by Alisa Roberts.
A.J. Mandelbaum is running the Jerusalem Half Marathon this week. He’s raising money to support OneFamily, an organization that assists Israeli victims of terror. A.J. is not a runner, but he feels strongly connected to this cause. Which is all the more remarkable, considering that a week ago he didn’t even know it existed.
“I knew nothing about it beforehand, I’d never heard of the organization,” says Mandelbaum, an 18-year-old LA native currently on a gap year program in Israel. “I was asked by every charity possible to run for their team. I think that every charity is great, but this connected with me because I really felt the uniqueness. They’re real people, real families; I just related to it right away. So there I was, signing up for the marathon two weeks before, with no prior training.”
OneFamily is pretty unique. They are an organization that aims to rehabilitate and reintegrate victims of terror of all ages through a variety of assistance programs. “It really is an amazing organization,” says Michelle Napell, Executive Director. “We provide financial assistance, therapeutic assistance. We run retreats. We have camps three times a year for children. We will provide financial and legal assistance if necessary. And we try to fill in where there’s a lacking in the system.” They provide this assistance to around 350 families on any given year. “As you know, families are big in Israel. Our camps take care of about 350 kids every time we have them.” The numbers shift year to year, as people don’t remain in the programs indefinitely. “Our goal is not to keep them in the programs forever, but for them to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society with the knowledge that at any given time they are always welcome back. Once you’re a member of our family you’re always a member of our family. And unfortunately our family continues to grow each and every year with different acts of terror. Sometimes people don’t even realize that they were suffering. It could be five years after the attack or five months, and they realize that they really do need some help. Many victims of terror suffer from PTSD, so anything can set them off and send them into a tailspin.” Anything – like 60 rockets being fired into your backyard, as residents of Southern Israel had to contend with last Wednesday. In fact, OneFamily was there at the time, delivering shaloch manot. “The crazy thing was that yesterday we had a bunch of volunteers as well as our regional director distributing the shaloch manot in the south, and obviously they were forced into shelters while they were delivering,” Napell tells me. “Nobody was hurt, thank goodness.”
The shaloch manot are one OneFamily’s annual projects. “We bring in a lot of different yeshivas to help us pack mishloach manot that we deliver all over Israel to victims of terror,” says Napell. “It’s a great way to get the yeshiva kids involved, but also obviously to help us out because we do unfortunately have so many that we deliver. This year we had over 325 volunteers, and they packed over 2,500 shaloch manot.” That project turned out to be A.J.’s introduction to the organization. A.J. and his yeshiva, Yeshivat Torat Shraga, were some of those 325 volunteers. For a couple of the boys, it was a transformative experience. “We packed mishloach manot and they described what they do at OneFamily,” says A.J. “That was actually very moving for me, and I know my friends who were there were also very moved. It was really nice to hear how far everything that we’ve packed goes. How they don’t just leave it by the door, they make sure that the person is home before they give it to them. How they reach out to everyone. I felt that it was a very important cause.” Why did A.J. connect so strongly to this particular cause? “The thing that inspired me and my friend is that the people affected by terrorism are normal people going about their everyday lives,” he explains. “The different places [where there had been attacks] are places that I personally go to on a Saturday night. Places where people are doing innocent things, like meeting friends for pizza. No one was expecting anything to happen. That really impacted me. These terrorist attacks change their lives, and the lives of their family and friends. Normal people struck by catastrophe.” Maybe part of what makes OneFamily successful is that the help they give is often also normal and everyday. “What makes OneFamily so special is the individual attention that they give to each and every family,” explains Napell. “There is no cookie cutter. It can be, ‘I need you to come over and celebrate my deceased husband’s birthday with me.’ Or, ‘I need you to come with me to say Kaddish.’ And that’s what we’re there for. Unfortunately there is a need, and we are there.” That’s what reached A.J. “It could happen to anyone. That’s why I decided to get involved,” he says.
His quick commitment fits well with this organization. It was actually founded through a similar impulse to help. “OneFamily was founded in 2001, right after the Sbarros bombing,” explains Napell. “It was started by Michal and Lou Belzberg.” Michal had been about to celebrate her bat mitzvah when that terrible attack took place, killing 15 people and injuring over 100 more. “She decided to use the money that was going to go to the bat mitzvah to help victims of terror. She called off her bat mitzvah and asked everybody to make donations instead, and that’s how we were started.” The Belzberg family raised over $100,000 in that gesture, and OneFamily was born. “Over the past 13 years we’ve distributed over $40 million, and have helped victims ever since,” says Napell.
And they are still helping. This week the OneFamily team will be participating in the Jerusalem Marathon, where volunteers and terror victims alike will be running and raising money for the organization. A.J. will be out there with them, running 13.1 miles after two whole weeks of training. But he seems pretty confident. “We’re on our way. It’s kind of crazy to sign up for it two weeks before you’re planning on doing it. It just shows how inspired we were. We jumped on the opportunity to help in any way we can. We ended up signing up that night on the bus back [from packing shaloch manot], and that night we went on our first run.” A.J. and one other boy from his yeshiva, Nathan, will be running the half marathon. And they are determined to finish. “We’re going to do it. And if we don’t make all of it running, we’ll walk it. Or crawl it.”
Napell is excited about the race. “What’s really amazing about this is that we have victims of terror running with yeshiva kids and seminary kids,” she tells me. “We have a bunch of people from the US flying over to do it together, running alongside the victims who they are raising money to help. And they’re running through the streets of Jerusalem, where many of these attacks took place. So you’re running with the victims and they’re running past the places they were victimized.”
As for A.J., he’s just happy to be doing his part. He’s already raised over $1000 in this short time, but the money isn’t his primary concern. “Any amount is great,” he says. “I just want more people to be aware of this wonderful thing they’re doing. People who are hit by terrorism, they need everyone’s help. I think OneFamily really needs more help, and I want to get their name around for this important cause.”