So that Israel doesn’t seem so far away for her young students, Tamara Ruben, the director of religious education at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, has sought out tzedaka projects they can relate to easily. She calls it “connecting little hearts across an ocean.”
Two years ago, members of the Conservative congregation in Cranford raised funds for HAMA, an Israeli organization that treats sick and injured animals and involves them in therapy for elderly Holocaust survivors.
This year, with guidance from Naomi Eisenberg, executive director of the micro-philanthropy organization the Good People Fund, Ruben picked out an organization called Birthday Angels.
Started in 2005 by Ruthie Sobol Luttenberg, it gathers donations and works with volunteers — many in their teens — to provide birthday celebrations for Israeli children whose families are too poor to give them such treats.
In its first year, Birthday Angels gave 150 such parties; by 2010, the number had grown to 3,100. According to its website, one in three children in Israel doesn’t have a birthday celebration; many don’t even know the date of their birthday. Sobol Luttenberg, in her pitch for the $36 donation that pays for a package of a cake, party favors, games, and music, describes the parties as a way to let children know they are valued, despite their hard circumstances.
Local organizations provide a similar service, but for the children at the Cranford temple, connecting with Birthday Angels was also a way to build bonds with Israel. The children bring tzedaka money to Hebrew school, and when Ruben told them about the birthday party program as a potential recipient of their funds, she said, the students “enhanced the collection with great enthusiasm.” Together with adults in the community, they raised several hundred dollars. They also decorated birthday cards for the children in Israel and wrote affectionate messages in them.
Last week, Ruben, who is originally from Israel, was back there on a visit. Accompanied by her grown daughters, Yael Coty and Orit Coty, she delivered the money and the cards in person to Sobol Luttenberg and her team.
In an e-mail to NJ Jewish News, Ruben wrote: “What an incredible experience! We were in Netanya where they have after-school programs for the children who are primarily from Ethiopian backgrounds. We celebrated Tomer’s birthday. He was showered with love and adoration from all those present, without ever expecting such a fun event.”
She said, “The children at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford are used to learning about the State of Israel through special organizations, such as this one, that increase their sensitivity to children less privileged than they are. This opportunity was a wonderful way to bring a unique connection between Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim and the children of Netanya. I was so proud to represent our community.”