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Learning and caring

Gap year program gives local girls a real way to give back

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Elianna Strauss of Teaneck with some of the girls at Bet Elazraki. Midreshet Torat Chessed

If a 12-year-old comes from a dysfunctional family, she might never have gotten the love that most of us think of as our birthright.

If she is Israeli, she ““ or her brother ““ might find herself in a group home, a place that offers more security, solidity, and sanity than her home ever did. But she might still yearn for the love that comes from parents and siblings.

And if a young American Jewish woman, about to graduate from high school, is looking to spend the next year in Israel but is as interested in experiential as text-based education, she might be interested in working with that 12-year-old or her brother.

Rabbi Yosef Goldin, who now lives in Netanya but grew up in Englewood – where his father, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, leads Congregation Ahavat Torah – working with Ari Korman, also originally from Englewood, created and opened the Midreshet Torat Chessed to give young women that opportunity.

The seminary program is part of Emunah of America’s Bet Elazraki Children’s Home, where about 200 children from families where they had been ignored or mistreated spend their childhoods. They range in age from first grade through high school, and their backgrounds cover the spectrum of Jewish observance. Because the home put them in schools that match both their backgrounds and their interests, the 200 children go to 27 schools.

The children at Bet Elazraki are encouraged to maintain relationships with their parents if possible, and they are surrounded by a brigade of psychologists, social workers, art and music therapists, and other caring adults. They also are looked after by young Israeli women who are sherut leumi, performing their national service, in place of service in the Israel Defense Forces. Still, they miss the extra warmth that comes from family, unmediated by professional concerns.

During the summer, some of those needs are met by high-school girls from abroad who stay for a few weeks at a time. Many of those girls come from northern New Jersey, and return home inspired.

Now, instead of tearing themselves away after those few weeks, they can stay for an academic year. Torah Chessed “is based on the home; the girls live a house or two away, and they’re part of everything that goes on in the home,” Rabbi Goldin said. “They study Torah ““ the classic seminary experience ““ have Shabbatonim, go on trips, but the added bonus they get is being part of the children’s home, and able to give to them on a daily basis.

“What motivates our students is a desire to be a giver,” he continued. “To be able to balance personal growth and self-development, growing as a person and as a Jew, and integrate it with giving to another person.”

When they are at the home, the seminary girls take care of the children who live there as if they were family members. They are not quite parents ““ they are not old enough ““ and not quite big sisters ““ they are too empowered, and too free of the emotional entanglements and jealousies that come from growing up together ““ but they provide a daily, loving, workaday presence that offers bedrock solidity in often rocky lives.

Rabbi Goldin, who made aliyah with his wife, Shifa Cooper Goldin, a nurse, 6 ½ years ago, has known for some time that he wanted to be an educator, but he had no firm vision of whom he would teach. “I didn’t know if it would be Americans or Israelis, adults or children, boys or girls,” he said. “I never thought I would be an administrator. And I never thought that I would start my own school, instead of starting at the bottom and working my way up.

“It is very exciting to create something that will make a difference.”

Rabbi Goldin finished his own education in Israel ““ he earned his smicha there, and then spent another three years studying in a kollel. Two years ago, when his father, Shmuel Goldin, was sitting shiva in Israel for his mother, Yosef Goldin met Bet Elazraki’s director, Yehuda Cohen. Mr. Cohen “started to talk about his vision of creating a way to get girls to spend a year studying and working with the kids,” Rabbi Goldin said. And that was it.

“I was inspired,” he said. “I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I took it from there.”

The seminary has many roots in northern New Jersey. Some of the roots connect the people who created and run it with this area; not only do the Goldins come from here, but so does the program’s director, Shira Rubin Melamed, who grew up in Teaneck. Many of the students who spend their summer at Bet Elazraki are local, and so are two of the students in the seminary’s inaugural class.

Elianna Strauss of Teaneck, 17, is one of them. “I was interested in this program because I didn’t want to sit and learn for 12 hours a day,” she said. “I wanted to get something more out of my year.

“I also wanted to really integrate into Israel society. And it’s working. I am getting an experience here that no other seminary offers.”

Among other things, “it has taught me firsthand how lucky I am to come from the family that I come from, and how not to take things for granted. I’m not here for selfish reasons ““ I came to give back to my homeland ““ but I am getting so much more from it than I ever imagined.”

She has learned a great deal about family. “Before Rosh Hashanah, one of my girls came home from school with an invitation to a parents’ event,” she said. “I went with her.

“At the end of the event, the rabbi in charge asked all the parents to stand up, put their hands on their children’s head, and give them a bracha. So my girl looked at me, and without even thinking I put my hand on her head.

“The relationship we have is powerful.”

It has also taught her a good deal about trust. “For a lot of these children, trust is a huge issue,” she said. “They have been abandoned before, so why should they let you in?” Often they do, and so “I am getting so much out of this that I couldn’t get out of any other seminary.”

Elianna plans to go to college once she leaves Bet Elazraki, “although I don’t know how I am going to leave,” she said. Her attachment to the children with whom she works is that strong. “But I will continue to be in their lives, God willing,” she concluded.

Dalia Kohlhagen, 18, also from Englewood, worked at Bet Elazraki during the summer of 2012, when she was a student at Ramaz. She fell so deeply in love with the children, the relationships, and the work that once she heard that Midrasha Torah Chessed was in formation, “I was like, ‘You open the midrasha, I am there!'” They did, and she was. Now, she works with the same children she first met and loved that summer.

She recalled a formative summer experience. “I had 12 13-year-olds,” she said. “A lot of them are difficult. They kind of keep to themselves. They kind of don’t want to have anything to do with the Americans who come over. The program was four weeks long, and getting into the third week, I was thinking that they are not really interested. They don’t really want to form a relationship, at least not with me.

“And then, on the third Shabbos, on Friday night, I went to put them to bed. They go into their beds, and one of the girls, who hadn’t spoken to me for the whole summer, who was known to be difficult and never got close to anyone, asked me to sit on her bed.

“She told me she was nervous for high school. She was going to a new school, and she didn’t know if she could make friends. She was very scared. She asked me for advice.

“I tried to hold onto my tears.

“It was the most amazing moment I had ever had. This girl, who would never open up to me, asked me for my opinion.”

Still, Dalia is realistic. “Since I came back, she still doesn’t want to talk to me,” she said. “But I remember that one Friday night, when she opened up to me.”

Dalia and Elianna are the kind of student Rabbi Goldin wants. “We are the type of program that attracts a unique girl,” he said. “A girl who appreciates the power of giving; who doesn’t want to spend a year just on herself, but also wants to give of herself.

“A girl who wants to take who she is, and who she is becoming, and give that to another person.”

To learn more
Ms. Melamed, the program’s assistant director, will be in the area this week; she plans to spend Shabbat in Teaneck and interview prospective students on Monday, December 23. Rabbi Goldin is planning a trip that will bring him to Bergen County in January. For more information or to schedule an interview, email Ms. Melamed at shiramelamed@gmail.com, Rabbi Goldin at yossigoldin@gmail.com, or the office at midreshettoratchessed@gmail.com.

The program’s website is toratchessed.com.

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