The phone beeps, and Eli answers a call from the mayor of Emanuel. I am already impressed by this busy man, juggling so many responsibilities with so much heart and vigor, but the next story, and the way he told it, taught me even more.
“One mentor in Bnei Brak had invited his ‘little brother’ many times to join his family for Shabbos, but it was months before they heard the gentle knock on the door. When the boy finally came, they asked what had taken so long. He said that he had come to the door many times, but was too shy to knock. They welcomed him warmly, touched that he had finally built enough trust to visit. After a pleasant Shabbat meal with singing and delicious food, the man helped his wife clear the table. When he came back into the room, the boy was crying such heaving sobs that he couldn’t even talk. The man was horrified. Had he done something wrong? It took the boy a few minutes to calm down enough to get a few words out. ‘No, you didn’t do anything wrong. Everything’s wrong… Why can’t my family be like this!? This is so beautiful! Why is this the first time that I’ve seen a Shabbat like this? Why can’t I have this?’ When the boy calmed down, he told them that his father brings home a little food from a soup kitchen, his siblings fight over it, and when it is gone he goes out to the streets to find leftovers to tame his hunger. ‘Can you imagine?’ the mentor asked me. ‘He looked so normal, I had no idea!’”
Rabbi Yakobi wipes his tears as he continues. He tells me about the families that come to him, but I have a hard time concentrating. I am flushed with emotion and touched by the concern that brings help to thousands, yet sees each one as an only child.
“They come to us so broken, so bitter, knowing nothing of trust and warmth. I have hundreds of orphans. Others have divorced parents, or a parent or sibling is battling illness. Many parents are new immigrantswith no family support. Do you know what trust means to such a child? I thought I had heard it all; then I heard this…
“A mentor was set up with a new boy from a very difficult family situation. The mentor extended himself, trying to connect with the quiet, shy boy. One day he asked if the boy needed anything in particular. The boy answered, ‘Yes, I’m going to be bar mitzvah soon, and I have no tefillin, no new clothes, nothing.’ The mentor decided that he would make sure the boy had a proper celebration. That night he discussed the situation with his wife. His neighbor was a sofer; he would ask him for a discount, and they would ask their families to raise money for the tefillin. He would ask Yad Eliezer to provide new clothes, and ask neighbors to help prepare the meal. The school principal could let them use the dining room. The following morning the principal met with his request with a raised eyebrow. ‘He told you that his bar mitzvah is coming? His birthday is next month, but it is his twelfth.’ He called the boy in. The boy confessed that he had misled his mentor, but explained, ‘I was afraid the program would end and you would disappear from my life. I figured it would be best to have my bar mitzvah now while I have a chance…’ Just imagine! What has this boy’s life taught him about trust? I traveled to the town, met with the mentor, the principal and the boy and promised him that come what may, he would have a nice bar mitzvah at the right time.”
“Where does the funding come from?”
“Some funding comes from foundations, and recently, from the municipalities where we work. If the boys don’t get help and end up in the street, it costs the cities much more. We have a matching arrangement with the Wolfson Foundation and with the municipalities. When a donor sends $100, the foundation and the municipalities also send $100 each, so that donation is worth $300. When a donor sponsors one kid, three kids will get big brothers. It’s an amazing opportunity to make a donation go a long way. Some donors ‘adopt’ a boy, paying for his mentor for the year. In those cases we send regular updates on the child’s progress. Our donors see this program as a unique opportunity to intervene at a critical point and change the life-course of our children. It’s an investment that brings huge returns.”