The Power of Play: A Seminary Student’s Experience at a Jerusalem High Risk
Children’s Center

For many seminary students, “chessed jobs” comprise an
integral part of the Israel experience. These volunteer commitments allow for
further dimensions of spiritual maturation and a glimpse of Israeli society.

It was therefore with a mixture of anticipation and
apprehension that I volunteered to run a game room at Sanhedria Children’s Home.
Sanhedria is a rehabilitation center for boys aged 6-15 from extremely
disadvantaged backgrounds. These boys have been severely physically and
emotionally abused in their early childhood and are referred to Sanhedria by
Social Services and the High Court of Justice for Juveniles. Although I imagined
that the volunteering would inspire gratitude for my own lifestyle, I could not
visualize a deeper experience. How could an over privileged American girl relate
to young Israeli boys from dysfunctional families?

Thankfully, I had underestimated both Sanhedria and myself,
and most importantly the power of humanity and youth to transcend cultural
barriers. My experience at  Sanhedria proved to be rewarding on many
levels, and I only hope that I was able to return this experience to the boys
themselves.

Sanhedria is unique in that it simulates the setup of a foster
family. Each floor has a married couple, often with their own young children,
who provide a familial structure for the boys. Additional staff includes a
psychologist, social workers, an art therapist and selection of professional
extra curricular activity instructors. Throughout my volunteer experience, the
staff helped to facilitate my adjustment to the unique culture of Sanhedria with
friendly tips and smiles. The building itself is cheerful, the walls painted
bright colors and the stone steps worn with generations of footsteps. Each child
shares a room with several others, the walls decorated with pictures and awards.
The grounds have a playground, basketball court, and a large pre-fab trailer
where I was to hold “game room activities”, or mischakia, for two hours every
Tuesday afternoon. When I first began, this trailer as yet uncompleted and the
game room program was held in a small room on the top floor of the home itself.
After much anticipation, this beautiful play space was completed mid-fall
through the generous donation of a foundation.

Upon arrival, however, I knew none of this. Along with three
other volunteers, I was greeted by unfamiliar little faces roaming the halls in
post-school meltdown. Aided by the arts-and-crafts counselor, we attempted to
converse in our pidgin Hebrew with the children. I caught only a couple of the
names, and a combination of shyness and hyperactivity meant that few of the boys
were interested in coloring pictures sedately. Heading back to my dorm, few if
any of my misgivings had been allayed. I spent the week trying to think of ways
to amuse the boys, ways to overcome the gap in childhood experience that lay
between us. Sympathy and pity were clearly insufficient. I tried to imagine
myself a nine-year-old boy placed in a home – what would I want to do for two
hours with strange American girls? The answer seemed hardly obvious.

Through perseverance, affection, and sometimes
forced-exuberance, I began to realize that the gap I had perceived was a figment
of my imagination. These children
had remarkable resilience, and despite difficult backgrounds they had retained
their ability to enjoy games, projects, and the undivided attention of a friend.
The exuberance stopped being forced, and I looked forward to afternoons at
Sanhedria. The more time I spent interacting with the boys, the more they opened
up to me and my fellow volunteers, revealing their special personalities. One
boy had an amazing talent for puzzles and we spent hours making a shiny Pixar
puzzle. “I’m the expert at this, right?” he asked me, and I had to agree.
Another loved to play Monopoly – so much so that we eventually started hiding
the box so he would be distracted by other games. Other boys were happy to run
around in the yard and play soccer- my poor kicking skills were a source of much
amusement. However, my favorite activity was reading books to Daniel, an
adorable little boy with big blue eyes. After about ten minutes, he insisted on
sitting on my lap and turning the pages with me as we read pages of Hebrew text
that neither of us really understood. “You are spoiling him,” one of the
counselors said with a wink, and we both smiled- because that was exactly the
point. For two hours a week, my sole job was to spoil these boys rotten with
attention.

After our initial success, we began to get more ambitious in
our activities. I decided to try baking with the boys- not the most intuitive
choice, but I remembered how much my own little brother loved to make cookies
with me.

We started with chocolate-sprinkle cookie sandwiches, which
created a huge mess but were a resounding success. Anything involving food will
attract little boys, and these activities drew almost every child on the
premises. We moved on to chocolate covered pretzels, and for Purim everyone was
sticky with jam from hamentaschen baking. We also undertook more ambitious arts
and crafts projects, building a zoo of clay animals and making paper masks out
of plates.

These activities strengthened our bond with the boys, and as
the weeks went by they began to genuinely anticipate our arrival. They were
disappointed if we didn’t plan a special project or if we had to miss a visit
due to final exams or winter break. Children who had previously barely
interacted with us stayed to play for longer, and when a new child joined
Sanhedria, he also became a fan of the game room.

When the year ended, I was amazed at how much had changed.
Sanhedria had gone from being a “chessed” job to being a place full of unique
people who were doing their best to thrive despite setbacks. I felt privileged
to have contributed to a team effort to support and nurture these children. My
initial goals of spiritual maturation and personal gratitude had been far
surpassed by a deeper understanding of both my own abilities nd of the true
nature of chessed, acts of kindness that benefit both the giver and the
recipient.

My memories of Israel will always be colored with small faces
and personalities, with the quirks and foibles of my unusual group of boys. Now
back in America, I eagerly await the photographs of Sanhedria that arrive
periodically and look forward to visiting in the future.