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Visit to Israeli Site Opens His Eyes

June 28, 2012 By:
Jonathan Saft, First Person
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Family legacy: Jonathan Saft connects with a resident during his visit to Orr Shalom in Haifa.
 

Jewish Federation has always received a lot of attention at my family dinners. No conversation between my mother, campaign vice chair Ellyn Golder Saft, and grandfather, former general chair Bob Golder, can be complete without an update regarding what is happening in fundraising at the Federation.

Over the years, for the most part, I sat at the table oblivious. Of course, I knew that what my family was doing was important, but to be honest, I was not sure why. It was more of a knee-jerk reaction. Charity? Good. That was it.

So after my recent Birthright trip ended, I extended my stay to learn exactly why my family does what they do. I found my answer at Orr Shalom in Haifa, a home for at-risk children. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supports the Haifa home, where a garden is dedicated to my grandmother, the late beloved community leader Cis Golder.

The stories I heard on the drive from Tel Aviv to Haifa were horrifying. These children come to Orr Shalom with nothing, completely unaware of rules, manners or social graces -- not because they are rude or wild children, but simply because they have grown up without parental guidance.Prior to my trip to Haifa, I heard countless conversations with the words "Orr Shalom," but it never really occurred to me to ask exactly what they meant. I would learn that Orr Shalom houses at-risk children under the age of 18 in homes across Israel, sheltering them from parents who physically and mentally abuse them, or just neglect them altogether.

Walking into the house, I expected to find 10 girls who looked like they had just been released from war camps, void of emotion and too shy or scared to acknowledge an outsider's presence.

I could not have been more wrong. Not only were the girls elated to see visitors, they were also unbelievably smart and talented. I was given a house tour by 13-year old Natalie who, despite the terrible circumstances she had grown up with, still managed to speak parts of four languages, play the drums, play sports and cook.

After the tour, I sat down to lunch with the whole house. Every day, all the girls eat with the women who work there and their house mother, Nurit. They casually talk about their day like any normal family would. The Americans were served first because, as Natalie told me, "guests are always served first."

When Nika, an 8-year old Ukrainian immigrant, started whispering at the table, Nurit quickly reminded her that it is not polite to tell secrets, and Nika quickly listened. Just months before, Nika did not have a hope in the world. Now, she was being treated like any other 8-year-old girl, and could not have been happier.

After lunch, Nika was in trouble again, but this time, I had to take some responsibility. We were playing tag outside and she was yelling, which apparently was not allowed at that time of day. Again, Nurit reminded her of the rules, and Nika complied, all the while sporting that devilish grin that 8-year-olds have when they know they're in trouble but are having too much fun to stop.

We continued playing in the backyard, next to the garden dedicated to my grandmother, until the house mother finally came out and said it was time to go inside, which was my cue to leave. I said my goodbyes, thanked everyone for having me, and made my way back to Tel Aviv.

The ride back was a reflective one. You can hear story after story, but until you meet these girls and see how well they are doing, how "normal" they are after what they have been through, you truly cannot understand how important Orr Shalom is. And for me, to see it all happen because of Federation's support and my family's efforts, I could not help but feel that my grandmother was watching over it all.

Coming on the heels of a Birthright trip that changed the way I think about Jews around the world, my trip to Haifa only cemented what had been brewing in my head for the previous 10 days. Birthright taught me that all Jews do not have to believe the same thing or act in the same ways. Despite different beliefs or actions, there is still a common thread among us all that makes us Jews, regardless of age or gender or home country. If we don't take care of each other, who else will?

So while everyone at Orr Shalom thanks me and my family, I must disagree. It is me who should be thanking them, for putting in the work every day to take care of each other, to save these girls' lives and for showing me that "Orr Shalom" is more than a conversation piece between dinner and dessert.

Jonathan Saft, who grew up in Bryn Mawr, is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University and is headed to a job in marketing in Boulder, Colo.

 

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