Eli Yakobi’s office is impressive! Two cell phones lie on his desk beside the landline. As he answers them in tandem while firing off an e-mail, I look around. Official certificates and awards from governmental and private agencies grace the walls. I wait, expecting this busy man to give me history and stories about his Big Brother project. I got that, and much more.
Yad Eliezer was established thirty years ago. When Hadassa Viezel sent her daughters and friends to collect food for impoverished neighbors, she had no idea what was to become of their “little project.” They had stepped into a vacuum of need, and Yad Eliezer, named after Hadassa’s father, ballooned. In its first fifteen years, Yad Eliezer became known for delivering boxes of pantry essentials on a monthly basis, and subsidizing weddings. Today its many programs target various aspects of poverty in Israel.
Thirteen years ago someone came into the office concerned for her neighbor who couldn’t make ends meet. When a staff member went to appraise the situation he witnessed extreme privation. The fridge was empty – even the most basic items were missing. He offered the mother a monthly food delivery, but she had a more urgent request. “Never mind the food. We can continue to survive on bread and margarine. What I really need is a mentor for my son. I’m a single mother with no family or support. My ex-husband is not interested in taking responsibility for his children. My son has no one to take him to shul, no one to learn with, no one to teach him to be a Jewish man. Food? I will somehow find enough to survive. But what will become of my son?” Of course, Yad Eliezer provided. A warm and caring man was found to meet regularly with the boy, and that was the humble beginning of the Big Brother program.
A philanthropist heard this story and was deeply moved. He figured that if one needy boy found Yad Eliezer, there must be hundreds more who had not. (Little did he know that his initiative would bring this vital help to over 25,000 children.) He endowed Yad Eliezer with $50,000 to find more such boys and help them. A couple hundred pairs were soon arranged, and the experience was transformative for the Big Brothers, the Little Brothers, and the parents and families. However, the money soon ran out.
Dov Viezel, director of Yad Eliezer, turned to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He didn’t have funds to continue the program, but couldn’t imagine walking away from the great need that the Big Brothers filled. Cutting the food distribution to fund the mentoring program was also a heartbreaking idea. Rabbi Eli Yakobi tells me that although he was not working for Yad Eliezer at the time, Rav Chaim’s answer has been a guiding light. The Rav told them, “Take the funds from the food boxes and mentor the children. I haven’t heard about people dying from physical hunger, but I hear all the time about people dying from spiritual and emotional hunger.” He then blessed them with success and enough funding to continue both programs. And that is exactly what happened.
When Rabbi Yakobi began, 400 boys were being mentored, and his dream was to someday help 600. Today about 4,000 children are in the program, and 20,000 have graduated. The program is in its thirteenth year, and some “little brothers” have grown up and become “big brothers” themselves. The program exists in 35 cities, with regional directors, many of them teachers, principals, or community activists, who are familiar both with the children and the potential mentors in their hometown. They are instrumental in finding and matching participants. In each city, mentors get together for training and inspiration, and annual nationwide meetings provide presentations by leaders in the fields of education and psychology.
I asked Rabbi Yakobi how much the mentors are paid. His reply was more telling than an amount. “A mentor called to tell me that he was on the way to the funeral of his young charge’s father, who had suffered many long hard months from cancer. They had been hoping and praying for his recovery throughout the ordeal. He wanted to know what to say to the boy. What could he possibly say? I put him in touch with a psychologist whom I trust, who told him that there are no answers; all he can do is be there for the boy. That is just what he did. He was there with him and for him, at the funeral, the whole week of the shiva, and afterwards. Tell me, can I pay for such a thing? I give him $120 dollars a month; is that payment for his heart and soul?”