Eli Deri was 11 when social workers removed him from his troubled family and placed him in one of the homes run by Emunah, an Israeli charity.
His father was ill and disabled; his mother suffered from severe anxiety and had difficulty caring for her five children. Deri was shy and often bullied. He craved attention, which his overwhelmed mother could not give. He admits that he fought with her frequently, and often didn’t go to school.
Today, at 23, Deri is a personable, confident young man with dreams of becoming a professional musician. He says the seven years he lived at the Emunah Sarah Herzog Children’s Center in Afula, Israel, gave him the sense of belonging, guidance and love he needed, and he is forever grateful.
Local supporters of Emunah’s social and educational services for vulnerable children and their families warmly welcomed Deri at the annual fall gala of Emunah Montreal, which was held on Nov. 25 at Beth Zion Congregation.
His appearance put a face to how Emunah is altering the lives of kids who have known abuse, neglect or trauma. The organization runs five children’s centres around the country that are home to 1,000 boys and girls.
More than just putting a roof over their heads, Emunah’s multidisciplinary staff employ a variety of modern therapies, from the arts to animal care, to help the children overcome their pasts.
Proceeds from the evening will go toward the renovation of the Emunah Achuzat Sarah Children’s Home in Bnei Brak.
Deri told his story largely through song, playing guitar and singing in Hebrew and English, which he speaks well. His selections included “Yesterday” by the Beatles, which contrasted with his looking forward, and the Leonard Cohen anthem “Hallelujah,” which is what he says when he thinks of the opportunity he has been given.
He closed with the poignant ode “Aba,” which he wrote in gratitude to his father, shortly before he died in 2014.
Deri’s interest in music was kindled at the Afula centre. A teacher recognized his talent and helped him develop his skills. He learned to play the guitar and piano, and was the lead singer in the choir.
After he left, Deri served in the IDF as a combat soldier in a tank corps and played in the army band. Today, he still lives in Afula, in northern Israel, and holds down two jobs: waiter and gas station attendant.
He is saving money to go to college to study music.
Deri was joined at the gala by World Emunah director Shlomo Kessel, who served as the director of the Afula home when Deri lived there. Their mutual admiration and affection were evident.
“Shlomo helped me believe in myself,” Deri said.
The South African-born Kessel has worked for 38 years for Emunah, which has its roots in the religious Zionist movement. He started as a 19-year-old at what he thought would be a two-month job.
“In those four decades, I have learned (a number of) lessons from the children: one, dreams often get lost in the fight for survival – Emunah provides the conditions that enable children to believe in a better future; and, two, everyone has a story and deserves to have the opportunity to tell it,” he said.
“The majority of the thousands of children have a happy outcome. They are heroes. Eli is an inspiration.”
The Achuzat Sara Children’s Home, which opened in 1955, is in dire need of upgrading, guests were told. It houses 100 boys and girls in 10 units, one of which Emunah Canada has undertaken to renovate.
Due to government cutbacks, private support is essential to carry out this work. Only two of the 10 units have so far been upgraded thanks to Emunah supporters abroad.
A video made clear just how rundown and even unsafe the dormitories have become. That was confirmed by Emunah Montreal co-president Valerie Gross, who recently visited the site.
“There is mold in the bathrooms, fixtures are falling apart, conditions we would never accept in our own homes,” she said.
“This is not a shelter, it’s a place to heal. Lives are being rebuilt by learning trust and self-worth.… The cycle of trauma is broken. Graduates form healthy relationships and make stable homes of their own.”