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Helping kids glow again

Local student defers college to work with widows, orphans in Israel

Malka Schnaidman in the IDFWO office (IDF Widows and Orphans organization)
Malka Schnaidman in the IDFWO office (IDF Widows and Orphans organization)

Malka Schnaidman of Teaneck was supposed to begin college at NYU this year.

Instead, she is in Israel as a National Service (Sherut Leumi) volunteer. She is working in resource development for the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, which offers a range of services for some 5,000 widows and 3,000 orphans of fallen soldiers.

Her last-minute decision to defer college for another year — she had just returned home from a gap year in Israel when she realized how much she wanted to go back — means that instead of getting to know fellow freshmen in New York she is meeting Israeli spouses and children who are struggling to go on without their fathers, or in some cases their mothers.

“Today I was helping a girl write an English essay to get into a program at Brandeis. This is something her father would have done with her, so she called us instead,” Ms. Schnaidman said. “We’re here for them every day.”

Founded in 1991, IDFWO is the sole organization of its kind recognized by the state of Israel, from which it receives half its funding. The widows and orphans of soldiers always received government benefits, but the organization — chaired by IDF widow Nava Shoham-Solan — fills many other needs.

Year round, it provides social, emotional, and financial support, including camps, retreats, trips, support groups, an annual group bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, holiday parties, scholarships, school supplies, wedding gifts, and home visits.

This is the first year that the organization requested an English-speaking National Service volunteer to help raise funds and awareness abroad. Ms. Schnaidman, who turns 20 in January, found out about the position amid her flurry of early-morning phone calls from New Jersey to Israel last summer, once she decided to return for another year. That decision was made with the full agreement of her parents, Rena and Menachem Schnaidman.

The IDF’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, IDFWO’s chair, Nava Shoham-Solan, and Col. Yaffa Mor, head of the IDF casualty department, present  Sar Shalom with his new tefillin. (Kobi Koenkas/IDF Widows and Orphans Organization)
The IDF’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, IDFWO’s chair, Nava Shoham-Solan, and Col. Yaffa Mor, head of the IDF casualty department, present
Sar Shalom with his new tefillin. (Kobi Koenkas/IDF Widows and Orphans Organization)

“It sounded very dynamic; not just calling people and asking for money all day, or stuffing envelopes,” Ms. Schnaidman said.

Living with six other National Service women in Petach Tikvah, she commutes to the IDFWO office near Bar-Ilan University every day. “I’m dealing with real money and real situations,” she said. “We’re building a website and setting up a new fund in America, so I’ve been dealing with lawyers and speaking with donors. I go to all the events and I answer phones and help out with anything I can. We’re nine people in the office, and it’s close-knit.”

Ms. Schnaidman, who graduated from the Moriah School in Englewood and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, is not fazed by her all-Israeli environment, as her gap-year program at Migdal Oz integrated the overseas students with Israelis. “I speak Hebrew all day in the office and at home,” she said.

Last week she went along on a retreat for 600 widows. “I looked around and realized that for every person sitting here, one person had to die. But you see them laughing, clapping, talking about how cute their husbands were. They have something that connects them and allows them to relax and have fun together.”

An IDFWO Chanukah party in the Negev last week included a webcam hookup that allowed 150 IDF orphans to light candles and sing with Jewish teenagers from New York and Munich, including an a cappella group from SAR High School in Riverdale.

“It was incredibly emotional to see Jewish youth from two other continents join us live to celebrate Chanukah together,” IDFWO’s youth director, Shlomi Nahumson, said. “It just goes to show that the people of Israel are one, no matter where they reside in the world. The IDF orphans felt a warm embrace from abroad and a public demonstration that they are not alone.

“We hope to make this an annual tradition, and I’d like to send out an open invitation to other schools and youth groups worldwide to join us and empower those left behind.”

As part of the awareness and fundraising effort locally, Ms. Shoham-Solan addressed students on December 17 at Ma’ayanot and at Torah Academy of Bergen County, before a parlor meeting that evening at the home of Susan and Mark Wiesen of Teaneck.

Two girls at the OTZMA Chanukah camp last week. (IDF Widows and Orphans organization)
Two girls at the OTZMA Chanukah camp last week. (IDF Widows and Orphans organization)

At the annual IDFWO bar/bat mitzvah celebration in October, Ms. Shoham-Solan told the crowd how proud she was as “one who lost her own husband and raised two young children alone, to see the IDF orphans grow stronger by the day and grow into upstanding citizens of the state of Israel.”

She and IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz gave each bar mitzvah boy his first set of tefillin, while bat mitzvah girls received ornate Shabbat candlesticks and a set of Jewish books. Boys and girls from the Druze and Bedouin communities received gifts and celebrated their coming of age together with the Jewish IDF orphans. These 45 children will have the opportunity to tour the United States next summer.

President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and the heads of the Israeli police and prison service all came to the ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater. President Rivlin told the celebrants that he “considers each and every one of you as my own grandchild.”

“You see people flooding in because everyone wanted to be there for these kids,” Ms. Schnaidman said. “You realize how much Israel wants to embrace them. The kids were just glowing.”

For more information, go to www.idfwo.org/homePage.htm

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