Upon my arrival I met Yehuda Kohen, the home's director. I could immediately see the special qualities that motivated Kohen to dedicate the past 20 years of his life to giving children who come from broken homes the opportunity to overcome their disadvantages and live successful lives.
Despite the rumors and warnings, I strongly believed I could not only handle but also enjoy the opportunity to contribute to the lives of younger girls. However, when I received my first assignment as a counselor for the 10- to 12-year- olds, I felt less like a counselor and more like an outsider drowning in a sea of more than 200 children, all in desperate need of attention.
I admit, at first I did not exactly know how I would win their trust, especially since they seemed more inclined to seek out their Hebrew-speaking, year-round counselors than their American summer counselors. At the same time, I desperately wanted them to feel comfortable and safe with me and accept me into their "family." I realized it would take time, just as it does for any relationship.
For the first time in my life, I embraced the responsibility for people other than myself. I catered to my girls' needs from the time they woke up until they went to sleep. I focused on finding a way to reach them and prove my trustworthiness. When I introduced myself, my mind focused on one question: "How am I going to bond with these adorable girls?" They came from broken homes and had experienced horrors I could not even begin to fathom. To complicate matters further, they only spoke Hebrew, and my academics had not prepared me for the stress of recalling a second language while also relating in the ways these girls needed.
As days passed, I slowly found ways to break down some of the barriers. I listened (which improved my Hebrew) and studied their individual situations in order to determine the best way to show them, by listening and then offering feedback, that I could empathize with them. I ensured that they knew they could depend on me at all times. We connected as they told me stories about their past and why they live at Bet Elazraki rather than with their own families.
One day, as I waited for the bus to take me to Jerusalem on a Friday morning, I watched all the children board buses to visit family members for the weekend. I asked a head counselor named Shira what happens to the children who can't go to their parents' home. Shira told me about a 9-year-old girl named Sara who did not want to go home. She told Shira that when she went home two weeks ago to visit her family, her mother told her that she didn't want to see her again and didn't want to take care of her.
It was so difficult for me to imagine that this sweet loveable child was unwanted. How could Sara's parents be so cruel?
From that moment on, I decided to give Sara as much love and comfort as I could while I was there. I knew I could never replace her mother, but I wanted her to realize that she was special, she was wanted and she was loved. During the time I was there, we went on a number of different outings. I made sure that I paid special attention to her in an effort to make feel wanted and important.
When I left Bet Elazraki, I left behind Sara and some very special girls, along with a significant piece of myself. On the last day, Yehuda Kohen arranged a goodbye party for all the American counselors; there was not a dry eye in the room. The party crystallized my entire summer experience. Throughout the summer, I considered how I learned so much from this experience, but I had no idea how I impacted these young lives. Watching the children cry, clinging to us and begging us not to leave, I realized the power of selfless giving, an experience I had not discovered before this volunteer opportunity.
On my plane ride home I pondered how, in such a short period of time, I evolved from being a total stranger to 200 children to becoming part of a family I didn't even know existed. While my family back home differs in so many ways from the one I joined in Israel, I recognized that in the end, we're all family because we depend on each other for emotional support.
Lauren Weintraub is a senior at YULA Girls School.
Speak Up! Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to email@example.com.