Young Israeli marks bar mitzvah with a little help from a scholarship fund
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Young Israeli marks bar mitzvah with a little help from a scholarship fund

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Rabbi Uzi Rivlin, left, of the Keren Milgot scholarship fund with Avi-El, a disadvantaged Israeli teen who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Teaneck Jewish Center. Laves Photography

When a boy named Avi-El celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Jewish Center of Teaneck Aug. 22, no beaming parents, grandparents, or siblings were there. Avi-El, who lives within a therapeutic family unit at an Israeli kibbutz, could not share his special moment with his biological relatives.

Instead, he was surrounded by well-wishers at the center’s Hallel V’Zimrah Orthodox minyan – and his American sponsors, Rabbis Uzi Rivlin and Moshe Yasgur of the Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Children in Israel (Keren Milgot le-Kiddum Yeladim be-Yisrael).

For several summers, the rabbis have flown over a handful of the hundreds of youngsters on their rolls to stay with American host families and attend a session of Camp Moshava, an Orthodox Zionist camp in Pennsylvania.

“The decision to bring a specific child to the United States is weighed very carefully based on what each child needs and will benefit from,” said Yasgur. “Some need to get out of their current situations for a while, and some just need to know there’s another world out there.”

The beneficiary children are recommended to the all-volunteer organization by municipal social-services authorities throughout Israel. Some live in poor development towns and simply lack the resources for basic items such as food, clothing, mattresses, and school supplies. Others, like Avi-El, come from troubled homes or have been orphaned due to illness or terror attacks.

“Their needs are so great you cannot imagine,” said Rivlin.

Avi-El was one of two girls and five boys brought over this summer. Five were sent to Moshava. The remaining two boys, who have behavioral issues related to their abusive family backgrounds, stayed in Teaneck for four weeks at what the rabbi jokingly calls “Camp Rivlin” – the home he shares with his wife, Jenny. One returned to Israel after the first camp session.

The remaining children were in town to participate in Avi-El’s special morning at the Jewish Center and received gifts from the congregation. Members also provided funds for a festive kiddush afterward. Though the scholarship fund has previously arranged b’nai mitzvah at Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron, Rivlin and Yasgur were eager “to extend our relationship to other communities and synagogues.”

The following week, the rabbis accompanied the children to a Shabbaton at Fair Lawn’s Cong. Ahavat Achim. “Rabbi [Uri] Goldstein told the kids that their contribution to their community was so important, because they gave their host families a taste of Israel,” said Rivlin. “Families were fighting over who would get to host the kids.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck invited all six children to his home for Shabbat lunch. He also translated Avi-El’s bar mitzvah speech into English for worshippers in both the Orthodox and traditional minyan groups following services.

“Avi-El spoke about justice, about doing the right thing,” said Yasgur. “Rabbi Zierler echoed his words, saying that it was absolutely the right thing to embrace these children and encourage and strengthen them.”

Rivlin estimates that the fund spends more than $100,000 annually to meet the pressing needs of more than 500 4- to 18-year-olds. In addition, several families at Temple Beth Abraham – a Reform congregation in Tarrytown, N.Y., where Rivlin teaches in the religious school – take on the support of specific children and often host them during the summer.

Last spring, two fund-supported teens from Sderot and Netivot attended Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, at Rivlin’s initiative. “Both were in severe crisis situations,” said Rivlin, who hosted them for the semester. He hopes to arrange a similar educational “exchange” next year in cooperation with a local yeshiva high school.

“Our long-term vision is to build the next generation in Israel and not lose these kids,” said Yasgur. “We want to let them know there are Jews all over the world and there are opportunities to expand their horizons. They can bring that back to Israel and start to build a better life for themselves.”

Daniel, an academically gifted orphan who celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Aaron in 2006, has returned each summer since, staying with his Westchester benefactors. He will enter Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv this fall, studying accounting and economics and taking part in the school’s advanced Judaic studies program.

“I promised his grandfather, just two weeks before he died, that I would make sure Daniel would continue his education in Israel and learn Torah,” said Rivlin.

Tax-deductible contributions – full educational scholarships are $140, tuition scholarships are $60, textbooks and supplies are $50, and school shoes are $25 – may be made payable to Cong. Beth Aaron, with “Scholarship Fund” in the memo line and mailed to P.O. Box 1155, Teaneck, NJ 07666.

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