Making a place for the fifth son
The Jewish tradition focuses on educating the children. The Passover holiday, especially, is about encouraging them to ask questions, helping them grasp with the answers, and enabling them to relieve the collective experience of Am Yisrael. Indeed, the children’s role at the Seder is so important that we realize the need to tailor the story of Exodus from Egypt to the understanding of four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask.
Each of them has his strengths and weaknesses. And if anything is true about us as parents, we love each child for who she or he is, exactly the way they are. We believe that each child comes to the Seder table of their own free will and motivated by desire to learn more and to change for the better.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe has something to add to this almost idyllic picture of love and acceptance. He reminds us that each family that gathers around the Passover Seder table also has a fifth son. Where is he then, why is he out of the picture? Well, he is not at the table at all. Not partaking in the holiday meal, he does not receive the attention his other four siblings get that night, and on any other day during the year. The Rebbe says we need to go out and actively look for the fifth son. We are obligated to find him, reach out to him, and bring him to the fold. Our story is his story, too, and our family is his family.
19 years ago my wife Dana and I started reaching out to kids who did not have a place at the family table. Back in 1999, a newly religious married couple, we saw that Jerusalem was overflowing with children, teenagers and young adults who lived on the streets, and were to all intents and purposes homeless. Even though some had homes to go back to, they could not, because of abuse and parental dysfunction. Many of these kids were on drugs or prostituting themselves in order to have food and a roof over their heads, and all of them were crying out for help.
Dana and I made meals for them, played music and talked about the divine spark inherently present in each one of them. We did our best to help them heal and impart the understanding that they are good and deserving of better fate. They returned and brought friends.
Today, we look back in amazement.
By the end of 2016, Hut HaMeshulash will have served 800 teenagers and young adults a year. We run a one of a kind Drop-In Center in downtown Jerusalem, open 10 am to 10 pm daily. It offers hot meals, laundry facilities, showers and a host of enrichment opportunities to kids who come in from the street. As long as there is no violence and no drugs, everyone is welcome. Beyond these basic services, we work with each and every one of the kids who come in: a social worker gathers their history, reaches out to relevant municipal and national frameworks, helps the kid navigate the bureaucracy and, where needed, get medical or legal help. We also offer a program that teaches them how to find and hold down a job. Being able to make a living is surely the best insurance policy.
We also run two long-term shelters for young men and women between the ages of 18 to 25. Our Young Men’s Home often offers the last chance for young men on parole. Rather than sending someone to prison, usually for petty crime, judges often decides to have them spend some time at the Young Men’s Home. In overwhelming numbers, the Home succeed in learning how to function in a normative environment, find a job, and leave the Home as capable, well-adjusted individuals.
The Women’s Home is the only institution in Israel that accepts pregnant young women in the 18 to 25 age group. We work with them throughout their pregnancy, ensuring their mental and physical wellbeing, teaching them to take care of themselves and of their babies, and explaining their options from giving the baby away for adoption to raising him/her themselves. Over the past 6 years, 26 babies were born to mothers who were residents of the Women’s Home. All the mothers are either studying or working, and are perfectly able to provide for themselves and their babies.
Today, when Dana and I look at our own seven children, we know that they were blessed to have been born in a normative home. Unfortunately, this is not the case for too many other children in Jerusalem.
We are grateful that we are able to reach out to them through our life’s work with HaHut HaMeshulash. On the eve of this Passover holiday, my sincere wish to us all merit seeing the day when all Jewish children join the Passover Seder table, and have a full stake in our shared story.