Thursday, July 01, 2004

Press - 5 Towns Jewish Times, May 20 2004 - MARCH Right In

MARCH Right In
Paula L. Simmonds

Thursday night rolled around again way too fast. Malkie had just finished another grueling week at the office. And recently, she had perfected a routine that enabled her to just barely crawl through the week. But Thursday nights were what she dreaded the most — because in order to make Shabbos, she would have to spend yet another hour away from home and her children. Seven year-old Shloime desperately needed her to help him study for his parsha quiz, and little Dovid had been begging her to help him learn the months in the Jewish calendar. Even Raizy, Malkie’s oldest, who never complained and bravely shouldered as much of the “mommying” burden as she could, had been plaintively calling for her mom to come home, make supper for them and cuddle her, since she had experienced a difficult week in school.

Somehow, three years ago, things had gone terribly wrong in her marriage, and one day Malkie found herself alone with three small children. Now she had to be both mother and father, run a proper home, hold down a grueling job 40 hours a week and somehow keep all those balls up in the air with a smile on her face. But this week, her smile was frozen, as she tried to decide if she should pay the electric bill, the rent, or the tuition deposit for next year, which was due on Monday. And when she finally got to the store, so close to closing time, they were out of Challah. So now she would have to figure out how she could get some loaves in time for Shabbos, since she had to work tomorrow until just two hours before Shabbos, and the stores would be closed by the time she got home.

Malkie was bone tired, but she knew for her childrens’ sake that she had to reach deep down inside herself and pull yet more strength from an imaginary well-spring. She usually looked forward to seeing a few friends and acquaintances in shul on Shabbos morning — but frankly, this week she realized she was too exhausted to pull it all together. She allowed herself to wistfully imagine for just a moment what it would be like if she could rest and her boys had a kind, gentle father figure to take them to shul on Friday night and Shabbos morning, and perhaps spend some time learning in the afternoon with them to help them feel like all the other boys. Sometimes, it was just way too hard to keep up the smile. Because Malkie made such a huge effort to stay cheerful and upbeat, both in front of the children as well as in shul or on the street when she ran into neighbors, she somehow couldn’t let that veneer crack when she was down. She had worked too hard to maintain an air of well-being around her family to ever let people know the truth — that she was stretched to her limit — and if one more thing went wrong, she felt as if she would shatter into a million brittle pieces.

Battling a springtime rainstorm on the way home from grocery shopping, Malkie felt the wind and rain whipping cruelly at her face as she brought the bags into the house with her last ounce of strength. But suddenly, as she approached her doorstep, she spied a big white package sitting on her front doorstep, with a beautiful bouquet of flowers sticking out of the top. Malkie couldn’t imagine that anyone would send her anything, much less flowers, so she immediately assumed it must have been mistakenly dropped at her door. For a moment, she let herself imagine what it would be like to have real flowers on her Yom Tov table for Shavuos. But as she got closer and inspected the package, she saw that it indeed had her name on it. She let the children, who were by now bubbling over with excitement at the idea of a present for their dear Imma, tear open the box, and to their delight and surprise, they saw it was filled with small toys, books, a delectable looking boxed cheesecake and bags of cookies and sweets. Plus, there was a small white envelope near the bottom of the package, which yielded a coupon entitling the bearer to five free visits to the local optometrist for all the children in her family. She practically wept with surprise, relief and joy when she saw that, since the school nurse had recently told her that Shloime would need glasses, but her insurance didn’t cover the cost of the exam, much less the glasses themselves, and she hadn’t yet figured out how she could get him taken care of in that department.

Until that moment, she had been ready to utter the words, “I GIVE UP”, but suddenly her heart filled with joy that someone, from somewhere had taken note of her predicament and kindly found a way to plug some of the leaks in the lifeboat she precariously kept her little family afloat in. Malkie and the children were curious to know who had performed this miraculous act of kindness, but there were no real identifying marks to the package that she could make out, beyond the letters M.A.R.C.H., and she had no idea what they stood for — until she came across what seemed to be a newsletter at the very bottom of the package. The newsletter began, “Dear Tiereh Neshomah (precious soul), Welcome to the Chizzuk newsletter. We’re sending this to you because we want to let you know that Hashem is watching over you and will see you through your difficulties. And we want you to know that Klal Yisroel cares very deeply about you and your family. . .” Before Malkie could read any further, her eyes welled up with tears and blurred the rest of the words in front of her. It had been so long since anyone had really cared.

The beauty that touched Malkie’s lonely family has been brought about by a unique and groundbreaking organization called MARCH, which stands for Mothers Alone Raising Children. The phenomenon of single families, created either by divorce, abandonment or death of a spouse, has left just as huge a dent in the frum community as in the secular world. Yet somehow, in the religious community, perhaps because of the added stigma of a ‘broken family,’ single parent homes have been largely overlooked amidst the myriad worthwhile tzedakas and parlor meetings that raise money for this yeshiva or that organization. As a result, until now, you may not have heard of MARCH, because the modus operendi of the organization has been to implement its good works with quiet modesty, in order to preserve the dignity of the families under the sheltering care it provides.

MARCH, based in Brooklyn is a little miracle, with its somewhat deliberate air of mystery surrounding it. Only three people staff the organization full-time — all on a volunteer basis, all anonymously and not all from that location. These three amazing individuals, put in endless hours in order to provide recognition, chizuk, practical help and most of all dignity, to families that don’t fit the typical mold. They have been successful in choreographing incredible events, monthly packages, spot fundraising and vital communications, with the help of a network of erstwhile grassroots workers who pitch in as needed for specific projects. To date, over 450 single parent families, mostly headed by women raising their families alone, benefit from the ongoing support and chizuk provided by MARCH — but there is so much more to be done. As important as the thoughtful physical help may be, according to the women who are the recipients of MARCH’s unique brand of assistance, the organization delivers so much more than material benefit. The sensitivity, empathy and caring that is given over provides a monthly “hug” to these women and their families, enabling them to carry on in what would otherwise be crushing circumstances.

Gedolim including Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, Shlita have all become very passionate and enthusiastic about the importance of providing help in this tzniusdik manner to families in our communities. And Rabbi Heshie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere has now lent his name and shul to introduce MARCH to the Five Towns for an upcoming Shabbos, which will take place some time in June. The group, which is affiliated with Aim Habonim Seimicha in Israel, has been growing by leaps and bounds as more and more families join the ranks of those helped in the New York metropolitan area.

Key volunteers have their different reasons for being involved. One of the founders, a man who donates his time as the de facto executive director, devotes almost of all his waking hours to MARCH, without remuneration. He speaks of the importance of providing a safety net for a largely forgotten segment of society. “This chesed is qualitatively different than helping kids with cancer or special needs. The problem we are attacking is largely an unrecognized one — yet the mothers who raise children on their own are real heroes. They are preserving and bringing along the next generation of yiddishe neshomas, and we see our role as one of helping them to accomplish this goal with dignity.”

“A lot of the women we help are the working poor – they are not eligible for public assistance, yet they lack the financial resources to make ends meet. They fall right in between those that qualify for government aid and those that just scrape by. That’s why we’re trying to help them with all these different services. One of the things we started recently is a furniture exchange. We thought, it’s such a great feeling to have a beautiful couch in the house, and so many single mothers can’t afford this basic item. With so many necessities that they can’t cover, extra things such as a decent piece of furniture that could uplift the spirit tend to fall by the wayside. When we can, around the Yomim Tovim, we send a small gift of jewelry to the mother that has been donated. We want the mother to feel that she is worthwhile, so she can approach life with self-confidence. When somebody recognizes that a single mother is doing an amazing job, then her ability to give to her children grows. We recognize that life for so many in this situation simply drains and drags at them, sapping their resources. But when a single mother feels worthwhile, and knows that someone notices and cares for her family, it increases her own capacity to give a feeling of self-worth over to her children. So our main focus is to uplift and enhance the dignity of the mothers, in the hopes that we are saving future generations of children from experiencing the devastating effects of growing up isolated and damaged from society’s neglect of a broken family.”

Another volunteer spoke movingly of her reasons for becoming involved in MARCH. She heard of the organization through a friend, and became active around the time that her own daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. During a heart-breaking period of her own life, she and her husband promised themselves that if their daughter improved, they would truly dedicate themselves to this chesed, and Baruch Hashem, they have done just that. Since then, she has been a one-woman power-house coordinating amazing events like the recent Chanukah Chagiga, complete with a free Chinese auction (so everyone could go home a winner), optional shadchanim services, and gifts. The event was held at a beautiful undisclosed location for over 200 mothers. After the party, one mother wrote in anonymously, “Thank you so much for all the support and encouragement you have given me … In particular, I ‘d like to thank you for the beautiful Chanukah party you planned for us. When I didn’t really feel like going, I knew I had to get out of the house and go. I pushed myself and did not regret it for a minute. When I entered the hall, I could not believe what I saw! It was decorated so beautifully and with such obvious effort, planning and class, I literally thought I was in the wrong place! I asked someone what was going on in there — I thought the party for single mothers must be in another part of the hall. It made me feel so special to know that you had planned such a beautiful party just for us! I know it’s hard to imagine, but some of us have a hard time managing basic things that most people don’t think twice about. In the affluent society we live in, who would imagine that some of us have to think ten times before taking the clothes to the cleaners or getting our shoes fixed …”

Another mother wrote in to say, “I really don’t know if I can put into words how I feel about the support you have given me over the past year and a half. Somehow, your envelope always seems to come when I’m at my lowest. It’s astounding how uplifting a yellow envelope can be on a bleak day. It’s not the money you sent me alone, although it definitely helps, it’s not even the articles of inspiration. It’s the thought that’s behind the envelope. The boxes that come before the Yomim Tovim seem to be packed with such care …”

In fact, hundreds of these types of letters have poured into MARCH’s Post Office box in the past few years. The letters, which overflow with genuine gratitude, bear testimony to the amazing work the organization is accomplishing. “Being single and living alone, I feel my world caving in on me most of the time. And then, once a month, someone sends me a piece of their heart and shows that they care.” Another writes, “I have recently taken into my basement a divorced mother with two young boys. She is recovering from surgery and has been left penniless. She came to my house a week ago and has been living on a mattress in my basement, with the boys on cots. She literally has no money to live day by day due to her poor health. No one has offered to take her boys to shul or anything. The pain is so deep and I pray for Hashem to open our eyes. Maybe this is the time for people to put down a sefer and do a chesed — a different type of chesed shel emes (where no reward is expected.) All you can do for this mother will be appreciated. Thanks for all your chizuk and most of all for listening.”

It seems that MARCH’s entry into the Five Towns may be long overdue, and the services they provide will be a welcome relief to many families who truly suffer silently under these difficult circumstances. Allen Ganz, local businessman and past President of the Young Israel of Woodmere is largely responsible for the inroads MARCH has made into the Five Towns community recently. The MARCH connection with Ganz was fortuitously made early this past Spring, when he met one of the MARCH founders, a business leader of a Metropolitan area company, at the Chai Lifeline national dinner. Ganz, a member of Chai Lifeline’s national Board (as well as numerous other local cheseds) has been instrumental in moving mountains for that organization. During the dinner, the two got to talking, and the MARCH founder asked Ganz for advice on taking the fledgling organization to the next level.

Ganz reports that “…since I was involved with Chai Lifeline and other charities, he asked me how you get the message across to the people in a community about this very different kind of chesed. I told him I thought it was a worthwhile tzedaka that people need to know about, so I arranged a meeting with Rabbi Billet, who is in the forefront of charity work here in the Five Towns and national scene. Rabbi Billet met with them and he agreed to be of help, offering the shul to introduce this tzedaka to our community.” Since becoming involved, Ganz himself has been instrumental in arranging a whole new unique range of services for the organization including free dental care and optometry, generously provided by local practitioners.

What if, after reading all this, you’re moved and find that you want to help? One way people can get involved is by referring women to MARCH. Referrals should be made with great discretion, so as to preserve the dignity of the family. A concerned party can send a family’s contact information to the address provided below, and an application will be sent out to the family. The organization has recently sadly had to stop mailing out the small monthly checks for a while, since they ran out of funds. So sending your check in, also to the address below, will be of enormous assistance, and will allow MARCH to reinstate this important part of the program. But there is more that neighbors, friends and families can do. “Using our powers of observation and raising our level of awareness to become more conscious of those with less obvious needs around us is key,” said Rabbi Billet. “MARCH has a good and unique mission. There are several organizations based in the Five Towns that are special, and what they all have in common is they address themselves to populations that have previously been overlooked. Single parents are a group of people in our community that have certain unique circumstances. These people live under tremendous strain and pressure between financial and parental responsibilities as they try to get on with some quality of life — all the while that they remain single. I think that’s a very special need and I think it’s being addressed uniquely by MARCH.”

Rabbi Billet also notes that, “Many other kinds of people can provide services to this population that others take for granted. Physicians and chiropractors can offer services either pro bono or at a discounted rate. An attorney can offer free legal services and an accountant can offer to help prepare a tax return. There are now dentists within our community that have begun providing free services to these families. A grocery store or local shops can provide coupons for practical needs such as dry cleaning and shoe repair. Basic things that so many take for granted can make a real difference. The local yeshivas can apportion chesed hours to single parent families, giving local teens an opportunity to help out with babysitting or homework.”

When asked how one can help a single parent who may be too embarrassed to come forward and ask for assistance, Rabbi Billet says, “ Sometimes it’s a two way street. Things have to be called attention to. I guess if a person is too embarrassed to come forward, then sensitizing people in the community will help them become more aware. The greater responsibility lies with the providers rather than the beneficiaries. Making people feel comfortable at both ends is key. The insensitivity of those who don’t realize can be largely cured by educating people.”

But there is a sociological reality that speaking up in this situation is difficult. There are issues of Tzinua for a woman, and because there exists a key Jewish teaching from Dovid Ha Melech in Tehillim 45:14, “Kol Kevoda Bat Melech Penima,” (the glory of a daughter of Israel lies within her) — many women find it especially difficult to go outside of themselves and be vocal in asking for help, even if they desperately need it. Rabbi Billet points out, “There is also the issue of a woman already feeling the burden of compromised circumstances that unfortunately still has some social stigma attached to it. Her natural inclination to hide the problem as she strives to put her best foot forward in a community — often for her children’s future sake — paradoxically perpetuates the situation. If a woman is taught her entire life that it is not becoming of a traditional Jewish woman to be forward, then we have to reeducate people in certain circumstances that it is not only permissible, but also totally appropriate for a woman to speak out and let others know of the needs of her family. We all have to be educated. I’m still learning myself. It is a great privilege to be able to have your eyes opened and have the ability to say, ‘Where have I been for all this time?’ We have an opportunity to make better people of ourselves by opening our eyes to what is going on.”

One final quote from a grateful mother, “To all of you out there at MARCH, I want you to know that there is no greater feeling in the world, than to know that someone cares. Whoever you are, Hashem should fulfill all your needs and together may we be zocheh to bias hamoshiach very soon.”

If you wish to become involved, referrals and checks can be sent to:
MARCH - Mothers Alone Raising Children
1214 Broadway Room 406
New York, NY 10001
Tel - 212-696-5978


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