An ‘Embrace’ to Remember

Sixty members of Young Israel of Century City gingerly walked on the muddy path and crowded into Dalia Har Sinai’s little farmhouse in the southern Hebron Hills community of Susia. Outside, the sheep and goats were in the barn. The farm and grazing land and organic vegetable patch were freshly green after much-needed rains.

Har Sinai sat in front of her small kerosene stove. Her visitors sat on cushions on the floor and on some plastic chairs that neighbors supplied. Weavings and crafts hung from the walls and ceilings while some of Har Sinai’s nine children passed out juice and fruit. “It’s fruit from Eretz Yisroel. Take some,” she said, a smile radiating inner peace.

However, the synagogue members hadn’t come to sightsee or eat. They came to bring Har Sinai’s family things it badly need — money and, more importantly, friendship and understanding. But they left Har Sinai without the one thing she needs more than anything else and no one can give — her husband, Yair. Arab terrorists gunned him down last summer, 200 yards from the house, on that picturesque, pastoral, peaceful-looking field, as he was herding his sheep and goats.

Project Embrace linked up Young Israel with Har Sinai, and is trying to connect all Jews with Israeli terror victims. It is sponsored by the One Family-Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund (IESF), American and Israeli-based organizations that recently teamed up and were behind the L.A. walk-a-thon in December that raised more than $300,000.

Sharon Evans of Ashkelon, director of Project Embrace, describes how the project started. “I visited a congregation in New York and shared my story of my daughter, who still is recovering from a terrorist attack. I was asked how a family in the States could personally help a victim of terror and their family. It was then that the idea of ‘adopt a family’ was born.”

Project Embrace bills itself as apolitical. It brings money directly to terror victims, circumventing heavy administrative costs that burden many organizations. “More than 2,000 people have been injured and 260 have been killed in the past year and a half,” says Chantal Belzberg, whose 12-year-old daughter Michal helped inspire her parents to start One Family.

Michal’s bat mitzvah was on the same day an Arab terrorist killed 15 people in Sbarro’s restaurant. Her party was to be a week later. Her parents discussed the idea of a celebration amid the reality of terror. She said she did not want a lavish event when people were suffering. The Belzbergs canceled the party and instead, visited the wounded and spoke to them about their needs. Afterward, the Belzbergs formed One Family, linked up with the IESF and then began Project Embrace.

“When you meet someone personally, it becomes reality,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City following the visit with Har Sinai.

Har Sinai needs about $15,000 to hire two people to herd the sheep and goats, work that her husband used to do, Muskin said, noting that they used to get by on income from goats’ milk, butter, homemade organic bread and organic vegetables. With nine growing children, her expenses continue to mount.

“Yair and I saw the farm as an important educational tool in the age of high-tech and mechanization,” Har Sinai said. They have no television or computer. “Yair compared ‘computer’ to a witch, which in Hebrew is almost the same word.”

“We always wanted to be close to the land, to get back to basics and live as our forefathers did,” she adds. The couple grew up on non-religious moshavs (cooperatives) in the north, before they became baal teshuvah (returned to Judaism).

“Yair never carried a gun,” Har Sinai said. “One night the sheep and goats came to the barn. It was unlocked, and Yair was not with them. I knew something had happened.” Neighbors searched the fields into the middle of the night when they found him — murdered.

Congregation members from B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles also were in Israel last week. Project Embrace spoke to them in Jerusalem and they immediately changed their schedule and asked to adopt a family, another mother of nine children. They were teamed up with Pnina Gutman, who lives in Emmanuel, a community of about 4,000 in the Samarian Hills, about 45 minutes east of Tel Aviv. Terrorists murdered her husband and nine other Israelis in December.

“We live comfortably in Los Angeles and felt a need to help,” said B’nai David Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky. “We want our children to keep in touch with them so they know they have friends in the Diaspora.”

For both congregations, it’s not just a one-shot deal. “We want to keep up communication with Dalia and the children,” Muskin said.

“Everyone has said to us that you don’t know how much your visit means, that Jews in the Diaspora care.”

A Hands-On Holiday

Teachers have known for a long time that hands-on projects can bring a message home better than any lecture or study session.

And perhaps there’s no holiday on the Jewish calendar that better lends itself to creative manual labor — for kids and adults alike — than Sukkot, which comes this year on Sunday night, Oct. 4, and extends through Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Jews around the world observe the biblical fall harvest festival, which commemorates Israel’s sojourning in the desert, by spending a week eating in — or even living in — huts with vegetation as a roof. In addition, four species of plant — palm, myrtle and willow branches, and the citron, or etrog — are used in synagogue and home rituals.

The holiday is often a time when families and friends gather to build and then enjoy the sukkah, sharing meals and parties in the highly creative and individualized structures.

Here are the stories of a congregation and a family who took the opportunity to invest themselves physically and spiritually in the fall festival that ends the month-long High Holiday cycle.

It May Be Small, But It’s Kosher

Like many, Esther and Avraham Brander designed and built their own sukkah, decorated it and invited friends over to share in the holiday.

What makes their sukkah unique is that it is 5 feet high, and Esther is 7 years old and Avraham is 8.

The brother and sister, with help from their 4-year-old brother, Yaakov, used 3/4-inch plastic pipes with connectors for the frame, and fabric for the walls.

“They get very excited about things that are their own,” says their mother, Batyah Brander, assistant English principal of Ohr Haemet, a girls high school on Robertson Boulevard, and wife of Asher Brander, rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla.

Batyah helped the children puzzle the pieces together and secure the connectors to make sure the structure was steady. She estimates that the youngsters, who attend Toras Emes day school on La Brea Avenue, did 80 percent of the work on their own.

They also chose a kosher spot in the yard, where no trees hang over the 4 1/2-x-10-foot structure — and where the sukkah is out of sight of the family’s full-size sukkah.

Esther and Avraham are accustomed to these types of projects. They make their own challah and recently started making grape juice, stomping on the fruit (through plastic bags) and bottling it with their own labels.

“I never have to yell at them to come to the table for kiddush, because it’s their own grape juice,” Brander says. And on sukkah-building day, they got their homework done in a flash.

“They learned a lot more than if we just built it ourselves and let them sit in it,” Brander says.