This week I had the special privilege of attending the bar and bat mitzvah celebration of children I didn’t know. It was a group celebration for at-risk youth from central Israel.
Normally, this is not something that I would know about, much less be involved with or invited to. While I went there to celebrate with this important milestone and lifecycle event for the teens, it felt like more people were thanking me than I was congratulating them.
As all of this was happening, I kept thinking how privileged I was to be there – thanks to numerous people from all over the world – and to be able to represent so many people without whom I would have never had the occasion to be there.
You may remember back in May, we had a short war/conflict/battle with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups in Gaza. For two weeks, Israel was bombarded with over 4,300 rockets fired by the terrorists to hit Israeli communities as far as 100 kilometers away. Millions of Israelis of all backgrounds lived with fear of rockets being launched at them at any minute.
For two weeks in May, many Israelis didn’t leave their homes to stay near their bomb shelters – for those who have bomb shelters. Children didn’t go to school. In addition to the death and injury of many people and damage to property, many more suffered trauma that still remains.
In that context, when I heard about the stress being felt by at-risk Israeli youth who come from homes where their parents cannot care for them properly – some of whom suffer various forms of abuse and whose one safe space is the youth village where they are cared for and nurtured the most – we stepped in to help. The Genesis 123 Foundation launched an Israel Emergency Relief Fund to help take care of the most vulnerable who were impacted, and still suffering, because of the war. We found that while the rockets stopped, the trauma remained, and the needs were great.
For Jewish children in Israel, bar and bat mitzvahs are special milestones celebrated by the family and wider community. When children come from homes whose parents cannot care or provide for them and their safety, something as normal as a bar/bat mitzvah celebration will fall through the cracks. When children have the extra suffering from the trauma of a war, feeling unsafe in their homes and in the safe space of the community that is intended to protect them, the damage can be lingering, even lifelong.
The Genesis 123 Foundation stepped up to sponsor the bar/bat mitzvah celebration for this one group of children, thanks to the generosity of all those who donated to the Israel Emergency Relief Fund. It’s one of several ways in which a tangible and meaningful impact was made among those harmed the most by the barrage of rockets during those two weeks, and the threat and fear that still lingers.
To give an example of the uncertainty in the lives of these children, I asked where one of the 12-year-old girls lives. I was told “sometimes she lives with her mother, sometimes she lives with her father, sometimes she lives with an aunt. But we really never know day to day.”
What’s so incredible is that the counselors who work with the children pulled out all the stops to make the celebration perfect. Many responded with donations to pay for actual expenses. But many more responded by donating time and gifts as well. In fact, the only things not donated were the food and the magnets. People also donated a wide variety of gifts to each child, including a new tablet.
Boys received new clothes, including white shirts that they wore with the creases still visible. Girls were able to pick from among dozens of dresses donated in order to look and feel special, plus had a pretty dress to take home. On the afternoon of the party, professional hair stylists and make-up artists converged to make the girls look and feel extra special, donating their time and lots of TLC.
I met one of these volunteers, who is a new immigrant from New York. She heard about the opportunity to volunteer and agreed immediately, even though she had no idea where she would be volunteering. She just knew it was something good.
Because this woman had limited Hebrew, when I explained who the kids were and what the program was about, she became emotional and expressed how grateful she was to be of help. She asked me why we have children with problems like this here in Israel. I explained that, unfortunately, there are people living at risk here just as anywhere – people suffering poverty, mental and physical illness and any other range of problems that exist anywhere.
The children were elated during the event. Their parents and siblings joined them for the celebration. Though this was not the same as the family planning the celebration itself, it was special. Even though the immediate trauma of the war had passed, now – thanks to so many who donated generously – the milestone year of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah will not be overshadowed by a war that prevented their celebration. Despite the war, they will always be able to look back on this year as one of joy.
Experiencing this event, I realized that while we cannot change their circumstances, perhaps we can create joyful memories in their lives so they will no longer be looked upon as youth-at-risk, but children of promise.
We pray that there will be no more war and trauma in the lives of these children and that this milestone will be the beginning of a new chapter in their future as young adults and responsible citizens.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians and serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. He writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He is host of the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.