By Toby Klein Greenwald
There is something humble and attractive about a foundation not naming itself after its founders or main donors but giving itself a Hebrew name that means “Gift of G-d.” I spent a glorious, mind-expanding day recently at the annual Matanel Israeli retreat in Kfar Maccabiah, where their fellows and project directors came together to share what was new, what was different, what progress had been made since they last met, and their future dreams.
The projects were varied — geographically, religiously, and in every other way — but they all shared the principles of diversity, expansiveness, inclusiveness, and bridge-building. Represented were pre-military training academies (mechinot) that accept participants from varied religious backgrounds, educational programs that integrate weak and strong students, a project promoting universal accessibility, programs that advance science and culture for the wider population, new academic publications, extraordinary social-services programs, and more.
The more unusual projects include the first Arab youth village in Israel and JustSpirulina, a project for sustainable super-food in the Congo. The Matanel Foundation was founded by Joëlle Aflalo and Gad Boukobza with Rav Adin Steinsaltz. It operates in Israel, but it also works in Europe, Africa, and South America. “It was in my DNA; I had to give and create the keli (the vessel), and G-d fills it, and then try to do the best according to the best of [my] abilities,” Aflalo said.
I would like to focus on three particular projects that moved me deeply.
Tenufa Bakehila (tenufa.org) This organization was created in 1993, originally as part of the Livnot U’Lehibanot project in Tzfat. In 2014 it became an independent nonprofit organization that identifies and renovates living quarters, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, that are in a deplorable state. This helps their owners find new self-respect and the ability to move forward in their lives, personally and professionally. The significance of their work cannot be underestimated; it’s along the same lines of those organizations that do not just provide charity, but help the recipients get back on their feet. They also employ social workers who help the families in the areas of health, welfare, and employment. They currently operate in 11 cities and, according to its executive director, Gabi Nahmani of Alon Shvut, “The organization has helped 4,500 families so far [i.e., that is the number of homes they have repaired] and is ready to expand to 20 more cities in the heart of Israel.”
They employ professional skilled tradesmen whose work, they say, includes repairing moldy, peeling, and crumbling walls and ceilings, leaky roofs, hazardous electrical and plumbing problems, door and window frames, loose tiles, kitchen counters and cabinets, and more.
Nahmani notes what he calls “a heartbreaking catch-22 situation. These families often obtained ownership of their homes through government programs, but now, because they own their homes, they are ineligible for aid. With no ability to afford even basic repairs, these families find themselves living in terrible conditions with no viable alternative.”
Noga Fisher of Efrat, a member of the administrative team, shared the following stories:
An IDF officer contacted Tenufa Bekehila because he was worried about one of his new paratroopers. When visiting his home, he saw that the apartment was falling apart. The father passed away two years earlier and the mother had a teenage girl, younger brother, and adult autistic son living at home. She could not afford to make repairs. The home had crumbling walls, missing doors, a broken shower, a broken window, leaks in the water pipes, rotten kitchen cabinets, broken faucets, and more.
The Tenufa workman spent two weeks repairing everything that was broken in the apartment, giving the family a new lease on life.
In a heartbreaking case, Tenufa Bakehila was called in by Kiryat Gat’s social-services department as part of an attempt to keep a family together, despite the “letter of the law,” which would have required the family to give up its four small children for adoption.
The small apartment was originally home to a widowed grandmother, her two mentally-ill adult sons, her divorced daughter, and the daughter’s four young children. The deteriorating physical condition of the home exacerbated the mental condition of the adult sons, leading to violent rages that destroyed most of the home’s furniture and doors. Social Services institutionalized the sons, adding a deep psychological level to the physical damage that had already been inflicted on the family.
After the sons were removed from the family setting, the apartment continued to deteriorate. Among other problems, an unrepaired clog in the drainage system resulted in a backup that left standing, rancid water in the shower that leached into the rest of the bathroom, and from there into the walls.
When the city’s social-service agency discovered the severity of the situation, they removed the children and placed them in foster care. In parallel, they held an emergency planning session to determine its next steps.
With the goal of returning the children to their mother, Kiryat Gat’s social-services department formed a plan of action whose centerpoint was the availability of Tenufa Bakehila’s services.
Tenufa Bakehila provided the work and materials required to bring the apartment up to a decent standard and provided ongoing social services to support the traumatized family. Given this commitment, the social-services department was ready to begin a process that it hoped would eventually lead to the restoration of the family.
After the physical renovation of the home was completed, Kiryat Gat’s social-services department determined that the four children could return for home visits on weekends and holidays. Tenufa Bakehila’s own social worker maintains close touch with the grandmother and mother, helping them prepare for these visits.
While permission has not yet been granted for the permanent return of the children to the family, the situation has improved dramatically. The traumatized mother and grandmother now look at life with a more positive outlook with the knowledge that their children may soon be able to return home for good.
These are just two of thousands of stories from the past 25 years.
To Be Continued …
Check back with 5TJT.com for more of Toby Klein Greenwald’s favorite projects from the Matanel Israeli retreat. Toby Klein Greenwald is a regular contributor to the 5 TJT, is a journalist, playwright, educator, and the recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award from Atara, The Association for Torah and the Arts.