By Bina Davidson, Features Editor
When choosing a place to spend my gap year, it was clear that Midreshet Torat Chessed (MTC) was the place for me. Nothing seemed more fitting to me than to have the opportunity to spend my mornings immersed in Torah learning, followed by afternoons filled with volunteering with children living in Bet Elazraki, an Israeli social orphanage.
At Bet Elazraki, there are three branches. The Pnimiya is the main branch of the home where approximately 200 children between the ages of 8 and 18 permanently live. Most of them are not orphans, but they are unable to live with their parents for a multitude of reasons. The second branch is the Pnimiyat Yom. This is a day program for children between the ages of 5 and 13 years old. The children who attend this program usually come from a home where the parents are not abusive, but rather are ill-equipped to raise a child. The children attend school during the day and then come to the program at Bet Elazraki. There they are fed lunch, receive help with homework and school related issues, enjoy exciting programming, have dinner, and brush their teeth. Then, their parents pick them up, and they return home to sleep. The final branch of the home is called the Kelet, the emergency shelter. From the time the government intervenes in a familial situation or a child is surrendered until it is legally decided where the child will go, they come to the Kelet. The duration of a child’s stay can be anywhere from 3 days up until 3 months, typically.
When I arrived at MTC in August 2017, I was placed in the Kelet to volunteer for the year. Before my first day, I was briefed on the group and how it would be run by my principle. She had prepared me, as much as one can, for the difficultness and instability in the home. The children would be coming and going, the durations of their stay unknown. The social worker spoke to me about the difficulty of becoming such an important figure in these children’s lives and explained that when they leave, I would not be able to contact them again. On my first day, I met the three children who were currently living in the home. One 6 year old boy named Naftali,* another 6 year old boy named Evan,* and his 7 year old brother named Noah.* Naftali had been living in the home for a couple of weeks, but Evan and Noah had already been living in the home for almost a year. It was extremely unusual for children to be living in the home for this long. However, these two brothers had a challenging story. They had gone to sleep one night only to wake up and find that their parents had left them, with no intent to return. After waiting a few days for their parents, they walked to their grandmother’s home for help. She had not wanted them either, and surrendered them to the shelter. These two little boys were now alone in this world with no one who wanted to claim them. Many thought it would be best for the two boys to move into the main Pnimiya and live there for the remainder of their adolescents. However, legally, Evan was too young for this move to be made and they did not want to separate the brothers. They would watch as children came and left, yet their own futures remained unknown.
Creating a relationship with the young boys was difficult, especially given their difficult and sensitive history. I would play soccer with them outside, have water gun fights, and spend many Shabbat (Sabbath) meals with them. I would take the time and effort to show them that from now on, life will be different. The process was challenging, but as time went on, our connections strengthened, I saw how worthwhile it was. Although there were many children and teenagers who had been through the home, Evan and Noah were the glue. As I welcomed new kids into the home, and said goodbye to ones beginning a new journey, I always had Evan and Noah by my side.
One day, a short time before Pesach (Passover), I had a breakdown. I was sitting in our weekly therapy sessions where, as a seminary, we would discuss our progress with the children. Accomplishments, difficulties and anything in between. A few days prior, one of my kids had left the home and Noah turned to me, pain in his eyes, and asked me: “When is it my turn?” Hearing those words and seeing the pain in his eyes, longing for a family and a place to belong, broke my heart. I sat in therapy that week and I cried how it wasn’t fair. I, like so many others who knew and loved these boys, were desperate for them to finally find a place where they can live and call home, forever.
A few short days after this scenario, the unexpected happened. A couple from Ashkelon would be adopting Evan and Noah on Chol Hamoed Pesach (the intermediate days of Passover). I had said goodbye many times in my life. Goodbye to friends when I moved, goodbye to grandparents when they passed away, goodbye to siblings who went to Israel for the year, and goodbye to other children who had left the home. But this goodbye was different, my heart was split. This goodbye was such a painful one. Yet this was a goodbye that I had yearned to say. This was such a happy and joyous goodbye. They were finally getting loving parents that every child deserves. I knew this goodbye meant that I would no longer be involved in their lives. I had been there when they did well on their exams. I had cheered them on the sidelines during their soccer games. I watched as they welcomed new children into the home. I saw them lose teeth and grow inches taller. But when I said this goodbye, I would no longer know their lives. They would grow up, hopefully to be kind, thoughtful, good human beings, and I won’t even know if they would remember me.
During my last day with them, I took in every moment. The trouble that they would try to get into, that would usually make my day more challenging, put a smile on my face. I enjoyed my day of “lasts” with them and I prayed that this would be the beginning of a beautiful life for them. I put Evan to bed that night, and took a little bit longer in reading him his goodnight story. I snuggled with him in bed, holding him as he fell asleep to my goodnight song, and with tears flowing down my face, I said my hardest goodbyes.
*Names have been changed.