Ohel president emeritus and ombudsman Moishe Hellman (from left), with Ohel co-presidents Jay Kestenbaum and Mel Zachter

The organization is part of the vernacular; it is the name that soothes and comforts people and our community when there are challenges and even a crisis.

As you read these words, Ohel is servicing 14,000 people around the country who are dealing with a large variety of personal and familial difficulties that need to be addressed, sometimes on an emergency and immediate basis. At other times the need is the opposite; it requires patience and a long-term plan in order to be effective.

On November 24, at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan, the community has the opportunity to pay tribute to the 1,400 Ohel personnel who are on call to assist when help is needed.

We sat and talked with Ohel CEO David Mandel who along with his wife, Susan, will receive the Leadership Award at the annual event. David has been at the helm of Ohel for 24 years now, and other than some members of his board who are serving for even more years that that, there is probably no other personality who has the grasp of what Ohel means to the community and a sterling view of the vision for the group’s future.

Ohel was founded a half-century ago, in 1969, after communal leaders became aware of some families dealing with difficulties. It was essentially about foster care or finding temporary placements for children. From that practical and humble beginning, the organization grew and evolved as the community’s needs made it imperative for Ohel to answer the call.

While I am usually an admirer of the way our communities have managed to insulate and protect themselves over the years, the reality out there today is that the situations or even maladies that ail modern society in general have managed to seep into the frum community, which is largely the segment of the population that Ohel serves. David Mandel agrees with that assessment and says that this is precisely why it is so vital that Ohel maintains its visibility and availability as our communities require it.

He points out the conditions Ohel professionals deal with on a daily basis. They include trauma and anxiety, foster care, as stated previously, domestic violence, residential services, and more.

Moshe Hellman, the co-president of Ohel, says that he recalls hiring David almost 25 years ago and that at the time it was David who told him that just having the opportunity to meet with Rav Avraham Pam was an honor and a z’chus for him.

David Mandel, right, with OHEL Bais Ezra clients.

“You know people call me all the time about things that they need related to Ohel, and of course I try to do what I can,” Mr. Hellman said. “And that, by the way, is one of the things I asked David when we interviewed him: Will you be available whenever anyone calls? Because you know when people reach out to us it is usually an emergency situation.”

Moshe Hellman adds that not only did Mandel tell him to give anyone he wants his cellphone number but that in almost 25 years he has not disappointed him even once.

Most of Ohel’s funding is derived from state and federal allocations, but the organization still has to raise about $7 million annually to offset costs not covered by these governmental subsidies.

While many of the Ohel services offered seem rather basic and even traditional, the reality is that over the years the organization has had to rise to the occasion and keep in stride with the needs of the community. Sadly, one of those areas where Ohel is active over recent times is in the matter of domestic violence.

The scourge of domestic abuse has risen in the Jewish community just as it has in the rest of the country and probably around the world. There are, of course, a variety of ways to address these destructive issues, but when it comes to the need for immediate action as a result of an emergency or particularly tense situation, Ohel is there for a spouse who feels the need to move out of the home even temporarily.

Ohel has a residence and 20 beds for victims of domestic abuse. I inquired about whether the residence is just for women and whether there is one for men as well. David pointed out that, nationally, most of the time the women are the victims of domestic abuse, though he added that in about 15% of the cases the men are the victims.

There are many examples of what Ohel means to the community, and they are the answer to many of the questions that revolve around difficult family or personal situations. When discussing a family problem, someone will probably utter the words, “Call Ohel.”

Beyond some of the difficult matters that Ohel deals with daily, there are at least two public and shining examples of a dimension of Ohel that people are interested in identifying with in some fashion, most often as donors and supporters.

There is Bais Ezra — the residences that house the developmentally disabled people live and work in the community, attend local shuls, and participate in Jewish life.

One of the projects that is a pride and joy of our community is Camp Kaylie, endowed by Ohel benefactors Gloria Kaylie and her late husband, Harvey, a’h. The Kaylies have been a philanthropic dynamic duo for many years, and with Harvey’s passing two years ago, Gloria has redoubled the Kaylie family efforts to improve the lives of those who need our assistance.

Half the summer the camp in Wurtsboro, New York, serves girls and the other half houses boys. Since the demand for spots in the camp is so great there has been talk over the last few years about purchasing another camp so boys and girls can enjoy full summers having fun in the sun. To that David is noncommittal.

I asked David Mandel about his busy schedule and the effort to oversee such an enterprise. He sees as his mission in part to inform and educate the community about how doable it is to integrate special-needs children and adults into the mainstream community, and, at that, all agree that Ohel has excelled.

There is a great deal more that can be said about the extraordinary work of Ohel and their lay and professional leadership, whether it is addressing the scourge of suicide or drug abuse in the community, or the extensive and helpful elder care programs, outpatient clinics, lifetime care program, or school-based services.

On November 24, at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, the Jewish community has the opportunity to not just support Ohel monetarily but also to pay tribute to the honorees and simply say “Thank you.” 


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