Dickens did it. The word orphanage conjures up darkness and deprivation, barely enough porridge to feed a sparrow and cruel adults beating little children in rags. The word orphanage is just not the right word for what I saw in Israel last week. I was traveling with the New York–based American rescue and relief agency, the Joint Distribution Committee. They have been performing daring and necessary operations since 1914. In 1943, they transported hundreds of Holocaust orphans through Tehran into Palestine. They are still saving children one by one.
South of Tel Aviv there is a town called Lan-Yavneh, and in this town is a cluster of houses where children of all ages are growing up in a home called Beit Apple. There is a library and a school and a swimming pool. There are small houses where the children live in family clusters. There are toys and books and the faint air of muss and motion that trails the footsteps of real children the world over. The staff is led by Gabi Konfino, a man who fairly glows with the passion of his work. He redeems the child who has been abused, who has been abandoned, who has seen what no child should have to see. He has psychologists and social workers and teachers to help him, and he has no doubt that Beit Apple can heal and protect, free the mind so that it can learn and put trust in the place of rage. A psychiatrist is on call 24 hours. In the living quarters, two house parents listen for the cries of nightmares and offer comfort in the dark. The little children are hugged and carried. Their drawings are on the wall. Their artwork is on the shelves. They are given all the food they want; when they first come, they eat and eat until they learn that more will always be placed on the table.
We met two of the older children. One is a 15-year-old whose mother is hopelessly mentally ill and whose father has disappeared. He has been at Beit Apple for six years. The boy likes computers. He wants to become an air force pilot. His eyes are clear. His arms are too long for his body. His easy confidence is winning, mixed as it is with gentleness and sweetness. The other boy, also 15, has only been in Israel for a year and a half. At first he has a tight, shy cast to his face, but that changes when we all praise the Rosh Hashana card he has made for us. Mr. Konfino and his staff know each child and his or her appalling story. We met Sarah, 8, who watched with her two sisters as their father shot their mother and then killed himself two years ago in another country. She is now fluent in Hebrew and says she remembers nothing of her former home. Someone, we are assured by her social worker, Linda Avitan, will help her remember when she is ready.
These are not adoptable children, either because their parents or guardians will not release them or because of their age. Beit Apple tries to arrange foster families for all of them to visit for vacations and holidays.
North of Tel Aviv, near Nathania, there is a remarkable day school called Hadassim known for its high academic standards, so parents send their children there as we would to Horace Mann or Fieldston. Around the school is a village of small houses, a central dining room and a study hall for the 300 children who live in this community but have no parents or homes to take them in. The director of this communal project, Zvi Levy, is a force of nature himself-white hair flying, arms gesturing, a power reminiscent of the old Zionist pictures of strong muscled men on tractors churning up the desert. He works with the most difficult of populations: children and teenagers who have come from mean streets, hard places, speak other languages and do not think that the adult world is on their side. He negotiates rules with them. If they are arrested, he will take them back into the community, just as any biological family might. His power is in his personality. I believe he can do what he says because his personal wattage is so high, his determination as strong as that of any Israeli general preparing to defend the borders.
In the regular school’s study hall, young people in their army uniforms are, as part of their service, tutoring children one-on-one. Teachers sit at tables with children doing their homework; some are from the communal village and some will go home on the school buses. Friendships move back and forth across the groups.
There is more to say, more to describe: the personal photo albums of each child so that a record of childhood will be kept; the social worker Raya Epstein, who has been with the Israeli Ministry of Welfare and Labor for 47 years placing children in these homes, watching over their medical and educational needs until, at 18, they go into the army and then the university or some vocational program. She knows each child and his or her tale. She greets them when they pass on the path. The Israeli ministry and the Joint Distribution Committee fill in for the absent parents for many of these rescued children, guaranteeing apartments when they are older, paying for violin lessons, supplying extra tutoring, arranging for sight-restoring operations.
There was a weight on my chest as we visited these non-institutional institutions. First there was the pain of the children who were there. Something terrible had happened before. You couldn’t see it in the children’s faces, but you knew it was there. Then there was the strange wish that pushed itself into my mind and would not go away. In another life, I could have worked here with these children. If I had taken a different path, I could have been part of the full harvest before me. Then I thought about my own children. Luckier than these, I suppose, but the drama of family life has its own complicated pains, and the irony is that not having parents may sometimes be better than having parents, and that our vision of children raised in nuclear families may not, after all, be the best vision or the only vision. If only we had, in America, a series of places as well supported, as filled with exceptional, dedicated staff, and with the commitment of the entire government behind them. Maybe then we could empty the beds in our hospitals and jails. What could we create in this land of ours if we cared enough to do it? Who will rescue our own children, those who are innocent victims of violence, crime, loss? We have been nailed to the foster-care system out of horror at the 19th-century orphanage, but perhaps we have it wrong; perhaps these group homes can do what damaged families can’t. Can you just imagine what a thousand Gabis or Zvis might do for us?