Birthday Candles Igniting Hope

But one Israeli group is aiming to end all that, recognizing that a birthday party – complete with friends and family, and yes, cake and candles – can infuse a child with self-confidence and self-esteem, not to mention innocent joy.

“These kids are often invisible,” said Ruthie Sobel Luttenberg, founder and director of Birthday Angels, a non-profit organization that delivers birthday parties to children living on the social and economic margins.

“They are deprived and they are starving for this kind of celebration and attention. So we try to give them the place of royalty that they deserve. It makes a significant impact on their lives and outlooks.”

Despite its image as a modern and affluent society, economic and social disparities in Israel are sharp. A 2009 study revealed that one-third of Israeli children – over three-quarter million of them – live below the poverty line.

“When families are struggling to get by, birthdays fall to the bottom of a long list of priorities, and kids suffer from this,” Luttenberg said. “The need is there.”

The Birthday Angels concept is simple, but hugely effective, touching about 350 children and youth each month and a whopping 11,000 since the initiative launched six years ago. In 2012, the organization aims to reach 5,000 more.

Operating as a volunteer-driven network, Birthday Angels partners with Israeli mentoring organizations with grassroots reach and on-the-ground knowledge.

The largest and most far-reaching of these is the Perach Tutorial Project of the Weizmann Institute of Science, which pairs thousands of needy children from underprivileged backgrounds with university students who act as tutors, mentors and role models.

Armed with activity kits designed and distributed by Birthday Angels, volunteer teens and university students are equipped and empowered to organize and run birthday parties in schools, community centers, homes and other social settings. They target children and youth from first grade through middle school.

The kits contain age-appropriate decorations, games, and activities – often with an educational twist – that put the guest of honor squarely in the middle of the action.

While Birthday Angels gets some financial and in-kind support from corporations and foundations, including The Covenant Foundation, it also has a wide base of individual donors who sponsor a party with a modest contribution, covering the cost of a kit.

The initiative has attained some star status among many congregations and Jewish day schools in the United States. Many make it the focus of tzedakah and mitzvah projects by students and others.

At Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, NJ, for instance, students arrange a bake sale each year to raise money for Birthday Angels, part of a series of required mitzvah projects.

Last year, $370 was collected – enough to pay for ten birthday parties for Israeli kids. And many students donate a portion of their B’nai Mitzvah gifts too.

“Birthdays are universal, and we can all relate to how special we feel, especially as children, when the day approaches and arrives,” said Sandy Dermon, who teaches sixth-graders at Temple Beth Rishon and has attended Birthday Angels parties in Israel.

“The idea that a child does not celebrate his or her birthday is just something that is unacceptable, and students here feel moved to change that reality.”

The seeds of the initiative were planted back in the 1970’s, when Luttenberg, then a 17-year-old new émigré to the Jewish homeland, did volunteer work with families in poor neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. A young girl, approaching her ninth birthday, let on that her family had no means to mark it.

The experience stuck with Luttenberg.

Decades later, with backgrounds in event planning and informal Jewish education, she established Birthday Angels to ensure that no other Israeli youngster – whether Jewish or not – would tell the same tale.

“This is just win-win all around,” she said, “for our volunteers performing an extraordinary service, for those who support us and recognize that this is pure tzedakah, for families and communities that are challenged to breath normalcy, and especially for the children who sense the joy of belonging and being loved and celebrated for who they are.”

Miri Mizrachi, a Perach program mentor to a young boy named Tzur, said the experience of organizing a Birthday Angels party for him left a lasting impression among all who were involved.

“Tzur is a terrific kid but very shy so it was important for me to have a party for him and friends from his class and give him the opportunity to be the center of attention,” Mizrachi said.

“His parents were very happy about the idea because they are not able to have a party for him at home. The day did a lot for him and made him feel how important he is to me and to his close community. This was just a great joy.”

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation

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