Happy 2019! Our TSTI in Israel 2018 group had the chance to welcome the New Year in Jerusalem. (To be fair, we welcomed the New Year with a drink in the hotel lobby at 10:30pm. Few of us actually made it to midnight.) I hope our Facebook posts captured a bit of the experience but know that no pictures or video can do such an experience justice.
While I am away on Sabbatical this month I want to share a few of our experiences in a bit more depth. Today’s stop is Neve Michael Children’s Village.
Neve Michael is “the only multi-disciplinary children’s home in Israel to offer a wide range of professional services on one site, such as psychiatry, psychology, occupational therapy, social work, conventional and para-medical therapies and education.” The village was established in 1943 as “a safe haven for children 5 to 18 years of age who have been removed from their homes by Israel’s Welfare Department due to extreme traumatic circumstances such as family dysfunction or neglect, violence in the home or mental, physical and/or sexual abuse.”
We arrived at Neve Michael after driving through a residential neighborhood in Pardes Hannah. The bus stopped at a gate in front of a series of buildings surrounded by grass and flowers. Inside we found a community bustling with energy as children ran from place to place and cats and dogs wandered freely between the abundant grass areas and the concrete sidewalks that united the separate buildings into a single place the children now call home. Within minutes of our arrival our TSTI youth were on the basketball court with some of the residents. The game was energetic and good natured. I marveled at how quickly our youth engaged with the residents and was also struck at the way in which language and cultural barriers immediately disappeared. Watching them brought tears to many of our eyes.
As they played, I had the chance to spend some time speaking with our “host” Hava Levene. Hava explained that Neve Michael’s mission is “to provide each child with the love, care and professional treatment to overcome the abuse they have endured and to offer them a chance at a better future they so deserve.” This is accomplished by arranging the village into family homes so that each group of young people have their own residence and “resident parents” living with them. The goal, of course, is to provide as “normal” a home life as possible. While we were speaking a young boy who had been playing ball with our kids came over. Hava asked him to tell me how he happened to come to Neve Michael. The story he shared brought tears to my eyes. No young person should encounter the challenges and neglect this boy had experienced. “What do you think of Neve Michael?” Hava asked him. “When I got here I hated it but now,” he said, pausing to smile, “this is my home.” He gave Hava a kiss, thanked me for coming to visit and ran back onto the court to play a bit more.
Hava and I continued to speak when another, slightly older, boy came over. “Come say hello,” Hava said to him. He did and, after a few words of greeting, Hava took his face in both hands and lovingly said, “I heard you did a great job with your project last night. I’m so proud of you.” She gave him the kind of tender kiss one would expect a doting grandmother to give her firstborn grandchild and then gently said, “Don’t you need to get to class?” The tenderness and love in that moment can only be described as holy. I teared up.
Our experience at Neve Michael was profound. Each of these young people comes from a challenging home. Each was determined to be “at risk” by Israeli social services. And each came to Neve Michael not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Once there, however, each had clearly found a new home that is loving, supportive and committed to helping them reach their potential. And while the entire experience touched me, as I reflect on my time there, what most stands out is Hava herself. Born and raised in the US, Hava had made Aliyah and raised her family in Pardes Hannah. Now retired, Hava could easily spend her days on any number of endeavors. She, however, has chosen to devote herself to the children of Neve Michael. But it is not only what she does but HOW she does it that most touched me. Hava is not only present in the lives of these children, but, she is present with a degree of love, respect and commitment that represents the best of Jewish values in action. As a result of people like Hava, the lives of countless young people are enriched and they are able to grow up knowing they are loved and supported. Perhaps that is why a number of children who grew up there have come back as adults to work as members of the staff.
Our group is already collecting items to send to the Village and, in the months ahead, we will all have opportunities to support the important work they are doing. You can learn more about Neve Michael here: https://nevemichael.com/about/
Rabbi Dan Cohen