Shoshie, a petite, blue eyed eight year old girl with wavy long hair, stood behind a tree, peering out at the circle of giggling girls tossing a large red ball with their new American friends, volunteers at the Emunah Summer Program at Achuzat Sarah Children’s Home. One of the American teens broke away from the circle, walked over to Shoshie, gently stroked her hair and held out her hand. Shoshie managed a slow smile and grabbed the outstretched hand; now no longer feeling alone, she was willing to join in the fun. And then came the impromptu hug. For the counselor this was an emotional experience; the gratifying knowledge that she had made this shy little girl smile.
This summer marked the 11th year of the Emunah Summer Program for high school juniors and seniors which gives the American volunteers an opportunity to bond with Emunah’s children in Israel. This year the program drew 108 American volunteers, and 17 coordinators from across the United States.
Last year, after nine years of continued growth of the Emunah program at Bet Elazraki Children’s Home, Michael Reidler, a 25 year old associate at Citdadel, a hedge fund in New York – who has been involved with the program almost since its inception, and Ezra Gontownik, a 21 year old Columbia University student who has been with the program for five years, established the summer program at Neve Michael Children’s Home in Pardes Chana. Clearly passionate about this project, Michael and Ezra didn’t stop there; they expanded the program this year to include Achuzat Sarah in Bnei Brak.
Reaching out to children at risk is clearly a passion for Michael and Ezra. “Our goal is to help every child in need, and have a program in every home in Israel, so that every child knows that he or she has brothers and sisters from all around the world that believe in him or her,” notes Michael. “As my team and I say over and over, ‘it’s easier to believe in yourself when others believe in you’.”
James Goldberg, 21 from Englewood, NJ., a sophomore at NYU, is a passionate Zionist who spent two years in IDF Paratroopers as a lone soldier and fought on the front lines during Operation Brother’s Keeper and Protective Edge. Committed to doing as much for Israel as he possibly could, he decided that working with Emunah’s children at risk was the way he could continue to “give” to the country he loves so much. Last year he volunteered at Neve Michael, returning this year. For him, staying away was not an option. “Last summer, I saw how much potential this program has to improve the children’s lives,” he states. “Continuing my connection to the kids and to the home means maintaining a stable, loving relationship. I keep in touch with the children through Facebook, email, and WhatsApp. We update each other on our schoolwork, achievements, and hopes for the coming summer.”
Meticulous planning is involved to ensure the success Emunah Summer Program, with ongoing input from the entire team of coordinators and volunteers in each of the homes. They organize activities that are entertaining, educational, and unique by design, working out the complex logistics with the directors of the homes. Days are structured with the goal of ensuring that the children in the homes will experience summer break in a way that would not have been possible without their American friends.
There are varied aspects to daily life in the summer program, including breakfast with the children, daily activities, sports, trips, a lot of singing and dancing, and everything in between: tying shoelaces, wiping ice-cream off a cherubic face and buttoning the shirt of a bashful little girl. To the volunteers, there are special moments that are particularly dear to them. For Lily Katz, from Boca Raton, FL., a coordinator at Bet Elazraki, it’s bedtime that she finds the most heartwarming. “I just love to tuck the kids in at night – safe and sound. It’s so gratifying,” she says.
The program is remarkable in its size and its scope. Alex Agus, from Manhattan, a coordinator at Bet Elazraki, who is spending his third year connecting with Emunah’s children, says: “There are 108 kids here in Israel volunteering this summer with 17 coordinators. This is a model you just don’t see anywhere else. We were almost half an El AL plane.”
Ilan Ramras, from Teaneck, NJ., a coordinator at Bet Elazraki, found the summer program to be life-altering, expressing that “the program teaches that in life you can’t just take but you must give. There are nine kids from last year that came back. They need to come back; it’s in them now. The experience just changes you.”
The summer may have come to a close but the interaction between the American volunteers and the Emunah children is ongoing. A bond, a connection, is established during the summer that lasts throughout the year, leading to lasting friendships and relationships that are cherished by both the Emunah children and the Americans. There is no question that the children at Achuzat Sarah, Neve Michael and Bet Elazraki are already anticipating next summer when they will welcome their American friends again.