Each story we heard at Emunah Sarah Herzog Children’s Center was more heartbreaking than the one before.... A family of seven children from Ukraine, whose father forced them to sleep in a dilapidated minivan; siblings beaten regularly by a father while the mother turned a blind eye; a young child whose father refused to acknowledge his existence, even after the death of the mother. Yet, for each terrible tale was a heartening coda - because the staff at this residential center for at-risk children work around the clock to make each child feel that they are valued.
In fact, Director Yair Daniel happily volunteers to have his hair cut by a young resident studying to be a barber, to help him develop not only his skills, but his self-esteem. He even texts with the children during the day, and often brings some kids home to his family on Shabbat when they have nowhere else to go.
”We will do anything we can to help kids carry around their baggage a little better,” says Shlomo Kessel, former director of the center, who is now the Director of Worldwide Emunah.
We witnessed this warmth firsthand as we walked through the campus last week. Located right in the heart of downtown Afula, the facility houses 60 children ages 9-18 who are unable to live in their own homes due to abuse, alcoholism and family dysfunction. In addition, the campus welcomes 90 more children each day in an after-school program for at-risk children who are still able to live in their own homes but are in desperate need of social services. For them, an afternoon at Sarah Herzog brings a hot meal, homework help, therapy, and even a warm shower before they return to their homes each evening.
The staff of 70 run the gamut - from social workers and therapists to family counselors that lead the groups in the dorm and Shnat Sherut volunteers — Israeli teens who, like our emissaries, defer their IDF service for a year to do a year of national service in their country. Yet, the staff here has some unique differences. To help the children work through their emotional issues, the team also includes such specialists as a clown therapist, garden therapist and music therapist as well.
The programs, too, are unique and many are designed to build the self-esteem of these oft-forgotten children. A ceramics class encourages participants to create beautiful, artfully crafted dishes and more in the studio, which are sold to help raise money for the organization. Then there’s the bakery, which hosts a special club each Thursday that encourages the parents to join with their children to bake treats for Shabbat, in the hopes that this joint activity might forge stronger bonds between parent and child. As always, Shlomo explains, the goal is to try to help the entire family so that the children are able to return to their homes and grow up with their own families. Sometimes, this goal is realized, but for many of the residents at Sarah Herzog, a stay through the end of high school is sadly common.
“Our goal is that these children will be able to grow up and raise their own children in a warm, nurturing environment, and not continue this cycle,“ Shlomo said.
My reunion with Manny was validation that this ideal can be a reality. I met Manny 5 years ago in Westport, when he travelled to our community to share his story. Manny, an Azerbaijani immigrant, came to Sarah Herzog as a child, when his mother was unable to care for him, and he spent 7 years of his life at the facility. Manny lashed out in anger often when he first arrived, but at the prospect of being expelled by Shlomo, who became a father figure to him, he made the decision to turn his life around. After completing his IDF service, he returned to Sarah Herzog to “give back” and to become a counselor in one of the dorms. There he met his wife, Chen, who was doing her year of national service volunteering at the center, and now they both work at Sarah Herzog with their beautiful baby girl.