Eli Yakobi’s office is impressive! Two cell phones lie on his desk beside the landline. As he answers them in tandem while firing off an e-mail, I look around. Official certificates and awards from governmental and private agencies grace the walls. I wait, expecting this busy man to give me history and stories about his Big Brother project. I got that, and much more.
Yad Eliezer was established thirty years ago. When Hadassa Viezel sent her daughters and friends to collect food for impoverished neighbors, she had no idea what was to become of their “little project.” They had stepped into a vacuum of need, and Yad Eliezer, named after Hadassa’s father, ballooned. In its first fifteen years, Yad Eliezer became known for delivering boxes of pantry essentials on a monthly basis, and subsidizing weddings. Today its many programs target various aspects of poverty in Israel.
Thirteen years ago someone came into the office concerned for her neighbor who couldn’t make ends meet. When a staff member went to appraise the situation he witnessed extreme privation. The fridge was empty of even the most basic items were missing. He offered the mother a monthly food delivery, but she had a more urgent request. “Never mind the food. We can continue to survive on bread and margarine. What I really need is a mentor for my son. I’m a single mother with no family or support. My ex-husband is not interested in taking responsibility for his children. My son has no one to take him to shul, no one to learn with, no one to teach him to be a Jewish man. Food? I will somehow find enough to survive. But what will become of my son?” Of course, Yad Eliezer provided. A warm and caring man was found to meet regularly with the boy, and that was the humble beginning of the Big Brother program.
A philanthropist heard this story and was deeply moved. He figured that if one needy boy found Yad Eliezer, there must be hundreds more who had not. (Little did he know that his initiative would bring this vital help to over 25,000 children.) He endowed Yad Eliezer with $50,000 to find more such boys and help them. A couple hundred pairs were soon arranged, and the experience was transformative for the Big Brothers, the Little Brothers, and the parents and families. However, the money soon ran out.
Dov Viezel, director of Yad Eliezer, turned to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He didn’t have funds to continue the program, but couldn’t imagine walking away from the great need that the Big Brothers filled. Cutting the food distribution to fund the mentoring program was also a heartbreaking idea. Rabbi Eli Yakobi tells me that although he was not working for Yad Eliezer at the time, Rav Chaim’s answer has been a guiding light. The Rav told them, “Take the funds from the food boxes and mentor the children. I haven’t heard about people dying from physical hunger, but I hear all the time about people dying from spiritual and emotional hunger.” He then blessed them with success and enough funding to continue both programs. And that is exactly what happened.
When Rabbi Yakobi began, 400 boys were being mentored, and his dream was to someday help 600. Today about 4,000 children are in the program, and 20,000 have graduated. The program is in its thirteenth year, and some “little brothers” have grown up and become “big brothers” themselves. The program exists in 35 cities, with regional directors, many of them teachers, principals, or community activists, who are familiar both with the children and the potential mentors in their hometown. They are instrumental in finding and matching participants. In each city, mentors get together for training and inspiration, and annual nationwide meetings provide presentations by leaders in the fields of education and psychology.
I asked Rabbi Yakobi how much the mentors are paid. His reply was more telling than an amount. “A mentor called to tell me that he was on the way to the funeral of his young charge’s father, who had suffered many long hard months from cancer. They had been hoping and praying for his recovery throughout the ordeal. He wanted to know what to say to the boy. What could he possibly say? I put him in touch with a psychologist whom I trust, who told him that there are no answers; all he can do is be there for the boy. That is just what he did. He was there with him and for him, at the funeral, the whole week of the shiva, and afterwards. Tell me, can I pay for such a thing? I give him $120 dollars a month; is that payment for his heart and soul?”
The phone beeps, and Eli answers a call from the mayor of Emanuel. I am already impressed by this busy man, juggling so many responsibilities with so much heart and vigor, but the next story, and the way he told it, taught me even more.
“One mentor in Bnei Brak had invited his ‘little brother’ many times to join his family for Shabbos, but it was months before they heard the gentle knock on the door. When the boy finally came, they asked what had taken so long. He said that he had come to the door many times, but was too shy to knock. They welcomed him warmly, touched that he had finally built enough trust to visit. After a pleasant Shabbat meal with singing and delicious food, the man helped his wife clear the table. When he came back into the room, the boy was crying such heaving sobs that he couldn’t even talk. The man was horrified. Had he done something wrong? It took the boy a few minutes to calm down enough to get a few words out. ‘No, you didn’t do anything wrong. Everything’s wrong... Why can’t my family be like this!? This is so beautiful! Why is this the first time that I’ve seen a Shabbat like this? Why can’t I have this?’ When the boy calmed down, he told them that his father brings home a little food from a soup kitchen, his siblings fight over it, and when it is gone he goes out to the streets to find leftovers to tame his hunger. ‘Can you imagine?’ the mentor asked me. ‘He looked so normal, I had no idea!’”
Rabbi Yakobi wipes his tears as he continues. He tells me about the families that come to him, but I have a hard time concentrating. I am flushed with emotion and touched by the concern that brings help to thousands, yet sees each one as an only child.
“They come to us so broken, so bitter, knowing nothing of trust and warmth. I have hundreds of orphans. Others have divorced parents, or a parent or sibling is battling illness. Many parents are new immigrantswith no family support. Do you know what trust means to such a child? I thought I had heard it all; then I heard this...
“A mentor was set up with a new boy from a very difficult family situation. The mentor extended himself, trying to connect with the quiet, shy boy. One day he asked if the boy needed anything in particular. The boy answered, ‘Yes, I’m going to be bar mitzvahsoon, and I have no tefillin, no new clothes, nothing.’ The mentor decided that he would make sure the boy had a proper celebration. That night he discussed the situation with his wife. His neighbor was a sofer; he would ask him for a discount, and they would ask their families to raise money for the tefillin. He would ask Yad Eliezer to provide new clothes, and ask neighbors to help prepare the meal. The school principal could let them use the dining room. The following morning the principal met with his request with a raised eyebrow. ‘He told you that his bar mitzvah is coming? His birthday is next month, but it is his twelfth.’ He called the boy in. The boy confessed that he had misled his mentor, but explained, ‘I was afraid the program would end and you would disappear from my life. I figured it would be best to have my bar mitzvah now while I have a chance...’ Just imagine! What has this boy’s life taught him about trust? I traveled to the town, met with the mentor, the principal and the boy and promised him that come what may, he would have a nice bar mitzvah at the right time.”
“Where does the funding come from?”
“Some funding comes from foundations, and recently, from the municipalities where we work. If the boys don’t get help and end up in the street, it costs the cities much more. We have a matching arrangement with the Wolfson Foundation and with the municipalities. When a donor sends $100, the foundation and the municipalities also send $100 each, so that donation is worth $300. When a donor sponsors one kid, three kids will get big brothers. It’s an amazing opportunity to make a donation go a long way. Some donors ‘adopt’ a boy, paying for his mentor for the year. In those cases we send regular updates on the child’s progress. Our donors see this program as a unique opportunity to intervene at a critical point and change the life-course of our children. It’s an investment that brings huge returns.”
Again the phone rings; Eli shoots off an email.
“A young man told me he wants to be a big brother. I asked how he heard of us, and he asked me whether I recognized him. Ten years earlier, as the son of divorced impoverished parents, he was suffering socially and academically, and had received a mentor from Yad Eliezer. I asked if he is still in touch with his mentor. He laughed. ‘He’s like my father! I talk to him all the time!’ I asked him when he knew that the relationship with his mentor was real and lasting. He said, ‘One day he looked through my backpack. There wasn’t much ? a torn pencil case, half a broken pencil, a few ratty notebooks. He took me to the stationary store where he picked up a stack of notebooks. He stuffed nice pencils, erasers and markers into a new pencil case until it overflowed. He paid for it all from his pocket. Embarrassed, I asked him why he was doing this. He told me, “You’re a smart kid. I want you to have supplies like all the other kids.” Then I knew that he really cared about me.’
“I told the young man to wait as I checked his file in the computer,” continued Rabbi Yakobi. “Sure enough, I found in the log kept by his mentor that he had taken him to buy school supplies, and since then, his little brother had opened up to him. This ‘little brother’ is now a ‘big brother’ passing on the legacy.”
After the Big Brother program’s first decade, an outside study surveyed 1000 graduates (100 randomly selected from each year of the program). Given the students’ troubled family and school situations, it could not be taken for granted that they would succeed in life. A whopping 87% were in school or holding down a job. For such an at-risk group the figures are a powerful testament to the success of the project.
“Recently a bridegroomcame in on his wedding day. I often get wedding invitations, but an invitation in person on the day of the wedding? That was a first! He came together with his mentor, and said, ‘My father is in jail ? with good reason. My mentor is the only father I know. Tonight he and his wife will walk us to the chuppah.If not for you, I don’t know where I would be today ? certainly not where I am ? more likely where my father is. I had to invite you in person.’ Then the mentor asked if I recognized him. I did. I had arranged for him to have a mentor when he was sixteen years old and still could not read. I was moved to hear that he is working, getting a good education and heading a family. ‘I learned to invest in a child,’ he said, ‘from you.’”
Our interview had ended, but I had one more question for Rabbi Yakobi. “Forgive me if this is a little personal, but I have to ask. Did something in your background attract you to this work?”
“Thank G-d, I grew up in a regular family. Both my parents worked in education and we had dozens of ‘adopted siblings’ who became part of my family. Today all my siblings are involved in education; perhaps it’s in my blood.”
“Well, in that case, your parents must be very proud to have 25,000 grandchildren.”