MevasSeret Tzion, Israel — Smadar Barashi beams with pride as the children show off their report cards and end-of- school projects.
“Look, 100 percent on this work,” she boasts, giving one dark-haired, wide-eyed boy a huge hug.
Her suburban Jerusalem home is filled with the hustle and bustle you would expect from any family of 11 children. But this is no ordinary family.
Barashi is the house mother in a group foster home run by Orr Shalom for Children and Youth at Risk, Israel’s largest nonprofit providing residential and therapeutic services to abused, neglected or orphaned children who have been removed from their homes by the state’s social welfare services.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has been a longtime supporter of the organization, including a recently approved grant of $180,000 for the new fiscal year.
Judging from Barashi’s interactions — helping the children prepare stuffed peppers for a Shabbat meal, singing the praises of one girl’s artwork, removing a Playboy discovered in one teenaged boy’s room, posting a sign on the door of another to remind him to apply deodorant daily — she is clearly so much more than a foster care provider.
Fourteen years ago, Barashi, 45, her then-husband and their two young children moved into this Orr Shalom house on a quiet, tree-lined street in the upper-middle-class community of Mevasseret Tzion.
She was inspired, she says, by a segment she had seen on TV about an abused child who had been removed from his home and was in need of a foster family.
Family group homes such as the one Barashi heads were the brainchild of Orr Shalom, which was started in 1980 for 10 children who were removed from their homes. Instead of being sent to a large youth village, they lived together in an intimate family setting with a young couple.
The organization currently cares for some 1,400 youths. Of these children — from all sectors of Israeli society, including secular, haredi, children of foreign workers and Israeli Arabs — more than 180 currently live in group homes with up to 11 children and nearly 900 live with traditional foster families.
The group also runs special programs for children with severe psychiatric needs, an emergency foster care program and a summer camp experience for those who don’t have a safe place to go during school vacation. The nonprofit’s newest program, started with a grant from Philadelphia, targets graduates, ages 18-25, who have “aged out” of the system but still need support as they navigate their military service, college, vocational training and career options.
In the group homes, “we are putting them on the right track for life,” says Elise Rynhold, who works in development for Orr Shalom. “The graduate program ensures they don’t fall off the track.”
The organization’s 20 group homes across the country include the one in Mevasseret Tzion and one in Haifa, which the Philadelphia Federation purchased outright. The group homes provide an alternative to the old model of institutional settings for children ages 6-18, who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t been placed with individual foster families but, because of emotional or physical abuse or abandonment, can’t live with their biological parents.
The goal is to provide for their basic and emotional needs as well as help them develop the life skills they’ll require as they become adults, Rynhold says. It also provides a “positive model of how a happy family operates.”
Rynhold tears up as she recounts some of the stories of the children under Orr Shalom’s care — one girl whose father killed her mother and is now in jail; another who was sexually abused.
Now, glancing around the house, where children on the cusp of summer vacation play on their smartphones, chatter at the kitchen table and glide in and out of the house with the apparent ease of carefree young children, she marvels: “These kids are some of the bravest kids you’ll ever meet; they draw from an incredible personal strength.”
Barashi personifies her own kind of fortitude. Her husband left her three years ago, and her daughter, now 19, and her son, now 17, grew up among the children who came and went.
So far, she has raised some 24 children as the house mother, for which she gets paid about $2,000 a month.
Of the 11 children currently living in this brightly decorated, six-bedroom, three-bath house, seven comprise sets of siblings. The girls sleep on the bottom floor, the boys on the second, and Barashi and her children on the third. The house includes a vividly colored therapy room, where each child has at least one weekly session with a therapist; a computer room, where the children have rotating time slots; and a laundry room, where Barashi says she orchestrates some six to seven loads a day with the assistance of the older children.
Tutors come to help with school work or learning issues, and three Orthodox young women who are doing alternative service to the army come each day to help take care of the kids, cook and play.
Barashi says she studied special education in school and is currently studying for a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. But, as she puts it, most of what she has needed to help these kids, she has learned on the job. “It doesn’t matter what you study,” she says. “It’s the kind of heart you have.”
From the start, she explains, she tries not to get too attached to the children, determined to make it clear to them — and herself — that she is their guardian but not their parent. But that’s not always easy or possible. The children often refer to her as their “second mother,” and some of those who have moved on still call on her regularly for advice, including how to change their own babies’ diapers.
Among the regular visitors to the house are some of the children’s biological parents, at least the ones who are around and capable.
When a child first arrives, Barashi says, there can be tension with the biological parents, but she tries to include them as much as possible, inviting them to school functions and birthday parties.
For those able to come once a week for a supervised visit, she says, “the moment they understand we are not competing, it’s better.”
She acknowledges that the situation can be challenging for the children. “I take them to the doctor, read stories to them at night, go to school functions. It is confusing,” Barashi says, adding that she tries to explain to the children that their parents do the best they can.
One 6-year-old, a girl with long brown hair and glasses, didn’t want to be alone with her biological family when she first came to live here. When her family was given special permission to take her to an aunt’s wedding, she called Barashi, asking to come back home.
When her mother arrived for a recent visit to the house, the child appeared a bit tentative. They sat down at the table to play cards, but she kept glancing over at Barashi. Before they went out to visit a local fair, she came over and gave Barashi a big hug, confirming with her the time she needed to be home.
One of the older residents, a 16-year-old girl with long, blond hair, is a talented artist who relates to Barashi as many teenage daughters would, with occasional annoyance but mostly admiration and love. She has lived here for three years. (The children’s names are not being used for privacy reasons.)
Asked what makes living here special, she responds without hesitating: “They take care of me. They pay attention to me. They help me.”
The teen shows off her room — she is one of the few to have her own space because of her age and her level of responsibility — and the artwork that adorns the walls. Barashi tells how she created much of it while they were trapped in the house for five days during an unusual snowstorm this past winter.
The girl talks of preparing to go into the army, a normal process for most Israeli teenagers and a normative sign her social workers see as positive.
Back in the living room, sitting beneath the string-crafted chandelier that she made, she talks about her summer plans, spending a month hanging out in Mevasseret and then going to Eilat to spend time with her father.
She has special praise for Barashi: “She understands us, she knows how to talk to us when it’s hard. She gets us, she likes us.”
And then she is back to doing what most teenagers do these days — fixating on her smartphone.