Chana Rusanov is playing Battleship with a little boy named Mor on a balmy Tuesday afternoon. The Fair Lawn resident, in Israel for a year of post-high school study, does not know her opponent well. She does know this: Mor is here because something so ugly happened in his young life that he had to be removed from his home.
Here at Sanhedria Children’s Home in the Old Katamon neighborhood, 40 boys like Mor hide histories of severe abuse and neglect behind shy smiles.
Not as well-known as similar institutions run by organizations such as AMIT and Emunah Women, Sanhedria has lately gained both financial support and volunteers from many North Jersey residents – mainly through the efforts of Englewood native Miriam Braun, director of program development at the home for the past five and a half years.
"What we are ‘selling’ is a chance to help children grow into circumstances better than the ones they were born into," says Braun.
Established in1943 as a refuge for child Holocaust survivors, the home is now a rehabilitation center for boys aged 6 to 15 years old. Referred by social services and juvenile courts all over the country – primarily in fervently religious communities – the boys live here in pseudo-family units with surrogate parents and go to 12 different schools deemed best suited to each one’s academic and emotional needs.
From the time they arrive at Sanhedria until they age out of the system, the race is on to mitigate the damage and return functional young men to society – even sometimes to their birth families. That task demands an almost super-human effort on the part of the professionals, but volunteers like Chana also make a difference.
"I feel it’s very worthwhile," says Chana, a graduate of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey and Manhattan High School for Girls.
Braun explained to Chana, as she does to each potential volunteer, that it is vital to commit to those two hours every single week. These are children who have consistently been let down by the adults in their lives.
"If you volunteer here, you can’t just decide in the middle of the year to stop," says Chana, who has three young siblings and ran Shabbat youth groups at Bris Avrohom Chabad of Fair Lawn.
Fellow RYNJ graduates Avri Szafranski and Moshe Blackstein of Teaneck – Torah Academy of Bergen County graduates studying at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in the Old City – come by on Thursdays to organize sports and games.
"I thought it would be difficult because my Hebrew isn’t great," said Avri, "but you don’t really need to talk much when you play ball with boys. I just know it makes me feel good that all of these kids are in a great place."
"At the end of the day, all these kids are coming from broken homes," said Moshe, who worked last summer at a camp for disabled children. "My goal is to walk onto the ball field or into the game room and turn their frowns upside down."
Bringing a visitor around the facility, Braun points out 9-year-old Gideon, who was taken away from his emotionally unstable parents three years ago. "I once asked him what he likes about living at Sanhedria," Braun relates. "He told me, ‘Here, I get to go to school. And when I come home from school there’s food and there’s someone to talk to.’ These kids come from horrific situations. Horrific."
While Braun’s job does not require her to interact with the boys, she relishes getting to know each one. They drop by her office for little "prizes," and she showers every child with encouragement and affection.
Given her feelings for Sanhedria, it is not surprising that a five-minute presentation she gave at Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue four years ago was all it took to get Dr. Steven David hooked. At the time, David had just rented an apartment in Old Katamon ahead of a six-month sabbatical, and was starting to look into charitable opportunities in the neighborhood. It was a perfect fit.
Sanhedria became a pet project for Steven and Eileen David. Last spring, they dedicated a playground there in memory of Eileen’s father, Howard Newman. Infected by the Davids’ enthusiasm, several other Englewood families have become supporters.
"It means so much to these kids who have so little," said David.
Rabbi Harvey Horn, principal for Jewish studies at RYNJ, organized a major school-wide fund-raiser for Sanhedria in 2007, raising nearly $10,000. In September, the school earmarked for Sanhedria the proceeds of its monthly tzedaka drive among the junior-high girls.
"We wanted our students to develop a real ‘kesher’ [connection] with our brothers and sisters in Israel and really feel that they were doing a real, tangible mitzvah of giving tzedaka," he said.
When people want to donate to Sanhedria and receive a tax deduction in the United States, Teaneck resident Elliot Rothschild handles the paperwork as a volunteer for American Friends of Sanhedria-Jerusalem. He became acquainted with the home in the mid-1980s, when a counselor at his post-high school yeshiva in Israel asked him to help raise funds.
"We saw that the money we raised to build the [original] basketball court was used for just that purpose, and the money we raised for soccer equipment and a swimming program also went to those purposes," says Rothschild. "Years later, we were asked to raise money for bedroom sets, and when I went to visit they were in the middle of assembling them. Often with a charity you feel the money goes into a general pot and you never know what happens to it. At Sanhedria, I know it gets spent as it should."
But as the teen volunteers know, the Sanhedria boys need more than checks.
Teaneck native Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, student activities coordinator at Lev Hatorah, a yeshiva for American post-high school students, brings his students to Sanhedria for an afternoon of fun once each year. During the most recent visit, Kaplan’s 76 students – some from North Jersey – got briefed by Braun and then plunged into balloon-popping, toilet-paper wrapping, ball games, singing, and stories with the residents.
"Our students love it," said Kaplan. "It means a lot to them because the kids are looking for ‘big brothers’ after all that happened in their lives."
For additional information, see http://www.sanhedria.co.il or call (866)-409-5718