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Orphaned Israelis celebrate bat mitzvah in Jerusalem

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It’s Torah as a whole that we celebrate on Shavuot, writes Rabbi Jay Kelman WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

For most girls, bat mitzvah is a time to look forward to. But for 42 Israeli girls who have lost a parent – for most, a father, killed in war or from terror – coming of age could have been a miserable time. But on Feb. 17, Colel Chabad welcomed the girls to a gala bat mitzvah party in Jerusalem – inviting them to come together, support one another and embrace joy.

“When girls are orphaned they might feel that they’re blemished, that they’re the broken one in their class,” Karen Fonfeder, originally from Los Angeles, and a mother of one of the girls, told The CJN.

According to Colel Chabad director Rabbi Yitzchak Chaim Marton, the event is most meaningful not because of what it gives the girls – but rather for what the girls, and their entire families, give one another. “We say that when they get together, ish et reyehu ya’azoru (each person helps others), they get strength from each other.”

Fonfeder agrees. “When they see other beautiful girls, functional girls, coming together at a very classy event, they see that they’re not alone, they’re not broken, there are other girls in the same position. The Almighty helps them go forward and smile and enjoy.”

After Fonfeder’s husband died suddenly of heart failure four and a half years ago, she says, “Colel Chabad reached out to me with gifts for my children. They sponsored swim classes for my children, music and choir for my boys. They did it with such generosity. So when they invited us to this event we knew it was going to be a five-star affair with a huge heart.”

When one parent dies, the surviving parent often feels a need to be strong and independent, proving to the world that she can stay in control for her children. Many hesitate to ask for help, but might accept it if they believe a program can help their children.

“When they come, they see beautiful families, beautiful children,” and this gives them hope that their lives, too, can improve, Marton says. That, in turn, sets the whole family on the road to resilience. “We see a big difference in each family, before they come to our programs and after.”

Many Colel Chabad programs, like social events and family retreats, put children’s needs first, creating a path back to normality and joy. The organization also holds a massive annual group bar mitzvah, which in 2019 brought in 120 boys from around Israel, including the son of American-born Israel activist Ari Fuld, who was stabbed to death in a 2018 terror attack.

“We see tremendous effects,” Marton says. The families “stay in contact, they call each other when they have downs. They invite each other to their simchas. It becomes like a family.”

Marton’s eyes light up when he describes the girls’ reactions, arriving at the bat mitzvah event. “You have to convince them to come, maybe they’re a little bit afraid. They come with their mother, their grandmother, some with friends. But once they come in and they see that it’s such a high level, and it’s all for them, they’re just so happy, they dance together … it’s beautiful.”

The gala bat mitzvah event, sponsored by Colel Chabad in conjunction with the Meromim Fund and Rabbi Yitzchak Mishan of the Bayit congregation in São Paulo, Brazil, is held each year on the yahrzeit of late Chabad Rebbetzen Chaya Mushka Schneerson. The event included gifts, jewelry, music, dancing and activities for the girls themselves, their family and friends, as well as an inspirational address by world-renowned speaker Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. In her talk, Mizrachi urged the girls’ mothers to fight for their own happiness even through the darkest times, knowing that children are happiest when their mothers are happy.

Fonfeder’s son celebrated his bar mitzvah with Colel Chabad last year, so her daughter was really looking forward to her own special day. “They gave the boys such gorgeous presents, they brought amazing pop singers, and politicians and rabbis. We knew the bat mitzvah was going to be a stunning event. I even brought my little girls because I knew it was going to be such an amazing affair.”

Supported by donors around the world, Colel Chabad was established in 1788 by the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, usually known as the “Alter Rebbe.” This makes it both the oldest and the largest charitable organization of its kind in Israel.

Other Colel Chabad programs include prepaid gift cards for groceries and clothing for Passover and educational scholarships. Beyond its programs for Israeli widows and orphans, the organization also provides summer camps for hospitalized children, subsidized weddings and care centers for people living with multiple sclerosis.

This year’s bat mitzvah celebration was a bittersweet one for Colel Chabad following the March 2019 death in a pedestrian accident of 80-year-old Rabbi Amram Blau, who for many years had led some of the organization’s most successful programs. The former director of education for Boys Town Jerusalem, Blau was known throughout Israel as “Father of Orphans.”

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