TORONTO — Regesh Family & Child Services’ gala, Sparkle, Sizzle and Song, a musical tribute to Rabbi Yitzchak Witty, is being held March 1 at Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue.
Proceeds from the social service agency’s annual fundraiser – which is one of the organization’s main sources of revenue, and which this year includes an auction and “savoury delights” – will benefit the young people of Chezi’s Corner, a residential safe house for up to four Jewish boys. It’s named in memory of Yechezkel Scotty Goldberg, a Toronto native and therapist for at-risk Israeli youth who was killed in a bus bombing in Israel in January 2004.
The strictly kosher house, for youths between the ages of 15 and 24, gives residents the opportunity to live in a safe, caring, learning environment when living at home is not an option for them.
Edwin Schild, Regesh’s executive director, said the boys live in the house because of mental health or family problems, or because they need to acquire independent living skills.
The original mandate was for them to stay for six months, he said, but some have stayed as little as three months, while others have lived there for up to two years.
House parents Shlomo and Sharon Surkis, shlichim who teach at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT) and who have four children of their own, said the boys – there are now three living in the house – are treated like adults, and must be in school, at a job, or doing volunteer work.
“We all get up in the morning and leave for the day. No one stays home and sleeps,” Sharon Surkis said.
The boys can visit friends after school, she said, but they must be home for dinner three nights a week and must have Shabbat dinner with the family.
“The boys come from all backgrounds, and some know little about Judaism. They must respect our Shabbat, but after dinner, they can go out or go to their rooms and do what they want. Our only strong rule is that the house is kept strictly kosher.”
She said that some of the boys have lived without rules for many years. “We want them to live in a loving, caring family where everyone respects each other.”
One 15-year-old boy who has lived in the house for one year, said he used to take drugs, get to school late and skip curfew. “[The Surkis’] have helped me a lot. I care about myself now. I take the bus to school on time, and have worked hard enough in school to get out of the alternative education classes and into the regular stream. I feel proud of myself. I feel like I have a family here.”
Sharon Surkis said she and her husband spend a lot of time doing informal counselling. “If someone does something wrong, we try to teach them better behaviour. We don’t punish.”
Schild said that Regesh relies on money from the fundraiser to run the house – the agency provides everything for the boys from clothing to transportation – because it receives no government funding.
He said that Regesh did receive $150,000 in funding from the federal Department of Justice’s youth justice fund to implement a community-based program called Reconnection Youth.
As a pilot, Regesh will work with its local community partners, including the Toronto District School Board, to implement a peer group approach to work with at-risk youth.
Schild said that currently the agency is working with 12 youths on such issues as anger management, conflict resolution, self-esteem enhancement and decision making.
“As kids begin to feel better about themselves, they get in less trouble. We have found a reduction in drug usage, and an increase in their grades,” said Schild.
For information about Chezi’s Corner, to apply to be house parents – the Surkis’ are returning to Israel in June – or for tickets to the March 1 fundraiser, call 416-495-8832.