Katya and Helena don’t have relatives in Pittsburgh. But they have family.
For the past three years, the sisters, who live in the Israeli city of Karmiel, have corresponded with two families in the Pittsburgh area through the Children’s Village Initiative, a program started in the fall of 2006 by the Agency for Jewish Learning with sponsorship from the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh and Partnership 2000.
This summer, they finally came to visit.
Katya and Helena live in the Children’s Village, a section of Karmiel where 275 Israeli children from troubled and often economically depressed homes come to live with a “mishpachton,” a good family willing to take in and care for additional children.
The Children’s Village Initiative adds another layer of family by connecting those Israeli youth with families in the Pittsburgh area. Katya, 12, and Helena, 18, were “adopted” by the McLeods of Sewickley and the Frischmans of Squirrel Hill, respectively.
“I think it is an important project that puts life in perspective for teens and their families and brings people closer to Israel and Partnership 2000 in a meaningful way,” said Zipora Gur, director of advanced education at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
Gur matched the local families with the Israeli children. Through the program, the families and the children exchange letters, trade pictures and share experiences. In other words, the families adopt the kids. They just happen to be long distance adoptions.
“I always counted the days until I got a letter back, and I was in Heaven when it finally came,” Helena told The Chronicle. “All week, I would wait anxiously for it and ask how long it takes for mail from America to arrive. It’s so strange to have someone in a whole other world who knows you and cares about you who you’ve never met.”
Dave Frischman said the letters made Helena seem like a part of the family.
The sisters waited anxiously for the meeting with their American families.
That excitement was mutual.
“With every letter and every picture, my wife and kids and I got very, very excited,” Dave Frischman said. “It definitely brought us all much closer together, and Helena really felt like part of our family.”
The one missing piece to these family connections was distance. And bridging it would be no easy task. Plane tickets are expensive; the girls did not have visas; Katya spoke practically no English, and Helena only learned her ABCs in the seventh grade. Conversely, the McLeods and Frischmans speak no Hebrew, and the Frischmans have never even been to Israel.
But for children who now felt like their daughters, they were determined to make it work.
“When I first heard I would be going to America, I felt like somebody should pinch me because I just couldn’t believe it,” Helena said. “So many kids in the village want to come to America. Israel is like a bubble, America is like a whole world. If someone had told me in high school that I would one day go to America, I would have laughed in their face. And I didn’t believe it was real until I was actually on the plane.”
Her anticipation, however, was mixed with a degree of nervousness. “When I first arrived, I was scared they wouldn’t remember how I looked from the pictures.”
But nervousness turned to jubilation when “I saw the whole family, all 5 of them there waiting for me, at 9 in the evening! [The Frischmans have three small children] I don’t think I will ever forget it.”
Following the airport meeting, the whole family went on vacation to Avalon, on the Jersey Shore, then on to Washington, D.C.
“She uses the word ‘amazing’ for everything because she’s experiencing everything for the first time,” Dave said. “This was her first time eating Chinese, Mexican, American foods, yet she showed no culture shock.”
For Katya, the journey to America began when the McLeods went to Israel in 2006.
“I was really taken by the country when I went there. When we went to the Children’s Village, we fell in love with Katya and wanted to make her even more a part of our family,” said Thom McLeod. “We have three daughters: 16, 14 and 10, so Katya fits right in there at 12 — she’s just perfect for us.”
“She’s my fourth daughter,” Lauren McLeod said.
While Katya’s English was only “rudimentary” when she first arrived, it improved exponentially here through both immersion and the twice-weekly tutor they hired for her.
Since Katya is 12, the McLeods threw her a bat mitzva party Aug. 18. Two days later came a barbecue at J&R Day Camp in Monroeville, meant as a send-off event for the girls, who left to go back to Israel Sunday.
The occasions provided all a chance to reflect on the experience.
“From the letters, we always knew Helena was a wonderful girl,” Dave said, “but to actually get to meet her and spend time with her, we see she’s just a beautiful person inside and out. It’s just been a real privilege.”
“It’s been incredibly rewarding and satisfying,” Thom said. “If you have a Jewish family, what better way to make a connection to the Jewish country than through the people. It’s all too easy to write a check, you feel good while you’re writing it, but it’s so abstract. But I can see how we’re helping Katya. She now has a home, a family and a foothold in America.”
The most moving parts of both nights were the words Helena and Katya shared with their families, and all in attendance expressing their gratitude.
“I think they are the perfect family,” Helena said of the Frischmans. “The family I come from is so difficult, I really don’t know how to thank them enough for it. I am so lucky, I can’t express it.”
Then it was Katya’s turn. In broken English, she read a letter she wrote in Hebrew. “Nobody has ever done so much for me,” she said. “I’ll never forget you, I love you so much.”
The families share concerns about the girls adjusting back to life in the village after their experiences here.
“We spent most of the summer at my mother’s house on Cape Cod,” Lauren said, “and she has pictures of family up all over. Katya saw this and she said when she grows up, she wants a house with pictures.
Lauren also worries about the effect Katya’s trip to America will have on the other kids in her mishpachton. “Most of her clothes are from us. She has very little of her own and will soon outgrow these clothes. She will bring with her a suitcase full of clothes for the other kids, but it won’t be enough. But Katya is a survivor. She will survive wherever she goes.”
Helena’s concerns about returning are different. One week after arriving back in Israel, she will begin compulsory army duty for two years. When she gets out, she plans to study architecture. That may have seemed like an impossible dream before her Pittsburgh visit; now, she is confident she can do it.
“Before I could read English, but I just couldn’t sit to read a whole book in it,” she said. “It’s enjoyable now. Now, I have more motivation to be a good student.”
Dave Frischman sees her army service as a golden opportunity. “Now that Helena is part of the family, I’m sure the kids will want to go see her even more. And since she’s spending two years in the army, we’ll have to go there to see her.”
When they do visit her, they will see the tangible impact had by the b’nai mitzva projects of local teenagers who have donated their b’nai mitzva money, and raised cash on their own, to benefit the village. Their contributions bought a car, established a computer lab, and started the planning for a horseback riding excursion for Katya’s mishpachton, to organizing the Dream Network to fulfill wishes of kids in the Village, and a rock concert last spring that raised over $500. None of this goes unnoticed or unappreciated.
“In the Village, you see what the teenagers here are doing, and its just Wow!” Helena said. “It’s amazing what they do here.”
And, as much as it does for the Israeli kids, the effect living with a young woman raised in the Village has on the American host families’ children might be the greatest effect of all. As Taylor Frischman, 11, said,”
This experience has showed me how fortunate I am that I have what I have because there are so many others who aren’t as fortunate as me.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at email@example.com.)