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Englewood residents Jessica Feldman (front row), Michelle Spielman (back left), and Dalia Kohlhagen (back right) with children at Bet Elazraki last summer. Courtesy Bet Elazraki

Every summer, Jewish teenagers from Englewood and environs have been joining other American high school students to volunteer at Emunah of America’s Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya. Some 250 Israelis, from infants to young adults, live at the complex after being removed from their dysfunctional birth families.

Starting next fall, post-high school girls will be able to volunteer every afternoon and pursue Torah studies every morning while living at the facility. Midreshet Torat Chessed is the newest option in gap-year Israel programs available to overseas students.

Two Englewood natives are at the forefront of this project: the principal, Rabbi Yossi Goldin, 30, and Ari Korman, 29, who oversees Bet Elazraki’s partnerships with U.S. Jewish communities.

“We’ve had a lot of American kids come through our summer program ““ last summer we had eight from Englewood and two from Teaneck – and they really add a lot of energy to our camps,” Korman said. “We wanted to extend their ability to work with the kids, and we felt this was a good way to do it, combined with Torah learning.”

The students will work primarily with first- through eighth-graders, who live with surrogate parents in a cluster of six buildings in this Mediterranean shore city.

“The seminary girls will be a fully integrated part of Bet Elazraki,” the home’s director, Yehuda Kohn, said. “They will be there when the children return from school and spend most of each afternoon and evening with the children performing all the duties that any counselor would. They will more than just a ‘big sister’ and will develop deep relationships with the children that will, we hope, impact not only the lives of our children but the seminary girls as well.”

Goldin, who moved to Israel five years ago with his wife, the former Shifra Cooper of Teaneck, explains that parents had asked Kohn for years about creating such a program. While most girls’ seminaries devote time each week to volunteer activities, only one – Midreshet AMIT, based at a Jerusalem foster home for disadvantaged youth – makes volunteering with at-risk children a holistic part of the experience.

Goldin says Midreshet Torah Chessed will not be a carbon copy of Midreshet AMIT but is founded upon the same concept. He is banking on Bet Elazraki’s high name recognition in his recruitment trips this month, including a regional Israel Programs Night at the Frisch School in Paramus on Nov. 14. Looking to sign up 20 students, Goldin has made presentations at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.

“The basic vision is to provide a program that fully integrates Torah learning with intensive and meaningful chesed [humanitarian] work,” Goldin said. “These two aspects mutually enhance each other. The chesed will impact the learning they do in the morning and infuse the seminary experience with meaning.”

The facility’s staff always includes 40 young Israeli women doing gap-year National Service. “They’re the same age as our girls, and they will be working hand in hand,” Goldin said. “This will also expose our students to Israeli peers in a social and cultural way.”

Kohn expects that Midreshet Torat Chessed will impart leadership skills and new outlooks on life.

“We will stress personal growth throughout the year in many different ways that the girls could not achieve anywhere else,” he said. “At the same time, they will be provided with guidance and support from our staff of professional counselors, including a social worker who will assist them in their personal needs and concerns and be there to monitor them throughout. They will also have weekly meetings with a psychologist to help guide them in their relationships with the children.”

The program will include touring, as in other seminaries, plus a mandatory ulpan (intensive conversational Hebrew course) to help bridge the language barrier.

Goldin adds that there will be buses provided for free time in Jerusalem, where almost every other gap-year program for girls is located. “We’re committed to keeping them as connected with their friends in Jerusalem as possible, but we’re also hoping that after the first few weeks the girls will appreciate being in Netanya,” he said.

The students will live in an apartment building about a block from the main Bet Elazraki home, with their own kitchen facilities and dorm counselor.

“We never know what will change the life of even one of our children, but we do know that Midreshet Torat Chessed will play an integral role in striving to achieve our goal of breaking the cycle of distress,” Kohn said.