Thursday, July 01, 2004

Press - Chesed Magazine, Winter 2004, Cover Story - A Silent Cry

How life had unraveled. From starry-eyed kallah to busy young mother to embattled wife to divorcee. Money was tight. So tight that a simple car repair set off a desperate round of phone calls in search of a loan. Time was even tighter. Back in the workforce full time, dropping a half-asleep toddler off at day care at 7 a.m., returning home at 6 p.m. to supper, homework and laundry, exhaustion had become the status quo.

But the sharpest pain came from the look she fleetingly perceived on her children’s faces when she finally had time to pay attention. They so desperately needed her warmth. She tried to overcome the fatigue that weighed down her heart and give them the emotional nourishment they craved. Often she succeeded, but sometimes, the struggle was too great.

“I’m tired. I need to rest,” she’d tell them, and then go into her room, lie down and cry.

One evening in December, arriving home with toddler in tow, she noticed a large box sitting in front of her door.

“It must be a misdelivery,” she thought. “Probably more Land’s End stuff for the Weissman children. I wonder what it’s like to be able to buy new things for your children.”

She was startled to see that the box was addressed to her. She brought it inside and was immediately mobbed by the other three children. “What’s that, Mommy? Who sent it? Is it a present?”

She cut through the packing tape to reveal the contents of the package. Inside was a wonderful selection of Chanukah toys and candy. Nestled among the items was a small box, which she opened slowly. Within it was a pair of delicate sterling silver earrings for her – a lovely yom tov gift of jewelry like her husband used to buy her so long ago.

As the children tore through the bounty with delight, acting like carefree, happy children for the first time in a long time, she began reading the newsletter that had come inside the package. “Tiereh Neshoma (Precious Soul) the newsletter began…and it went on, telling her how wonderful she was, how much Hashem loved her, what a heroic job she was doing raising her children alone, giving them all she had to give of herself.

And to top it all off, the delivery contained a check – just what she needed to cover the extra expenses of making a family get together for Chanukah . Up until that moment, she thought that her tight finances would mean she couldn’t host the party this year – a development that would have been terribly disappointing to her children. So much had changed for them; she dearly hoped not to take this away from them as well. And now she didn’t have to.

For the first time since her divorce nine months earlier, she felt that someone, somewhere understood her struggle. The tears that filled her eyes this time did not spring from a well of despair. They were tears of gratitude. Tears of joy.

QUIET COMFORT

An organization called MARCH (Mothers Alone Raising Children) brings this kind of
profound comfort to more than 430 women across the country who are raising children alone as a result of divorce or the husband’s death. The organization is not the product of social workers or psychologists. It was inspired by a man who, following his own divorce, found himself dating divorced women. The emotional pain and financial hardship he encountered in their lives touched him. He began secretly paying one woman’s grocery bills. Then another one’s, and then another one’s as well.

He revealed to his friend the desperation and despair he was finding right there in their own community. So many Jewish mothers who managed to walk out the door looking “put together” with smiles on their faces were hiding lives of sadness and struggle. They deserved better from the community as they poured all their strength into maintaining their households and raising happy, well adjusted children.

“This is a crisis people don’t know about,” he says. “People don’t understand the effect that a divorce or death of a husband has on a family. From the outside, after awhile, it looks like life is just going on, and people go back to their own lives.’

It was out of this crisis that MARCH was born. It has never been formalized much beyond the structure it had in its inception. Wives, brothers, sisters and friends have gotten involved, providing the manpower to pack the packages, produce the newsletter and handle the mailing and deliveries. Fundraising is a very informal affair, depending largely on word of mouth advertising and the generosity of caring people. The people who run MARCH call themselves a “committee.”

Though endorsed by gedolim such as Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Avrohom Wolfson, Shlita, MARCH fervently refuses to publicize the names of this “committee.’ The air of mystery was born of necessity. Many of the women MARCH helped in the beginning were the committee members’ acquaintances and neighbors; they would have been humiliated to accept help from people they knew. And even now, when the list numbers in the hundreds, anonymity provides vital protection for the families’ dignity. The givers, too, benefit by keeping their chesed under wraps. Giving anonymously, the Torah teaches, is the highest form of giving.

MARCH’s basic function is to deliver a monthly stipend and newsletter to the women on its list. Thoughtful extras are sent for Yomim Tovim and seasonal needs. A piece of jewelry for the mother is an especially eloquent expression of MARCH’s loving care. But some gifts are pragmatic. For instance, prior to the summer, families received calling cards. This enabled them to keep in touch with children in summer camp without having to count every minute and every penny. They receive packages for Purim, Pesach and Chanukah as well.

The money is vitally important to women who have become their family’s breadwinners. Even those who are essentially meeting expenses have little or no cushion. The monthly stipend gives them some leeway, some money they can count on to reduce the stress of living on the edge.

But equally, if not more important, is the newsletter, named simply, “Chizzuk Newsletter.” Hundreds of recipients have sent letters to MARCH’s post office box showering the group’s organizers with words of gratitude for the comfort and inspiration they are providing.

“Thank you for reminding me, affirming how wonderful I am as a mother – a mother alone. I really need that as a reminder,” says one letter.

“…I just came back from court and it was Taanis Esther. Needless to say, the court system is draining and dragging, and when I came home, there was a Shalach Manos. package for me. It uplifted my spirit so much, I started to cry…I truly do thank you again and again from the bottom of my heart…”

“You are Hakodosh Boruch Hu’s messengers of “Somaich Noflim,” picking me up and enveloping me in a warm glow,” says another.

“Your monthly financial help and caring newsletter have made such a difference to me. Your Ahavas Yisroel is truly a balm that heals me,” writes another grateful recipient.

A JOB FOR EVERYONE

It seems almost simplistic to believe that by telling people “You’re doing great. You’re a hero. Hashem loves you so much and He’s with you all the time,” one can actually part the heavy clouds that often envelop these women’s spirits. If it were that simple, one would think, everyone would tell their widowed or divorced neighbor these things.

And that’s what MARCH’s organizers want to see happen. The problems they are addressing are far bigger than any one group can handle. First of all, one group cannot possibly know about every woman who could benefit from its services. And even if they did know, they would not have the capacity to help them all. Yet most people know of women in their own neighborhoods, schools or shuls who are raising their children alone.

One way people can help is by referring women to MARCH. Two years ago, MARCH went public with an ad in the Jewish Press. It reached out to women who were alone with children, inviting them to call or write. One hundred women responded. Since then, through word of mouth, the organization has taken on from 30 to 50 new mothers a month.

What else can friends and neighbors do? “We all need to be aware,” says the MARCH founder. “Offer to take the children to shul. Invite the family for Shabbos. Dance with the boys on Simchas Torah. Let the families know that they’re not isolated.’

On the financial end, the need is great and growing. “We’ve had situations where a woman was having to choose between having her kids thrown out of yeshivah or having her family thrown out of their apartment. We’ve stepped into some of these situations and been able to work them out.”

A DIFFERENT REALITY

In the case of divorce, most people believe that child support and alimony eliminate the kind of financial disasters MARCH often sees. But for various reasons – sometimes a simple lack of sufficient income to support both the father’s and mother’s households, sometimes lingering issues between the ex-spouses – a post-divorce household is often teetering at the edge of a financial abyss.

A letter from one mother offers a picture of what life can become for some families: “I am writing to request a dresser for my children. They don’t have furniture except for beds, so their clothes are in plastic bags. The dresser they had was given to us many years ago, and has completely fallen apart. Its broken drawers are useless and I cannot afford another. Besides this, I have no vacuum cleaner. Neighbors seem annoyed if I borrow theirs too often. My couch is also all ripped up from use and age. The most important are dressers and a vacuum cleaner, so that my little apartment can be clean. Thank you and G-d bless you.”

“We don’t get into politics,” says the MARCH spokesman. “We don’t get into finding fault. Our mission is just to help families who need help.”

There are, in fact, a few men caring for children alone who are also on the MARCH mailing list. One might think that men would have just as tough a time adjusting to the parenting role as women have adjusting to their new roles. However, the financial strain is far more significant for women, and therefore, their coping strategies are much more limited.

“Still, there are some men out there who are struggling to raise their kids, and we’re happy to help them too,” says the MARCH founder.

As MARCH grows, the variety of plights it witnesses and handles grows as well. Obviously, one group of volunteers can’t solve all problems. It refers women to existing chesed and social service organizations where appropriate, and it hopes to hire its own social worker as well. It runs a furniture exchange to help mothers acquire needed items, and it also has a “Shabbos exchange” to arrange hospitality for MARCH families.

The bottom line for MARCH is to uplift the spirits of single mothers, and by extension, their children. Toward that goal, it has sponsored a few social gatherings where women can get together and enjoy themselves – no stress, no expense. The response to this year’s Chanukah gathering caught the organizers by surprise.

“We had expected 150 women,” said one organizer. “More than 250 came. We arranged car rides from various parts of New Jersey, and provided a van to bring in 16 mothers from Monroe. Others came from Monsey, Williamsburg, Far Rockaway, Five Towns, They came from far and wide. We had mothers coming from upstate New York and all over the tri-state area.”

The guests were treated to an elegant hot and cold buffet at Bais Brocha Stolin hall in Boro Park. They received a total of $13,000 worth of gifts donated by businesses and individuals. Miriam Swerdlov, a highly popular speaker, presented a lecture full of humor, warmth and inspiration. Estie Lebovic provided musical entertainment. Shadchanim were on hand to meet interested women. But most of all, the women were there for each other.

One volunteer who serves as MARCH’s events coordinator described the scene:
"It was astounding to see over 250 Jewish mothers, who have so many overwhelming problems, spending a night smiling and laughing. They seemed transformed into a group of carefree women enjoying a delightful Chanukah party. I was told over and over how they couldn't remember the last time they had so much fun, and how they felt fully accepted as they met new friends who understood what they were going through. The most frequent comments I got were profuse thank yous, followed by, ‘When are you making the next event? I can't wait!’”

MARCH’s future plans include establishing a big brother program. This could be a lifeline for boys who don’t have a father available to help them review their learning. Most women have very little exposure to Talmudic learning and are therefore unable to help their sons with homework once they reach fifth or sixth grade, when Talmud becomes the main subject. Without that consistent review, the children can easily fall behind; their class performance and self-esteem suffer. Big brothers can also bring boys to father-son learning programs that many shuls and yeshivos sponsor.

Key to every aspect of MARCH’ s work is its ardent protection of the women’s dignity. Mailings all emanate from a post office box, and correspondence from the women goes back to the same box. “If people don’t know who’s helping them, it’s easier for them to accept the help,” says the founder. “Our number-one concern is the dignity of the mothers.”

And through every package, every check and every line of the Chizzuk Newsletter, this devotion shows. MARCH acknowledges that at least for now, these mothers are dealing with pain. It doesn’t pretend that it can make the pain go away. As one issue of Chizzuk told its “Tiereh Neshomas,” “Hashem didn’t promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain, but He did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears and light for the way.”

For 430 mothers raising their children alone, MARCH is that strength, comfort and light.


Do It Yourself Guide
On Your Own
- Invite families without fathers for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals
- Learn with their children or help them with homework
- Include them in shul and community events
- Dance with the boys at simchas and on Simchas Torah
- Invite children to your house to give the mother a break
- If you deal in merchandise, donate a substantial quantity of an item that would be a suitable addition to a MARCH gift package.
Become an entrepreneur
- Establish a shul Shabbos hospitality system
- Establish a gemach for household needs
Support MARCH with a tax deductible contribution sent to
1214 Broadway, Room 406, New York, NY 10001

SIDEBAR:
To date, MARCH has distributed the following:

1. 130,000 pages of Chizzuk to inspire, uplift, and bring hope.

2. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct financial aid and emergency financial
assistance.

3. 7000 packages for Rosh Hashanah, Succos, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, and Shavuos.

4. 2,400 pounds of Matzah for Pesach.

5. 2,900 Music CD's and Torah Tapes.

6. 3,300 Seforim and inspirational books.

7. 4,550 pieces of jewelry and silver items to enhance Yom Tov.

8. 28,800 Toys to over 1,500 children.














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