(Courtesy of My Extended Family) Laughter, singing and animated conversation filled the room as My Extended Family (MYEF) held its first year’s closing banquet at Heichal HaTorah last week.
“I remember our initial kick-off event last October,” shared Dan Rubinoff, who along with his wife Ronit helped bring the program to Bergen County last year. “We had no idea who would turn up or how many children would be interested.” But interested they were and what began as an apprehensive trickle grew to an enthusiastic groundswell of interaction between scores of yeshiva high school volunteers and children from single parent families that “wildly surpassed all of our expectations,” he said.
At the banquet, over 70 children who participated in the program were joined by their big brothers and sisters who they had been paired up with over the course of the school year and together were treated to an evening of exciting entertainment, cool technological attractions and a delicious fleishig menu that kept everyone returning to the buffet tables. Surpassing all the features however, were the obvious close relationships between the kids and their student “siblings.” The bonds and friendships that were forged took center stage as staff and parents alike marveled at the progress and difference the program has made in so many lives.
“My Extended Family is that unique program where literally everybody involved benefits,” shared Rabbi Ephraim Simon of the Teaneck Chabad House, who administers the program. “Of course, the main focus is the children from single parent homes who are able to meet children their own age who are in a similar situation as they are. Seeing how these children developed a real bond and connection to their ‘big siblings’’ has been the most rewarding part of running this program.”
The benefit was clearly mutual and ran both ways. “Seeing how the big siblings have benefited from their connection, dedication and devotion to these children was amazing to experience,” Rabbi Simon observed. “The parents benefit from the hour of respite, homework and dinner that is provided. But the surprise benefit was within myself. Being there every week and seeing the smiles on these children’s faces and the relationships that they developed uplifted my neshama on a weekly basis. Bringing this program to our community has been one of my greatest decisions as the director of the Teaneck Chabad House.”
Parents who have participated in the program echoed Rabbi Simon’s sentiments. “Divorce is tough on everyone in a family, but it’s especially tough on children,” shared Joe Herman, a Teaneck resident with both a son and a daughter in the program. “They are significantly impacted but often have very little input on what their life looks like post-divorce. To add to that, it’s painfully obvious at times (to them and to us) that they don’t get the same experience that children from ‘typical’ families get at key milestones in their lives. The fact that they have a place to go to where they have something significant in common with everyone else and the fact that they have big brothers/big sisters who legitimately care about them and share their time to make our kids feel special—it’s such a special gift for our family, and we’re all incredibly grateful for it.”
Close to 70 local children attend one of the separate boys and girls’ programs at Heichal HaTorah and the Teaneck Chabad House respectively every Tuesday evening for an hour and a half throughout the school year. During that time, they work with their assigned big brothers and sisters on homework, share a healthy catered dinner and enjoy an interactive activity.
Staff that includes both a boys and girls program director, a program coordinator,and a licensed social worker/branch clinician oversee all programming and supervise the sessions.
Beyond the weekly programming, there are Chol Hamoed trips, mid-winter yeshiva break trips, special Chanukah events and more. Assistance to families requiring extra support is also extended where needed, discreetly and respectfully.
MYEF’s boys’ division Program Director Rabbi Avi Rosalimsky has witnessed the impact first-hand. “The boys leave behind whatever challenges they are dealing with in their lives as they eat dinner, play basketball, football, ping pong, board games and go swimming together. It has been especially powerful to witness the strong relationships that have been forged between the boys, and the boys and their ‘big brothers.’ Seeing the smiles radiate on the faces of the MYEF children is truly the highlight of my week.”
The dozens of boys and girls from the area’s local yeshiva high schools who have joined the effort as volunteers, also in far higher numbers than initially anticipated, couldn’t agree more. “It’s crazy to think that I only met my ‘little sister’ this year,” enthused Shoshana Sklarin, an 11th grader from Naaleh High School. “My Extended Family has impacted my life and my little sister’s life in many ways. To my little sister, I am a mentor, a friend, and ultimately really family.”
And the kids, what do they have to say about My Extended Family?
“The program means a lot to me because it feels nice to have a program where you can talk about anything you want and play sports with a big brother,” shared one child with a shy smile.
Another chimed in enthusiastically, “This program is so much fun! I look forward to Tuesdays when I know I will have an activity to do after school. My big brother is fun to hang out with and I like the group of friends that I made.”
And that’s what it’s all about.
My Extended Family is free of charge to all participants and relies completely on donations to maintain its programming. Enrollment will reopen in the fall for the 2022/23 school year. For more information or to make a gift please visit MYEF.org or email [email protected].