Graduates who overcame so much to make us all proud
The Emunah Sarah Herzog Children’s Centre was established in 1949 and since then we estimate that thousands of children have been educated and cared for at the Centre in Afula. The children, both “Olim” (immigrants) and “Sabras” (native born Israelis) all found a warm and nurturing environment in which they could realize their potential and thrive and Emunah Afula has many wonderful graduates. Many overcame significant obstacles and have achievements of which we are all very proud.
We would like to tell about each and every one of our wonderful graduates but unfortunately, there are too many stories to tell and so we would like to introduce you to just a few shining examples:
MK Ya’akov Edri – Our representative in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament)
Rabbi Sharon Shalom – From Sinai to Ethiopia
Sharona - Giving Back
Grads Paying it Forward by Gail Lichtman
MK Ya’akov Edri – Our representative in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament)
Ya’akov Edri was born in Morocco in 1950 and at the tender age of 9 made Aliyah with only his siblings and without his parents. Ya’akov and his siblings spent their former years in Israel at the Emunah Centre, then know as Omen Afula, where they learned Hebrew and integrated into Israeli culture.
After graduating Ya’akov served in the Israeli Navy and later went to complete his Bachelors and Masters degrees at the Haifa University. Ya’akov entered politics, first on the local level, where he served as the mayor of the city of Or Akiva for 14 years. In 2003 Ya’akov Edri was elected to the Knesset, where he has been a member for 10 years. In addition, Ya’akov Edri served as the Israel Minister of Health, Ministry of Immigration and in other cabinet posts.
When asked how a young boy, growing up in a children’s home without his parents, was able to show such impressive achievements in his life, he replies without hesitation: “The counselors at Emunah (Omen) taught me to believe in myself and believe that for even a little homeless boy from Morocco the sky’s the limit”.
Rabbi Sharon Shalom – From Sinai to Ethiopia
Sharon Shalom walked from Ethiopia to the Sudan, a young boy on a treacherous journey, who’s only aim was to fulfill the dream his grandfather had instilled deep in his soul, to reach Jerusalem. From there he flew with the Jewish Agency to Israel in 1982, only 11 years old. Sharon, or Zaude, as his was then called, believed that he was alone in the world and that his family had perished on the road to the Sudan, and was placed at the Emunah Centre in Afula. It was only after 4 years that Sharon was given an almost unbelievable message. His family has survived and had arrived in Israel. Sharon, his parents and siblings were reunited.
After graduating high school ,Sharon Shalom enlisted in the IDF and became one of the first Ethiopian born commissioned officers in the army. Later Sharon studied at the prestigious Yeshivat Har Etzion, where he received “smicha” (rabbinic ordination). Sharon Shalom, lives in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Gat with his wife, Avital and their 4 children. He currently serves as the Rabbi of the nearby Ashkenazi Synagogue “Kdoshei Yisrael”, where a number of the members are holocaust survivors.
Sharon Shalom is both a doctoral student and a lecturer in the field of Jewish Studies at the Bar Ilan University. He has recently published his first book, “From Sinai to Ethiopia”, a groundbreaking comparison between the ancient customs and religious laws of “Beta Yisrael”, the Ethiopian Community and modern Jewish Halacha.
On a recent Emunah film Sharon was asked how Emunah Afula helped him. “What do you mean!” he said. “It was my home. Emunah was my family”.
Sharona - Giving Back
Sharona only recently graduated from the Emunah Children’s Centre in August 2012, after 9 years in our various programmes. Sharon lost her mother when she was only 7 and since her father was elderly and an alcoholic, he was unable to care for his young daughter and her 6 additional siblings. At first Sharona attended Emunah’s afterschool care programme, returning home every evening after 2 hot meals, activities, help with her homework etc. We hoped that she would not have to leave her family and her familiar environment. Unfortunately, it was determined that this was insufficient and Sharona was placed in Emunah’s residential programme with 2 of her siblings.
Initially young and insecure, Sharona grew more confident and very motivated.
She invested almost all of her free time in furthering her studies and getting ahead. Even when her father tried to persuade her to return home, Sharona refused, saying to anybody who would listen that it was her future and she was not going to “end up like the rest of her family”. Sharona made the most of everything Emunah offered her, and then came back and demanded more. More tutoring, more therapies and especially more responsibility. Sharona was well liked by all staff members and indeed became a role model for the other children.
As her graduation approached Sharona decided she was going to join the army and applied to become an army welfare officer – she wanted to help other soldiers in need. She volunteered to undergo a year-long course on her own time before enlisting.
But Sharona has not forgotten Emunah. Every afternoon, after the conclusion of her studies, Sharona comes to the Emunah Children’s Centre to work with a group of our children who have special needs. “This is my way to thank those who were there for me and to help other children, like they helped me. I wanted them to know that there is hope”.
Sarah Herzog Children's Center in Afula – Grads Paying it Forward by Gail Lichtman
"When I was three, my father killed my mother," relates Vadim Markelov in a matter-of-fact tone as he begins to tell his life story. It is a journey that has taken him from a troubled youth to a confident, 24-year-old young man, a veteran of an elite IDF combat unit and a student completing his bachelor's degree in industrial management. But it never would have happened if not for the love, patience, and care of the staff at Emunah's Sarah Herzog Children's Center in Afula, where, today, Vadim serves as a houseparent to the very same type of troubled boys he once was.
"We were living in Latvia at the time," Vadim continues. "My maternal grandmother took us in. By us, I mean my four-year-old brother, me and my infant sister. When I was nine, we learned that my father's prison sentence had been reduced and he was getting out. My grandmother was afraid he would gain custody. So we made aliyah to Israel and settled in Hadera."
For Vadim, the adjustment to a new country, language and culture was difficult. He began to get into trouble. His grandmother could not control him. He was sent to a children's home in Haifa. When he was in the sixth grade, the home closed. At the beginning of the seventh grade, Vadim came to the Children's Center in Afula, which serves a residential and afterschool therapeutic daycare facility for some 180 children at risk between the ages of five to 18.
"Vadim was very serious and focused on his goals, but there were serious behavior problems when he first arrived," recalls Shlomo Kessel, the Center's executive director. "We had to help him overcome these problems."
Like Vadim, the children at the Center have experienced emotional and some even physical trauma during their brief lives. Each one was referred to the Center by social services and arrives with his or her emotional and psychological baggage. In addition to meeting their basic physical needs for food, shelter, clothing, school supplies and the like, the Center designs a program for each one to help unload this baggage and enable every child to achieve his or her full potential. This includes professional assessment and traditional as well as such innovative therapies as art, music and psychodrama. There is a learning center to provide academic support. In addition, the Center offers extracurricular activities such as sports, social activities, drama, horseback riding and Capoeira. The children are encouraged to take part in a wide variety of community projects such as environmental cleanup, traffic safety and initiatives aimed at bridging the social gaps in Israel. The Center even has its own musical dance troupe – the Emunotes.
"The Center gave me everything – a home, the ability to succeed in school, economic support, love and understanding," Vadim says. "It also found afterschool jobs for me so I could earn some pocket money. I learned to appreciate things – such as education, work, discipline, etc. I got real values – Judaism and Zionism. And I learned not only to receive but how to give back."
When it came time for Vadim to go the IDF, he chose to serve in an elite combat unit. "Shlomo accompanied me to the induction center just like a father would," he states. "He came to all my ceremonies – swearing in, course graduation. He continued to be there for me."
But the years in the army were not easy ones for Vadim. During that period, Vadim's aunt, his mother's sister, died of cancer, leaving behind four young children. Once again, his grandmother took in her grandchildren. This created a very difficult economic situation in the family.
"I wanted to request the army to release me from service on the grounds that I needed to support my grandmother and the children," Vadim explains. "Shlomo and the staff at the Center intervened for me and I was given permission to work while continuing to serve in my combat unit."
Vadim worked two jobs during his this time – as a security guard and as a gas station attendant. He continued to visit the Center, for after all, as he says – "the Center is my home."
After Vadim finished the army, Shlomo Kessel called him one day and asked him if would like to go to college. "I told him I really would but I had no money and I still had to help the family," Vadim recalls. "Shlomo told me – don't worry, I will take care of things."
And take care of things he did. Shlomo Kessel found a donor to provide Vadim with a tuition scholarship and he arranged for him to work in the center as a houseparent.
"I didn't want him to have to work two jobs and study at the same time," Kessel explains. "So I brought him back here. He is really good with the children."
Vadim is completing his third year of studies at ORT Hermelin College in Netanya, which grants degrees through Bar Ilan University. He is a houseparent to a group of 11 boys ranging in age from six to 10.
"I always believed that one day I would give back what I got here," Vadim says. "Now, I am doing just that. I know what I didn't like when I was a kid and I try to fix those things. I love working with these kids. I try to impart the same values of love, discipline and hard work that I received – to give to them so they too will succeed in life."
Vadim is not the only graduate now working at the Center. Menachem Machtayev, nearly 24, is also a houseparent and a college student. He too, came to the Center from a tragic background.
Menachem made aliyah from Azerbaijan in 1992 with his mother, grandmother and four brothers. "There was a war going on and we literally fled the country," Menachem recalls. "At first, we were in an absorption center and then we settled in Haifa."
The family did not manage well. Menachem and his older brother, Gadi, kept getting into trouble. So social services decided to place them in the same children's home that Vadim had been sent to. When that home closed, Menachem and Gadi came to the Center in Afula. They were in the sixth and seventh grades respectively.
"Gadi was more cooperative," Kessel explains. "Menachem was very angry and disruptive. He was acting out his feelings through violence, drinking, aggression and running away."
"When the boys first came to the Center, before I took over, the policy was that the children had to go home to their parents every weekend for Shabbat," Kessel continues. "But Gadi and Menachem were being beaten by their mother. They would pretend to be going home but would then hide in Afula until after Shabbat. When I came, I decided to leave the Center open on Shabbat. Menachem and Gadi were among those children who chose to remain here."
This did not sit well with the boys' mother. "She thought we were encouraging her children to be disrespectful towards her. She came here and made a scene. She was very angry. But the boys remained on Shabbat."
"I was a problem," Menachem states. "I cut school. I would drink. I would act up. I didn't get what I should have from my family and I had a lot of anger towards my mother. I didn't trust her. If you don’t trust you mom, how can you trust strangers? It took me a long time to discover that I could trust the staff at the Center - that they really meant to help me. What they did for me was with no strings attached."
Things came to a head when Menachem was in the 10th grade and was arrested for drunken behavior in Afula. "I was in jail for resisting arrest," he goes on. "I thought I might be thrown out of the Center. I had already left my family. I realized that if I lost the Center, I would have nowhere to go. When Shlomo came to get me out of jail, I realized that the Center is my home and I wanted to stay. I decided to shape up."
"When I got to the jail, I took Menachem aside and said to him: Whatever you do, we will not send you away or give up on you." Kessel relates. "This experience changed him. He began to cooperate and his studies improved. He is very bright and his grades began to reflect that."
After finishing high school, Menachem went to an elite anti-terror unit in the IDF. "The values of Zionism and Judaism I received at the Center were very important during my army service," he says. "I was in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. My platoon leader and two of my buddies died. These values helped sustain me."
After his demobilization in August 2009, Menachem started working two jobs. At some point, he contacted Shlomo Kessel and asked if he could come back to work at the Center with the children.
Last year, Menachem was a houseparent for boys in the fifth and sixth grades. This year, he works with boys from ninth to 12th grades. In addition, he is studying acting at a drama school in Tel Aviv thanks to a tuition scholarship from a donor in Raanana arranged by the Center.
"I am like a mother and father to these kids," he explains. "I am an example of how they can succeed. They know I was once here as one of the children. They look at me as a role model. I feel that I can understand them – know how they feel and why they behave the way they do. I went through this too. I know why they are angry and why they are hurt."
"It is impossible to say in a few words what I got from the Center. This is the home I never had. It is a warm and loving place - place where people are understanding and looking out for you. It is a place for kids, where they can be happy without fears and worries. It is a place where kids can blossom and achieve their dreams. I feel that by returning as a houseparent I am paying it forward – giving back to these children what I once received," Menachem concludes.