Feature Stories

Home for the Holidays

Five years ago, “Tali” and her sister were removed from their home by the Israeli court system after sustaining injuries at the hand of their abusive father.

Their mother, weak and unable to provide for them, was denied custody, and the pair was placed in a residential facility when extended family turned down the girls because of the stigma associated with the court action.

It’s a disturbing situation faced by about 12 percent of the 7,000 Israeli children who live in residential facilities. For 850 Israeli youth, there’s no one to spend time with during weekends and school holidays.

Enter Ashalim, the Association for Planning & Development of Services for Children and Youth At Risk & Their Families — a partnership among JDC, the Government of Israel, and UJA-Federation of New York.

Ashalim works to support and protect at-risk youth through formal education initiatives, youth entrepreneurship and employment programming, alternative learning spaces, community-building models, and programs that help engender safe home environments and healthy relationships between parents and children.

One of its newest initiatives – “Home Away From Home,” which began last year – pairs children like Tali with volunteer host families. About 400 families host children from boarding schools throughout Israel, caring for them during school breaks for Chanukah, Sukkot, Passover, summer, and more, and teaching them holiday traditions.

“Home Away From Home” works by constantly recruiting new host families, matching children with the right family for them, training families to provide warm, stable, long-lasting environments, and creating links between residential facility staff and program participants.

All volunteer host families must have experience raising their own children before taking in the residential facility students, said Sarit Wiesel, Ashalim program manager.

“A big warm heart is the first part,” she said.

For Tali to agree to participate in the program this year was something of a “Chanukah miracle,” Wiesel said.  In the past, she’d refused to visit a host family, though her younger sister had.

Though she did not stay with a host family this year, she did visit during several nights of Chanukah, attending holiday meals and helping to light candles.

“We’re giving these kids the opportunity to have a stable, warm family experience they can then model one day when they have families,” Wiesel said.

“Home Away From Home” works in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs, Yeladim: Fair Chance For Children Association, and various other non-profit organizations and residential facilities in Israel.

Ashalim is generously supported by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “Home Away From Home” is generously supported by the Jacob and Charlotte Lehrman Foundation.

Tags for this story: Families, Youth / Young Adults, Children

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