US volunteers become 'big sisters' to J'lem children in need

American women are each spending a year tutoring 12 children at AMIT's Beit Hayeled group home in J'lem.

jerusalem volunteer 224 (photo credit: Shelly Paz)
jerusalem volunteer 224
(photo credit: Shelly Paz)
Sixteen young Jewish-American women are each spending a year tutoring 12 children at AMIT's Beit Hayeled group home in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. Allie Rubin, from New York, Ruthy Sher, from New Jersey, and Elana Loeffler, from Florida, all 19, grew up in stable, Orthodox families; the children they've been tutoring at Beit Hayeled for the past six months did not. The young women arrived in August to get to know life in Israeli and become part of the lives of children whose parents could not or are no longer allowed to raise them. "Coming here was one of the hardest decisions I had to make so far, but I know now this is probably one of the best decisions I have made and I can't imagine not doing it," Sher said on Wednesday, as the children were preparing for a Purim ball. For almost an entire year, the 16 volunteers study Judaism, Zionism, history and Torah for eight hours a day - and help the children with their homework, play and eat with them, and sometimes even put them to bed. The project, in its first year, is being carried out in cooperation with the Jewish Agency's MASA project. Some 25,000 young Diaspora Jews have participated in MASA programs, spending five to 10 months studying, traveling and volunteering in Israel. The Beit Hayeled program is also integrated with a 25-year-old program of AMIT, an Orthodox Zionist education network. AMIT's project brings young Israeli couples to live in Beit Hayeled and care for 12 children each. "Only 30 of the children here go back home at the end of the day to sleep and be with their biological parents. The rest live in groups of 12 with young couples who take care of them, cook for and dine with them, stay in touch with their teachers, and above all, love, hug and support them," said Motti Asraf, director of Beit Hayeled. "We believe there is no substitute for the family framework and, although in most cases children can't go back to their parents' care, we try to give them a better model of the family they had to leave," Asraf continued. "The girls in this project - even though we believe studying is a great thing, doing and actualizing what they have learned is better," said Shulamit Cohn, a mother of seven who made aliya two-and-a-half years ago from Queens, New York, to initiate the project. Rubin, Sher and Loeffler also function as the children's older sisters. They must be consistent, responsible and mature, even if they don't always feel like it. "I wanted to grow mentally and to develop as a person, and I thought this was the only way for me to get to know Israel and also to give back," Rubin said. At first, there was a formidable language barrier. "After the children finished making fun of our Hebrew we got to learn the slang, the Israeli celebrities whom the children adore and the local culture," Rubin said. "So in many ways we really feel how it is to be an Israeli." "These children are basically just like any other children. Despite their backgrounds they are just kids, and they are always ready to jump on you, to hug you, to ask you to play with them. One of our missions is to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere of a family - and with these happy children it's not so hard," said Loeffler. Most of the American volunteers will return home in June to prepare for college. Before they joined the project they hadn't thought to make aliya. Now they are discussing where in Israel they will live and whether they will come before or after they get married. "Regardless of what happens," they conclude a loud argument, "each one of us will stay in touch with her kids. My kids have already started asking me what is going to happen in June. I know that no matter what, whenever I'll come to Israel, I'll meet my kids," Rubin said.