Bat mitzvah girl gives gift of dance to kids in Sderot

By Jenny Hazan, CJN Israel Bureau, 27 August 2009-- When 12-year-old Yael Matlow entered the new dance studio in the Sderot Community Center, she was greeted by a group of girls chanting “Yael, Yael!” enthusiastically. They were cheering for her because without Yael there wouldn’t be a new studio to speak of.

“I love this new room!” exclaimed nine-year-old dancer Lotem Bukbuk. “It’s much more beautiful than the old room.”

“Dancing is my favourite thing to do,” piped in nine-year-old Tal Shitreet.

“Thank you, Yael!” added eight-year-old Opal Cohen.

The girls are among about 100 dance students at the new Sderot Community Center aged five to 18, who, until the establishment of Yael’s fortified studio were relegated to practising in the first-floor studio, which was not protected against Qassam rockets and took a direct hit from one on May 27, 2007.

“I will never forget that day. It was a trauma. I just thank God that it happened at 6:30 in the morning when no one is here and not at 6:30 in the evening when the centre is full of children,” recalls Avi Sulimany, centre’s director.

Sulimany presented Yael with a chanukiyah and Hamsa to thank her for her thoughtfulness and generosity.

“Today is like a holiday for me, a great celebration. It is the fulfillment of a dream to have a studio like this, where after so many years of tension, kids can come every day and act freely and learn and play and be safe without fear,” Sulimany says.

She adds that the new studio will enable the centre to accommodate twice as many dance students as before – they now number some 250 altogether.

The new dance studio is part of a larger project being funded by all the Jewish federations across Canada via the Israel Emergency Campaign (IEC), which was launched in the summer of 2006 in response to the Second Lebanon War. Executed by the United Israel Appeal of Canada (UIAC), better known in Israel as Magbit Canada, the goal was to add a second floor to the centre and protect the entire structure from rocket attacks. The expanded and improved centre, the only protected community space of its kind in Sderot, will officially open in September.

But without the help of Yael, the newly-fortified building may not have included a new dance facility. In lieu of gifts for her bat mitzvah, which took place in Beit Shmuel on Dec. 29, 2008, she requested that her guests make a donation to “Yael’s Friendship Fund” to help kids in Sderot. She managed to raise $25,000 to finance the construction of the new studio.

“I saw my friends getting gifts for their bat mitzvahs like bracelets and necklaces, and I don’t really care about that. I don’t really want five new pairs of earrings,” says Yael, a student at United Synagogue Day School for whom the dedication trip marked her 12th excursion to Israel.

“I wanted to help people that are less fortunate than me. I wanted to help the kids of Sderot who live in danger. They don’t know when it will be safe to play outside, as all kids should be able to do. I wanted to help them so that they could have a real childhood and have fun,” she says.

Having already travelled to Sderot once with her family last August, Yael got a taste for what life was like there. “The first time I was in Sderot it was really nice, but it was also scary,” she says, explaining that their tour guide had warned them to open their car windows and remove their seatbelts so that they could hear rocket sirens and respond quickly to them by pulling over and running to the nearest shelter. “I can’t imagine living in fear like that every day.”

A dancer herself since age five, Yael says she can’t imagine a life without dance. “I love to dance, and I wanted to help others who love to dance,” says Yael, who studies tap, jazz, hip hop, lyrical, ballet and musical theatre. “I dance with girls of all ages and all backgrounds, and it doesn’t really matter when you’re on stage because everybody is just having fun together.”

In addition to raising money to establish the studio in Sderot, Yael collected donations of dance costumes, shoes and other gear, both from her studio and others in Toronto. When she came to Israel for her bat mitzvah, she brought five large duffel bags, all of them stuffed to the brim. Originally, she intended to deliver the bags personally to the studio in Sderot the day after her bat mitzvah, but was unable to because of the outbreak of war in Gaza. They were delivered by taxi instead.

Since she couldn’t make it to Sderot in December, the UIAC arranged for her to meet a group of kids from Sderot who were travelling though Jerusalem. “It was really nice to meet them,” Yael says of the group.

“It was nice because I knew I was helping them even if they didn’t go to the dance studio, since the whole community centre is a safe place to go.”

The idea for funding the studio came from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which for the last four years has run an initiative dubbed the B’nai Tzedek Teen Philanthropy Program, which encourages teens to use their bar and bat mitvahs to make a philanthropic contribution to a project that is meaningful to them.

The Toronto federation is the first of four Jewish communities to establish the program. More than 100 bar and bat mitzvah youth have opened personal endowment funds at the Toronto federation, collectively representing more than 150,000 philanthropic dollars. The young philanthropists have chosen to dedicate their bar and bat mitzvah gifts to causes in both Israel and Toronto, among them helping needy kids get computers, summer camp tuition and the funds necessary to participate in extracurricular activities.

The funds, opened with a minimum $1,000 investment, can be replenished at any time. Annually, the federation holds a meeting at which they present the young philanthropists with several charitable options to which they may apply their funds’ annual income.

“We also encourage them to come with their own ideas and interests,” says Angela D’Aversa, assistant director of the Toronto federation and head of the B’nai Tzedek program.

“The idea is to walk teens through a learning process so that they will know how to make educated philanthropic decisions, empower them to realize that they really can make a difference, get them connected to the Jewish community and get them into the habit of tzedakah. The B’nai Tzedek program opens up the door to a lifetime of giving.”

In addition to annual dedication meetings, the B’nai Tzedek program includes a hands-on volunteer component. “It’s not just about dollars,” says D’Aversa. “It’s about seeing first-hand the impact that their contributions have. It’s about engaging youth, educating them and encouraging them. Our goal is that they will be our future leaders and we have no doubt that they will be.”

Yael’s sister Orli, 15, who, through the same program, established the $25,000 Orli Sunshine Fund on her bat mitzvah on March 11, 2006, can testify to the importance of witnessing the impact of her charitable contribution. She was thrilled to return to Israel to visit her project, a park in Kiryat Shmona that had been levelled during the Second Lebanon War. “I always enjoyed places of community where I could have fun with kids my own age, so I decided to build the park,” says Orli, a student at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

The funds Orli raised went to the replanting of grass and trees, the construction of bike and rollerblade paths, a fountain and a large jungle gym. “It gives me so much pleasure to see kids playing there,” she says.

Yael agrees. “It feels really good to give,” she says, “and to know that I have done something to make [the children of Sderot’s] lives easier and more fun.”