Sometimes all it takes is a few words or a little touch to ignite a motherly connection.
In the case of Daphna Ziman, it was a little touch. A friend of hers needed to do community service in 1993, so Ziman took the friend to a charity that Ziman supported, the Sunlight Mission in Santa Monica. Ziman recalls seeing little cubicles with tiny cots along the walls.
Beneath the sheets, she could see kids, some sleeping with their drug-addicted or battered mothers, others alone.
As she passed through the kitchen, which prepared thousands of meals a day for the local homeless, she crossed a patio area, where she saw a young girl sleeping on a bench. She approached the girl, who Ziman says looked like a “ragamuffin” with dreadlocks and a caked face. Sensing a human presence, the girl opened her big green eyes and stared right at Ziman. After a short pause, with hardly any words spoken, the girl reached out to Ziman’s hands, holding tight.
It was at that moment that Ziman realized it would be very hard to let this kid go.
So she didn’t. After a long period of mentoring and legal wrangling, Michele became Ziman’s adopted daughter. But Ziman also knew that thousands of other abandoned kids were still out there, longing to hold the hand of someone who would protect them. So she rallied all her Hollywood and political connections and started up, along with her friend and mentor Hillary Clinton, Children Uniting Nations, an organization that promotes the mentoring of disadvantaged kids.
The organization is now involved with everything from lobbying Washington for legislation to strengthen children’s rights, to sponsoring neurological research to reduce dependence on drugs like Ritalin, to training mentors and monitoring the progress of the kids.
I checked out one of their signature events last November, Day of the Child, a large outdoor festival for several hundred mentors and mentees that takes place near the Santa Monica Airport. It turns out that the Sunlight Mission, where little Michele first reached out to hold Ziman’s hand, is only a few minutes away. Now, 17 years later, thousands of disadvantaged and abandoned kids have been the beneficiaries of that little moment.
Six years after Ziman’s 1993 visit to the Sunlight Mission, in the little Israeli town of Hadera, a girl in her late teens named Michal was at a bus station ordering a slice of pizza. She was waiting with her girlfriend for a bus to take them to Eilat for a little vacation.
But before she could get her change back from the pizza vendor, a terrorist bomb went off, killing Michal’s friend and leaving Michal in critical condition, without her legs.
I heard of Michal’s story last week from a woman named Aviva Tessler, who was in town to raise funds and awareness for her organization, Operation Embrace.
Tessler, who lives in Washington, D.C., first met Michal in the hospital a few months after the bombing. Tessler and her husband, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, were in Israel on a one-year sabbatical, and she went to the hospital that day to hand out mishloach manot (baskets of goodies), a ritual of Purim.
When she got to Michal, though, she couldn’t go on. Michal said something that slowed her down. The bombing had been front-page news in Israel, as were the scores of terrorist attacks happening all over Israel in those years. Michal had received many visitors in the first days and weeks after the attack, including members of the press. Now, she felt mostly alone.
“Don’t be a hi-bye friend,” she told Tessler.
This was Michal’s way of saying: “Don’t come to show me your love and then leave, never to be seen again.”
That little phrase got to Tessler. There was an old picture on the wall of Michal dancing in a disco with her boyfriend (who had already broken up with her), and Tessler saw an unspeakable sadness on Michal’s face.
She told herself at that moment that she wouldn’t become another “hi-bye” friend. So she kept in touch with Michal with regular visits and contributions to her rehabilitation, which she continues to this day.
And in Michal’s honor, Tessler founded Operation Embrace.
Over the past 10 years, Tessler’s organization has helped hundreds of terror victims in Israel, helping pay for medical care, post-traumatic counseling and rehabilitation therapy, as well as providing educational scholarships, adopt-a-family programs, free laptops and, of course, distributing hundreds of Purim baskets.
To keep all this going, Kessler goes to Israel about four times a year. She has become a ubiquitous presence in hospitals and shelters, especially in towns that have been the hardest hit, like Sderot.
I heard Ziman’s and Tessler’s stories about a week apart — Ziman’s at my Shabbat table, Tessler’s at a small theater in Beverly Hills. They are two Jewish mothers who don’t know each other but who share at least one trait in common: they are easily moved by little things. Ziman was moved by a little touch, Tessler by a little phrase.
It’s true that when you raise kids, you must learn when to let go. But sometimes, when the pain and trauma are so deep, what children need most is simply a mother like Daphna Ziman or Aviva Tessler to hold their hands ... and never let go or say “hi-bye.”
Happy Mother’s Day.