It has been two years since COVID began. In Israel, we went from total lockdown in the beginning to much more moderate instructions today. But even the moderate approach has taken its toll on the people of Israel. And especially on families with special needs.
Imagine. You are a young mother of five and your son is severely disabled. He is cognitively impaired, unable to talk and in a wheelchair. He is a sweet little boy but requires constant care and attention. He needs complex physical and occupational therapy. Normally, he is picked up every morning at 7:30 and taken to a wonderful school for disabled children. There he not only receives the love and attention he needs, but gets all the therapies he requires. After school, he is taken to Heart of Benjamin for a few wonderful hours of fun and fellowship with other children with special needs, given a hot meal for dinner and then taken home before bedtime.
This is a full but wonderful schedule for this young boy. This disabled child will get all the love and therapies he needs while living at home with his loving family. Meanwhile, the parents of this child can go out to work to support their large family and have quality time for their neuro-typical children.
Now imagine COVID, quarantine, you are sick, your children are sick, the schools are closed, and all the other scenarios that have hit us over this past two years. Balancing work and family is always a challenge for parents of small children. For parents of a special-needs child, the challenge is even greater. They cannot just get a babysitter to watch their special-needs child if he is sick. And when he is home, they don’t have the professional care to help them attend to his special needs. Add COVID to this scenario and you have a nightmare. Special-needs children are particularly vulnerable to illness. Parents can’t go to work for days and weeks on end because they are caring for their special-needs child whose school is closed. And if the family is also financially strapped, the result is disaster.
Enter Heart of Benjamin and the Samaria Family Assistance Program.
Heart of Benjamin has been providing after-school, weekend and holiday programming for special-needs children for years. But during COVID, they rose to the challenge. They opened homes for special-needs teen-agers and young adults, enabling them to live there during the work week, in quarantine conditions, keeping them safe and occupied so their parents could work without worry or interruption. And once the rules relaxed, they carried on with the summer and holiday camps, all while maintaining strict hygiene rules to ensure maximum health protection.
Parents can’t go to work for days and weeks on end… And if the family is also financially strapped, the result is disaster.
For those struggling to feed their families, even as they had to miss work or close their business, the Samaria Family Assistance Program was there to provide them with food vouchers and assist them in retraining and employment counseling.
These two programs, Samaria Family Assistance and Heart of Benjamin, have been generously supported by Christians for Israel International for years and particularly by C4I Australia. And your support could not have come at a better time. These programs have been helping families in need living in Samaria for a long time, but when COVID entered the mix, the needs grew. Thank G-d, you were there to help provide the extra support that was so desperately needed.
Who are these families who have come to us, and to you, for support? These are people who chose to settle in the Heart of Biblical Israel, in an area far from urban centers, where services are so much more readily available. And they came because they believed G-d was calling them to settle the land, to make a difference just by virtue of their presence, in the continued ability of Israel to hold on to its Biblical center.
In 1974, the Yom Kippur war had just ended. The soldiers straggled back from their remote outposts in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, ready to return to ordinary life. But for a small group of young people, the war had pierced them in a unique spiritual way. The Six Day War had been an astounding victory just seven years earlier. But there was little practical action after the victory. The land had been liberated but apart from a few communities in the Jordan Valley and Judea, there was no movement to settle the Biblical Heartland. Following the Yom Kippur War, these young people understood that G-d was waiting for them to act and that He would bless their efforts if they moved forward and followed His call.
That year, a small group of men applied to the IDF as civilian contractors to help with construction in an army base on a hilltop located in the Biblical territory of Benjamin, overlooking what became the community of Ofra. Their plan was simple. The Government of Israel refused to plan for settlement in the area, so they would establish facts on the ground. They got the job, they applied for and received permission to live in the area, constructed temporary housing nearby, brought their families along, and the community of Ofra was born. Before the government knew what had happened, the first Jewish community in modern times north of Jerusalem was born.
A few months later, another group got organized, determined to settle in the heart of Samaria. Calling themselves the Oak of Moreh group, they aimed to settle near the mountain where G-d first promised the land to Abraham (Genesis 12). In December 1975, they received grudging permission from the government to settle in an army camp just west of Shechem. That became the community of Kedumim, the first modern community in Samaria, in the territory of Menashe.
Today the Heart of Benjamin and Samaria Family Assistance Programs serve the residents of Benjamin and Samaria, those same residents and their descendants who paved the way for settlement throughout Judea and Samaria. These are not ordinary people. Even as they struggle with the challenges that life has thrown their way, they remain heroic, steadfast in their faith and determined to contribute to the Nation of Israel in any way they can. They are the true heroes of Israel today. And you have stood with them in their greatest hour of need.
Sondra Oster Baras was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio in an Orthodox Jewish home. She was educated at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, a religious all-day school sponsored by the Cleveland Jewish community. Upon graduation from high school, Sondra studied religious studies at the Jerusalem College for Women in Israel. She completed her B.A. in history and English at Barnard College (Columbia University) and obtained her J.D. at Columbia University’s School of Law. In 1984, after practicing law in New York for a short time, Sondra moved to Israel. Sondra continued her legal career in Israel, after being accepted to the Israeli bar.
In 1985, the Baras’ joined Neve Aliza, a group of North American Orthodox Jews that were building a new neighborhood in the small Samarian town of Karnei Shomron. Sondra soon became an active member of the governing board of the group and moved into the new neighborhood in 1987. Shortly thereafter, the first Intifada began, and Ms. Baras was drawn into activities advocating for the settlement movement. Since then, Baras has been an active spokesperson for the communities of Judea and Samaria.
Baras maintained contact with CFOIC Heartland since its inception in 1995, and in 1998, she opened the Israel office in an effort to enhance the organization’s activities in support of the communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Since then, Sondra has been the director of the Israel office, coordinating much of CFOIC Heartland’s community support programs world-wide.