On August 9, 2001, during the so-called Second Intifada, an Arab suicide bomber blew himself up in the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem, leaving 15 people dead and 130 wounded.
Among the murdered was Shoshana Greenbaum of Passaic, then 31, expecting her first baby, and about to begin to teach at the Yeshiva of North New Jersey..
Another 31-year-old victim, New York-born Chana Tova Chaya Nachemberg, remains in a coma to this day. She’d been at the pizzeria with relatives from Riverdale and her 2-year-old daughter, who grew up without a mother and now has a toddler of her own.
Michal Belzberg turned 12 that day on the Jewish calendar. She and her family had made aliyah from Riverdale 10 years earlier. They heard the news about the terrible attack while they were visiting relatives in the United States.
Michal recalls that she already knew her upcoming bat mitzvah party in Israel wouldn’t be as she had imagined. Many of the American invitees told her they were too scared to come to Israel then because of the intifada. They were afraid that Israel “was like a war zone,” she said.
The Sbarro tragedy was the final straw. “We felt the pain in the air. Nobody wanted to celebrate. And the idea came up to cancel my party and do something to help. The feeling was that we wanted to be there for those families.”
The Belzbergs requested that in lieu of bat mitzvah gifts, friends and family donate to the survivors and families of victims of the Sbarro attack.
The response was immediate and generous. They raised about $100,000. And that was the beginning of OneFamily, a Jerusalem-based charity still run by Ms. Belzberg’s parents, Marc and Chantal. Over the last 20 years, OneFamily — onefamilytogether.org — has assisted an estimated 23,000 Israelis affected by terror – people injured in attacks and family members of people killed or injured in attacks.
“My parents really took it on and looked at it as a project to help people who went through hell,” Michal Belzberg said. “They said, ‘Let’s help them rebuild shattered lives as if it was our family.’
“I cried about canceling the party, but I understood this was the right thing to do. I knew it would be worth canceling for the sake of the outcome and I knew giving up one night of fun was worth it for the long-term effect. We created something that’s been helping people for 20 years.”
OneFamily volunteers go to hospitals and shiva houses anywhere in Israel after any terror attack, proactively assessing needs and arranging therapeutic, financial, legal, and other services necessary for the long road of emotional and physical healing ahead.
“We don’t wait for anyone to come to us,” Chantal Belzberg said. “We look after bereaved parents, widows, children, young adults, orphans, the injured. We take a holistic approach to the entire family. There are no cut-and-paste solutions — each family receives something different. Some need help just getting out of bed in the morning and making it through the day. Others need help with relationships with their spouses or children.”
OneFamily offers programs and support groups for people of all ages, who fall into a wide range of categories. There are summer camps for bereaved children, food stamps for terror survivors who cannot work due to physical injuries or PTSD, scholarships for orphans, big brother/big sister mentors, art therapy, play therapy, and much more. There’s even a choir for bereaved fathers.
“It’s our job to help the family see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ms. Belzberg said. “Rehabilitation isn’t the right word. It’s about learning how to live again.”
The seven Belzberg siblings grew up with OneFamily. “We were the family for those families,” Michal Belzberg said.
She has walked the Israel Trail and gone skiing with terror survivors; she has taught them yoga and served as a counselor to bereaved children. She has spoken on behalf of the organization across the world.
“As an adult, everything else I tried to do wasn’t as meaningful, and I always went back to OneFamily,” she added. She recently learned that the brother of Sbarro victim Yocheved Shoshan, who was just 10 when she was murdered, is dating a woman whose brother died in a terror attack. They met – where else? — through OneFamily.
On August 5, OneFamily held a 20th anniversary memorial gathering of people affected by the Sbarro attack. Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a child survivor of the Holocaust, was the main speaker.
Other speakers included Sarah Shalev, 22, the woman whose mother remains in a vegetative state; and Chaya Schijveschuurder, 28, who survived the pizzeria bombing that killed her parents and three of her siblings.
“During my hospital stay, Marc came to visit me,” Ms. Schijveschuurder said. “I can’t recall much of the visit itself; I just know that it resulted in the creation of OneFamily and a deep bond with our family. During my teenage years, the fund was similar to a youth group for me.
“OneFamily is where I felt a sense of belonging, where I had a common language with friends who had gone through and are still going through similar struggles to the one I went through. We gained a lot of shared experiences in the summer camps, and a lot of significant relationships were formed.”
Over the years, some beneficiaries transition from being OneFamily recipients to donors. Others require support for years. And that requires funding.
Naomi Nussbaum ’s job as the fulltime executive director of OneFamily USA is to inspire American donors to support OneFamily. When asked why she took on the position with the Teaneck-based American branch of the Israeli group two years ago, Ms. Nussbaum, who lives in Teaneck, said that as a special-ed teacher, the OneFamily approach resonated with her.
“As part of my training, I learned how the majority of neurological issues that affect development have no specific remedy,” she said. “Every single child is unique and needs a unique way to move forward with issues.
“That is how OneFamily helps victims of terror in Israel. No two victims will heal exactly the same way. No two families have the same needs. OneFamily is just overflowing with love for every single victim. The creative programming all has to be custom tailored because everyone has a different way to heal. That is what they do and why I fit in so well with this family.”
Ms. Nussbaum relates the story of Dina Keat, who could not bring herself to cook her murdered son’s favorite dishes for a long time. When Ms. Keat discovered, through her OneFamily group, that many other mothers has similar feelings, she spearheaded a cookbook, “A Taste of Life,” containing 124 recipes — and the personal stories behind them — from bereaved mothers.
Another program, Build a Dream, was created for people who had become stuck in life because of grief. This yearlong life-coaching program for 18- to 35-year-olds provides both “psychological tools and business expertise to help them come up with a business plan and handle their emotions and move forward,” Ms. Nussbaum said. “It’s very therapeutic.”
While donating money is the easiest way to help OneFamily beneficiaries, she said, there are other options, such as bar/bat mitzvah twinning; “adopting” a family for an agreed amount of money each month for up to a year; participating in sporting events on behalf of OneFamily; tutoring a terror victim in English; or simply praying for them.
“I was talking to a donor recently about a few different families she might want to sponsor,” Ms. Nussbaum said. “I mentioned a man who used to be a chef. He was stabbed by a terrorist in the abdomen and can’t stand on his feet all day anymore. And the donor said, ‘You know, he could be a private chef for Shabbos or Yom Tov meals, so he could still cook but not be on his feet all day.’ That kind of problem-solving can be an amazing way to help.
“There are so many different options. For $36, you can send a gesture certificate to let someone know you are thinking about them.”
As CEO and chairman of OneFamily, respectively, Chantal and Marc Belzberg have found that in contrast to the days following the Sbarro attack, fundraising is no longer easy — but it is no less necessary. Every time an Israeli is stabbed, shot, or run over by a terrorist, OneFamily adds the circle of survivors to its family.
“Sometimes people have a hard time understanding what OneFamily does,” Chantal Belzberg said. “We’re like long-term care; we hold people’s hands and make sure they don’t fall and will eventually thrive.
“And there’s still a huge amount of work to do.”