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True Stories of Sara's Amazing pre-Bat Mitzvah tour of Israel

Sara's Amazing pre-Bat Mitzvah tour of Israel
(This is excerpted from the handout at Sara Berlin's Bat Mitzvah. It is the story of why we went to Israel to do tikkun olam as part of her preparation for becoming a Bat Mitzvah. It is in several parts due to space limitations.)

The basic question we face in raising children is how to we make “mentches” (human beings) of them?

What we are really asking with this question is: How do we bring alive and transmit the value-laden stories of our people, so they become part of our children’s very essence? Our stories are our “oral DNA,” and the only way they get effectively passed on is by both living and telling them.

For us, Judaism, at its core, is the relationship of the individual with God, as expressed through three pillars--the Law (Torah), the Jewish People, and the Land of Israel--in the stories we tell and in the lives we live.

The only place all three parts come together is in Israel.

In Israel, our sovereign land, we see how the people actualize the values of the Law and the tradition in fulfilling our obligations to take care of our People.

So we decided to take Sara to Israel to see how tikkun olam is done there.

We started in Tzfat. Our guide to Tzfat is Rena Cohen, a Canadian immigrant who works at the Center for the Advancement of the Blind. (We sent her some money in honor of Sara’s Bat Mitzvah—to sponsor an outing for some of the clients of the center.) Rena volunteers with us as a “zamler” for the Lamed Vuvnik Fund (see below). While we were in Tzfat, we raised some money from other tourists. (It’s easy—you go up to them, ask them where they are from, start a conversation, and ask them to pass the hat for the poor. If you are lucky, they’ll let you speak on the microphone in their bus.) We also gave away clothes that we had brought with us—we collected them from friends at the Highland Lakes Shul. A friend of ours who was leading a group from Washington DC had been notified that we would be in Tzfat at the same time as his group, so he arranged for people to bring clothes as well.

We visited the small, local “mercolet”—a corner store that sells basics necessities at great prices. (In Israel, the larger stores are more expensive, and the local ones less so.) These small stores are also in closer touch with the residents, and the owners live locally. For the past few years, many of the shopkeepers have gone out on a limb, extending credit to needy families, at great financial risk to themselves. Rena and her friends have been raising money to pay down the balances of the neediest, enabling the shopkeepers to survive, and the poor to continue to eat. For $20, we purchased a warm blanket, and left it in the store with Moshe, the owner, for the next needy customer.

Tzfat is home to the candle factory, Safed Candles Gallery. The manager, Naor Levi, is a wonderful man, and his wife (Hannah) helps new mothers who need clothing and supplies for their infants. Naor agreed to help us with two projects. One project is an exclusive line of beautiful, multicolored Shabbat candles, hand dipped, and layered with seven rings of color. (They can be used anytime—they are extremely elegant table candles.) We’re selling them through the Lamed Vuvnik Fund for $12 a pair, including shipping and handling. For each pair purchased, the Fund buys a chicken for a poor family in Tzfat. That way, when you light your Shabbos candles, the yellow light will remind you that while you enjoy your Shabbos dinner, another family will, too. For Sara’s Bat Mitzvah, we’re giving every guest a pair as a party favor, so that many families will eat dinner in Israel, while we eat in Miami.

We invite you to purchase additional pairs, to give as gifts, or to use weekly. Each pair of candles comes with a story about the blessings they bring to you, and to the poor.

Naor also created a wonderful thirty-six wick Havdalah candle for the Lamed Vuvnik fund. (Again, that magic number.) We’re giving it as a thank you for a $36 donation to the Fund, and the proceeds will go Hannah and Rena and others in Israel for similar relief efforts. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Havdalah ceremony, it is a lovely, short, service that is performed on Saturday night, to reluctantly mark the end of the Day of Rest, and the return to the six days of work and creation. (Please join us here this evening at 7:30 for Havdallah.) The lighting of the candle is laden with symbolism, not the least of which is that as we illuminate our small corner of the world, and restore to ourselves the power to create light and fire, so to do we illuminate our souls with the knowledge that part of the work we will do over the coming week with support the poor, as well as our own families.

Also check out our greeting cards, which feature the works of Israeli artists. They are available in packets of 10 for $18, as well as larger quantities, for use as invites, thank you’s and gift cards.

(In case you haven’t realized it, we’re breaking new ground here—we think this is the first time guests have been invited to shop from a catalog during a Bat Mitzvah service.)

Next we went to Or Akiva, where we met Ilanit Chafuta, a young woman who grew up dirt poor, but who is determined to show people that “you don’t need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth in order to succeed.” Her one-woman “gemach” (combination food bank/clothing bank/social service/counseling provider/loan fund) operating in a bomb shelter in the basement of an unfinished building, provides food for 120 families in need. Each family is issued twenty plastic containers, which they are responsible for bringing back each week, clean, for more food. No containers, no food. The volunteers who help Ilanit are all clients of the gemach. Ilanoit schnorrs food anywhere she can, and a local factory regularly over orders for its employees’ lunches, to make sure that there is leftover food for Ilanit’s center. (A nearby kibbutz also helps out.) Ilanit is also providing food for sandwiches and snacks for 500 children daily, in 4 local schools. As we heard repeatedly all over Israel, children now come to school hungry in increasing numbers, due to the economic situation. As the Talmud says, “No flour, no Torah”—you can’t learn on an empty stomach. At an amazingly low cash cost of $150 a month per school, Ilanit makes sure that the food gets delivered to the kids. (Moshe, the security guard, who drives the security van donated by the Miami Federation, volunteers his time to make the deliveries.) This means that for $36 dollars (again, that number), you, or your school, can sponsor 125 kids in one school for a week. Isn’t there room in your synagogue’s budget for $36 a week to feed 125 kids? We’re trying to start a program at every synagogue in America, where one tray on the Kiddush table is left empty every week, and $36 that would have been used to buy more cake is donated to buy food in Israel instead. We printed up some laminated cards that you can place on the Kiddush tray—send us an email, and we’ll send you some. The donations can be made through the website, and specified for the Or Akiva lunch program.

Needless to say, Ilanit also becomes a defacto social worker. Hunger and unemployment aggravates or causes other problems—relationships suffer, self-esteem plummets, etc. There has been at least one suicide by a despondent former breadwinner

Ilanit could do more—as it is, she provides some clothing as needed, furniture and appliances as they become available, donated teddy bears for psychological comfort. One of her wishes was for a freezer, which will allow her to accept donations of frozen meat. We paid for it out of the funds we were going to use to buy kippot for Sara’s Bat Mitzvah. Instead, Sara has decided to let us make photocopies of the cardboard kippot they give out at the Kotel in Jerusalem, and on the reverse side, a photocopy of a freezer and Ilanit’s story. As Sara leads services, gazing out on a sea of these kippot, it will remind her of Ilanit and her wonderful work. (You can direct donations through, or by checks to Rena Genn, POB 622, Karkur, Israel.)

Our trip next took us to Jerusalem. We started in Ne’ve Ya’akov, a poor community right on the border with the Palestinian Authority. The ”downtown” area features a large plaza, where we saw people selling used clothes on the benches, flea market style, to make ends meet. We also visited a non-descript bomb shelter, where Rabbi Avner Ben Harosh operates a soup kitchen, counseling center, and feeding program for school children. We gave him money for food for Purim in honor of Sara’s Bat Mitzvah. Our conversation was interrupted because the Rabbi had to take care of a young man, who had psychological problems as the result of a terror attack, and was unemployed.

An aside: There are two types of “survivor” victims of terror attacks: official victims, and unofficial victims. Not that anyone is really a survivor—everyone becomes a victim. An “official” victim means that you are deemed by the government to be 40% or more disabled, and entitled to benefits. But in order to receive those benefits, you have to have medical treatment at certain places only, there are lots of forms, etc. First you suffer, and then you suffer again while the government helps you recover from suffering. But that’s only if you are an official victim. If you are less than 40% disabled, or you are not physically hurt—say, if a bus blew up and you were nearby, and a decapitated head landed on your lap, and you only had a minor bruise, then you are not a victim at all. Psychological injuries don’t count, even if you wake up screaming every night, and can’t hold a job because you are way too jumpy, and burst out crying every once in a while. Then you’re not a victim. Rabbi Avner deals with hundreds of people like this young man. (I know you don’t believe me. But a psychologist from a Washington group that we met with visited Hadassah Hospital, and she told me that they told her the same thing—psychological wounds don’t make you an official victim.)

No trip to Jerusalem would be complete without a visit to Yad Lekashish, the Lifeline for the Elderly, just outside the walls of the Old City. Started by Myriam Mendelow in 1979, who saw the elderly sitting at home with nothing to do, Lifeline is now a campus with a dozen different workshops, each teaching a craft to the elderly, who come to work, socialize, get a hot meal and some medical attention, but above all, to stay so busy that “they forget to die.” Woodworking, bookbinding, ceramics, silk painting, printing, sewing, embroidering, metal work—each workshop creates works of art that are sold in the giftshop, which uses the proceeds to pay the elders (everyone gets paid, irrespective of what they produce) and support the institution. Of course, sales only cover a portion of the costs (and sales are down because tourism is down). But what an opportunity to see how old people celebrate life by being productive! In the past, we’ve commissioned Lifeline to make a parochet (ark curtain) for the Beit David Highland Lakes Synagogue, so we can be reminded every day about the sanctity of life. They also make custom kippot, and a wide variety of tallesim. Their new print shop is doing the thank you cards for Sara’s Bat Mitzvah, and they made her a multi-colored silk tallit, with a Purim motif. (Yad Lekashish is at 14 Shivrei Israel St. in Jerusalem.

Our friend Arnie Draiman, of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund (check out to learn from Danny Siegel, a master tzedakah teacher, or email Arnie at introduced us to Beit Frankforter, which offers similar programs to Lifeline, but also provides more extensive medical and nutritional care, as well as computer and exercise classes for the elderly. Their workshops supply materials and instructions to the elderly, who make a variety of items, which they sell in the giftshop at very reasonable prices. In the Beit Frankforter gift shop, however, the proceeds from the sales go to the individual craftspeople, to supplement their income. So we bought all the adorable sewn and knitted baby clothes that they had on hand, and sent them up to Tzfat for Rena and Hanna to give out.

Beit Frankforter is not just about caring for the elderly—the elderly there have decided to take care of hungry kids. In a small kitchen just off the exercise room, they prepare sandwiches daily for hungry school children. When they first started the project and called around, every school denied that they had hungry children. But when one school accepted, and word got around, more and more schools requested to be added to the list. When we were there, they were making over 1000 sandwiches a month, and looking for funding to do more. Donations are welcome.
(80 Beit Lechem St., POB 10074 Jerusalem 93630).

Arnie also sent us to Mivaserret Tzion, a wealthy suburb of Jerusalem that also houses Israel’s largest absorption center, which caters solely to Ethiopian Jews. Because of their unique needs due to a vastly different culture and lifestyle as compared with Western immigrants, the Ethiopians are introduced to Israeli life separately. But what a contrast—the center is right next to a major modern mall! So you find a vibrant community that welcomes new immigrants weekly, who are still wearing the clothes they arrived with, shopping for familiar foods with a mortar and pestle in hand, side by side with an Arthur Murray Dance Studio!

We brought with us a box of school supplies—nothing fancy, basic calculators, pens and pencils, paper clips, binding clips, rubber bands, and the like—and they were ecstatic. It cost us about $50 at an office supply place here, and would have cost a little more at a store in Israel, but to these students, the supplies were luxuries they could not afford. To bring supplies, just show up—have the cab take you to the mall (Canyon Harel), but turn left onto Hayasim Street instead of right to the mall, to apartment 198. Or call 02-5338783 or 02-5338785.

An intriguing email led us to Yakim St., off Shmuel Hanavi, just a short walk from the Old City, between the Buhkarian neighborhood and busy Route 1, on a Thursday afternoon at 3:00. There, in a small plaza surrounded by apartments, were 300 blue plastic shopping bags, and dozens of people busily filling them with vegetables, breads, and groceries. The operation was overseen by Liora Tedgi and Judy Avraham Chai (a part-time paid fundraiser—she used to be a volunteer, but with five children of her own, she needed to work. She is the only paid staffer.). Liora and her husband Nissim and their ten children live upstairs, in the apartment with the “Terror Victims Support Center” banner hanging from the balcony.

Liora grew up in a tzedakah environment. As a small child, she would take meals that her mother prepared, and secretly bring them to people in need, so as not to embarrass them. She was taught to give with joy, with a happy face, so as not to make the recipient feel slighted. As an adult, she continued to do tzedakah work, while raising the children and working for the City. On Tu B’shevat, 2000, while standing at a bus stop, she became a victim of a “piguah” attack, when a passing bus blew up. She was pregnant at the time, and started bleeding. But it was not until later, when she gave birth, that she learned that she had been carrying twins, one of whom perished in the attack.

Terror is no stranger to Liora’s family. When you drive into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, on the side of the road you see rusted vehicles that are the remnants of the food convoys that were attacked by the Arabs in 1948. Liora’s grandfather and uncle both perished in these.

Liora turned being a victim into being an advocate and healer. Naming her effort “Or Meir and Bracha”, she plunged herself further in tzedakah work, vowing to help victims of terror. One project is the food program, with groceries that she buys or schnorrs. But she also does social work, reaching out to victims who have fallen between the cracks. Sometimes victims wait two years for final government assessment of their disabilities. In the meantime, their lives fall apart.

One of Liora’s clients is a girl who was six at the time of the attack. She spotted a man sweating profusely, and ran to the driver, shouting, “It’s him! It’s him,” and then the man blew himself up. Needless to say, there are huge psychological wounds here.

Another client is the family who lost their mother, a kindergarten teacher, on the #20 bus. To give the father a little time alone, the grandparents took the three children one weekend. The father, distraught with grief, lit the Shabbat candles, and a yartzeit candle, but they fell, and the house caught on fire. He perished. The government decided that the grandparents were too old to care for the children, and tried to put them in foster care. With Liora’s help, they remained with the grandparents, who receive just 6,500 shekels a month from the government to help with their care.

Another extended family lost eight children and parents in a “piguah” in 2001 at a Bar Mitzvah celebration.

In another family, the attack left the breadwinner with shrapnel in his brain, which caused him to become mentally unstable. He refused psychological assessment, so his family receives no government aid. There are seven children to feed while the family appeals the decision.

Another man lost his legs in the Machane Yehuda market bombing several years ago. He became addicted to painkillers, and was able to shake the habit through a rehab program. Then, he lost five members of his family in another bombing. Liora arranged for him to remain in the rehab center for several more months, to deal with the shock. She provides food and money to his wife in the meantime.

And the list goes on. Orthopedic beds, baby strollers, clothing, Bar Mitzvah suits for orphans.

We met many surviving victims that afternoon, and the following Thursday as well, as they came to pick up their food. Liora’s cell phone rings constantly. We also met many volunteers among her neighbors, who help out. Liora had twins recently, Batya and Bracha—the maternity leave gave her time to focus more on her terror victims. Someone donated funds to make a brochure and video CD, but you don’t get the full picture until you spend a few hours with her. (Send us an email, and we’ll send the CD to you. Or go to

We came for Shabbat dinner, just Sara and I, to celebrate Shabbat with Liora and Nissim, and nine of the ten children (all but two of which are under the age of thirteen), including the two infants. We had a great time, and Liora and Nissim (and two of the children), in the Jewish tradition of honoring their guests, walked us nearly all the way back to our hotel. On the way, she pointed out the site of a recent attack. It is very easy to visualize—you stand on a corner, and look across the main road—Route 1—a six lane urban main thoroughfare. Across the road is an Arab neighborhood. The terrorist came from there. He waited at the light, crossed the road, and walked a few feet to the bus stop. The bus came, he got on, and just as it turned the corner where we stood, he blew himself, and the bus, up. Quick, simple, no borders, very little time elapsed. Leaving an eternity of torment in the surviving victims’ lives.

In addition to more funding for ongoing programs and food, Liora, who does not take a salary, wishes for: money to buy a van to deliver food, another van to pick up food (her suppliers are not always on time, and they now charge to deliver), $25,000 to send surviving victims on holiday this summer (believe me, the break is needed), and half a million dollars to buy a building, so food distribution, counseling, etc., does not have to take place outside, on the street.

I spent some time asking Liora about her motivation. In addition to her upbringing, she speaks of her faith in G-d, G-d’s hand in bringing her surviving two-year old through the attack, and G-d allowing her to give birth to the infants (who are healthy, but whom doctors had advised her to abort because they claimed they were not viable). Her mother, the Rabbanite Sara, who has her hands full with her own tzedakah work, but who helps Liora as well, is a descendant of the Ben Ish Chai, a 19th century Iraqi rabbi and holy man, who was known for his good works, Torah knowledge, and devotion.

Clara Hammer is proof of the power that one person has to change the world.
In 1980, Clara, a retired schoolteacher living in Jerusalem, noticed a young girl ahead of her in the butcher shop receiving scraps of bones and thistle from the butcher. After the girl left, Clara commented: “It’s so nice of you to give those scraps to that girl—she must have a lot of pets to feed.” Replied the butcher: “It’s not for cats and dogs—it’s for her family. They have no money to buy meat, the father is disabled, and this at least she can mix with beans or in a soup for nourishment.” Horrified, Clara immediately ordered the butcher to give the girl two chickens a week, plus a pound of chopped meat, and to put it on her account every week. Most important, the butcher was not to tell the girl who her benefactor was.

Unfortunately, Clara had no budget for this, but she slowly spread the word of the need in the community, and donations trickled in. Now Clara feeds hundreds of people a week, nearly all of it anonymously, at the same butcher shop. We spent some time with Clara because the ways she lives and works is an important lesson. We support her through


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