shalom, the largest of three non-profits outsourced by the ministry to place children in foster care, said that the gap between children in need and those willing to foster has always been wide in Israel. Also citing lack of public awareness as the main challenge, Durnowicz added that it was also more difficult to place siblings, children of foreign workers and those where one parent was not Jewish. "We have many children who are currently living with our emergency families just waiting join foster care," she said, estimating that roughly 40 children in Orr Shalom's care are in need of a foster family. "Fostering a child is the ultimate form of charity," Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog told the Post on Thursday. "It is a way to save someone's life. I call on all families able to take on this challenge and provide children in need with a warm home environment to do so as soon as possible."