Four children and 17 grandchildren of Murray and Linda Laulicht of West Orange joined them in the Negev town of Ofakim during Passover to dedicate a new center for at-risk teens and younger children underwritten by their family.
The facility is expected to change lives in the development town that is partnered with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program.
The Linda and Murray Laulicht Center for Children and Youth will soon begin providing homework help, counseling, and a hot meal to children identified by social services as at risk. It will also serve as a gathering place for informal teen activities. The youngsters and their parents will also attend workshops at the building’s community education kitchen on how to eat nutritionally on a low budget.
The center’s goal is to help children become responsible adults who will be able to serve in the IDF, enter the work force, and become functional members of Israeli society. It also aims to keep the children together with their parents rather than sending them to a harsher enviroment, such as a reform school.
“We are proud to fulfill the mitzva of loving your neighbor as yourself,” Murray Laulicht said at the dedication ceremony, surrounded by his grandchildren. “These children are our investment; no matter what happens with Linda and me, it won’t end with us. They will do what they can to help build a better world the way God put us on this earth to do.”
Laulicht said it was special for his family members — including his daughter, Shelly Davis, who lives with her family in the Israeli town of Efrat — to come together in Ofakim, which has been connected to MetroWest since 1996 when he was the president of the federation.
Laulicht said the couple adopted the project after visiting a youth center in the Negev city of Be’er Sheva and decided that Ofakim deserved a similar facility. They particularly wanted to tackle the problem of malnutrition in Israel and so included the focus on nutrition education.
“We want to help the people of Ofakim spend their food budgets most efficiently and nutritionally,” Laulicht said. “We saw the enthusiasm when the kids and parents were discussing the ideal menu in Be’er Sheva. We wanted parents and kids to work together in Ofakim as well.”
The youth center was built on the former site of an abandoned building where derelict Ofakim teens had loitered at all hours of the night. The Laulichts visited the site several times to monitor the building process.
“Two years ago this place was nothing,” Murray Laulicht said. “I hope people will soon see Ofakim as a model for other places throughout Israel. That would take our partnership with Ofakim to the next level.”
Laulicht thanked the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Ofakim municipality, which partnered with UJC MetroWest on the project. Representatives of the JDC and Ofakim expressed gratitude to the Laulichts at the ceremony.
Dr. Rami Sulimani, the director-general of Ashalim, the JDC division that helps at-risk youth, said the Ofakim center would indeed be a model for other cities in Israel. He said his organization sponsors programs throughout the country to give a warm environment to children who do not get enough support at home.
“Seeing such a nice building will empower the children,” Sulimani said. “It’s a great opportunity to give underprivileged children the basics that our children receive. We appreciate that the Laulichts insisted on building the facility here in Ofakim. Thanks to their generosity, hundreds of children will benefit. People like them make Israel a better place.”
JDC senior international relations associate Russell Wolkind said it was symbolic that the building was inaugurated on Passover, because “the kids who will be served here don’t realize yet that they have the ability to be truly free.”
Ofakim educational director Avi Bitan called the building “a gift from God” and the Laulichts, terming it “a life preserver for the youth of this city.”
“This house is one of the highlights of the ongoing relationship between the Laulichts and this city,” said Ofakim Mayor Tzvika Greengold. “This house fits our vision for the city. You are giving us the power to continue to develop our community.”
Greengold, who is an Israeli military hero, brought up the rocket attacks on southern Israel that have landed near Ofakim in recent weeks and the new Iron Dome anti-missile defense system that has successfully shot down rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
“The Iron Dome is important,” he said, “but this building is the social welfare ‘iron dome’ for Ofakim.”
Amir Shacham, UJC MetroWest’s associate executive vice president, Israel and overseas, said the Laulicht “tribe” is an important part of the Ofakim family.
“Helping each other is what a family does,” he said. “Ofakim and MetroWest are part of one family. In building this building, we connect to our family and become one.”
Davis and two of the Laulichts’ granddaughters also spoke at the ceremony. Davis thanked her parents for their love and support for Jews around the world. “This building will be a special place,” she said. “When I think of a home, I think of love, support, and security. All the people that work here will provide that love.”