A biting wind whipped down Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue, across the courtyard of the Jewish Children’s Museum, but that’s not why the 450 people who came Sunday to celebrate Tzivos Hashem-Jewish Children International’s 25th anniversary got goose bumps. It was the emotional content of the day, which marked the organization’s growth from a one-room office into a worldwide force fending for Jewish children’s spiritual and physical well being, that had the crowd in shivers and a few society doyennes dabbing wayward tears.
To kick off the event, a scribe guided children and grandchildren of the “Mother of Tzivos Hashem” Esther Benenson through the technicalities of filling in the last 100 letters of a new Torah scroll. Esther Benenson has been a supporter of Tzivos Hashem for over two decades; two Tzivos Hashem orphanages in Ukraine are named for her and her late husband William Benenson, and she is a leading force behind many Tzivos Hashem programs.
Tzivos Hashem was founded in 1980 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Conceived as a force for good, Tzivos Hashem has been an innovator in Jewish education, an idea factory: generating educational materials, curricula for camp programs, an international Bat Mitzvah Club, and award-winning books through its publishing house. Over the years, Tzivos Hashem has grown a strong humanitarian wing in defense of Jewish children the world over. Its Jewish Children’s Fund helps clothe children in the winter and offers Jewish camp subsidies in the summer. In addition to the orphanages in Ukraine, Tzivos Hashem sponsors two medical clinics there, an eye clinic in Kiev, and a food pantry that feeds 800 people a month.
After the ink dried on the Torah scroll, a flock of children, carefully holding flaming torches against the darkening sky, paraded down the street, following men dancing, a blur of joy to welcome the new Torah. Children waved from third-story windows as a special truck outfitted with a chuppah canopy for the Torah, topped with a massive Torah crown and equally huge speakers, crawled by, blasting Jewish music. The Torah will reside in the model synagogue at Tzivos Hashem’s headquarters, the six-story Jewish Children’s Museum.
“The Torah is our way of life. It is very important that when children come to see the Jewish Children’s Museum, they don’t look at the Torah as an artifact behind glass. We are interested in showing children that that Torah is not just an ancient tradition but something that has relevance to our present and future,” said Tzivos Hashem Executive Director Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, who added that the Torah will be used when the museum’s space is rented for bar mitzvahs and other Jewish lifecycle events.
The Torah’s place in the model synagogue tells the story of Tzivos Hashem’s modus operandi over the past quarter century. “There are people who won’t step foot into a synagogue, but will visit the museum. It gives them a chance to see a real Torah,” said marketing director Chaim Benjaminson. Since its beginning, Tzivos Hashem has brought Judaism to children by engaging their interests with Jewish holiday craft workshops, at Scout Jamborees, through children’s newsletters and magazines. At the banquet dinner, a new website www.tzivoshashem.org was unveiled. Clicking on any cartoon style icon at the site snaps open a world of Jewish stories, animated games and craft ideas along with updates on Tzivos Hashem activities and member achievements. “Tzivos Hashem has always used the technology of the day to reach out to children,” said Rabbi Benjaminson. “Lives have been changed because of Tzivos Hashem.”
Daniella Chasnuva, 14, is one child who said she “owes her life” to Tzivos Hashem. After her father’s death, Daniella’s mother turned to Tzivos Hashem’s orphanage for help. Daniella has been cared for by the home for seven years. Her story unfolded in a video shown at the dinner, and then Daniella took center stage and played several songs on the keyboard. Tzivos Hashem’s role in bringing children back from the brink of ignorance of their heritage was recalled as children from New York and Israel told their stories.
Earlier that morning, evidence of Tzivos Hashem’s effort to reach every Jewish child was on display. Tzivos Hashem’s Friendship Circle hosted a Chanukah craft workshop at the Jewish Children’s Museum for children with special needs. Fifteen children and as many volunteers and parents watched agog as olives were pressed into oil. “The children were so appreciative. There are so many times when children with special needs are not welcome. But at this event, you had to have special needs to get in,” said Friendship Circle program coordinator Henni Halberstam.
Solid thwacks echoed in the museum craft room as the children whacked dowels into place to build their own wooden Chanukah menorahs. “The kids were able to do their own projects and they came out beautifully,” said Halberstam. “Everyone’s looking forward to our next event” which will be on February 12 at the museum in celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees.
Later, at the banquet, Mushky Shemtov, who receives weekly visits from Friendship Circle volunteers, offered thanks to Tzivos Hashem. “Our kids were begging us to speak for longer at the dinner,” said Halberstam. “The audience listened patiently even when the kids struggled to read–not every line has to be exactly right to be eloquent.”
Twenty-five years ago, secretaries kept track of Tzivos Hashem–Jewish Children International’s membership by typing names, numbers and birthdays on index cards. The cumulative membership tally, now fully computerized, is up to 1,000,000 children. The goal now is to reach a million more, and then “another million,” said Rabbi Benjaminson. “Every Jewish child has a place at Tzivos Hashem.”