Their needs were broad, but she wasn’t daunted
Name: Michelle Ciffer
Dream: Provide access to educational and leisure services for every Jewish family
Location: Manchester, UK
2020 has been quite a year; my husband passed away in January after fighting stage-four brain cancer for two years. A few months later, the pandemic arrived and I was sick as well, terrified I’d leave my kids alone.
The years of my husband’s illness were tough, but also very uplifting. We worked to strengthen our emunah and continue to give, give, give. Even on his deathbed, my husband encouraged me to carry on with the vital work I do for our community.
I’m a born-and-bred Mancunian, I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m addicted to my kehillah, helping people however I can. In school, I was a quiet, somewhat mousy girl, and no one would have believed where life would take me. I first worked as a teacher, but I was always drawn to helping people in an even more hands-on way.
I came into my current role about 17 years ago as a very part-time worker, only five hours a week. As part of the government Sure Start program, the Agudah ran a center called The Hershel Weiss Children & Family Centre, and I was hired to help coordinate it.
The Sure Start concept was to provide services for children aged zero to five, things like health care, drop-in play, and nutritional support. The Hershel Weiss Centre was government-funded, but administered by frum people specifically to service the frum population, who wouldn’t avail themselves of a center that wasn’t sensitive to their culture.
I loved the job from the get-go, and have been expanding and adding to the Centre ever since. We’ve built libraries, offer classes, have programs matching volunteers with the elderly — I have more ideas than I can implement, which can be challenging at times!
We try to offer everything a family might need, even if it’s not an obvious, glaring need. For example, every year we offer a summer holiday program for families who don’t have cars and otherwise wouldn’t be able to get away. We rent theme parks, arrange separate swimming, and hire buses to take families on day trips. One year, I attended a charity event that provides mobility equipment and had them design a customized go-kart for a boy in one of our families whose cerebral palsy limited his ability to get around and enjoy the summer with his family.
Our programs are just the public face of what I do. I’m also a point person for families in crisis, and deal with hard-core poverty and dysfunction on a regular basis.
Due to the comprehensive scope of our projects, the work consumes me. Government officials and others I meet through work, who know how much is on my plate, are surprised to learn that I’m also a typical Jewish mother, who loves Shabbos, loves feeding her family, and is completely involved in her kids’ day-to-day lives.
Of course, I could never have juggled what I did when I had little children without my husband’s support, and without lots of household help!
There were times I had to run to the hospital to help out with a crisis on Erev Pesach or a few minutes before Shabbos, calling, “Sorry, kids, I’m going, not sure when I’ll be back,” and they were great about it. At one of my son’s bar mitzvah, he told the guests that Mommy had six kids — the five of us and her project!
Navigating the cultural differences between our kehillah and the broader community can be a fine balancing act, and has its amusing moments. A radio station that donated seven truckloads of toys for Chanukah gifts decided it wanted some publicity to go with its donation, and sent a fire truck to play music outside our building — with Santa Claus on top. Explaining that one to the kollel that shares our premises was embarrassing!
Aside from ensuring that the institutions we deal with respect our Jewish sensibilities, I also often find myself having to advocate for our community’s needs to people who don’t understand our mindset. When officials we approach for help raise their eyebrows at our family sizes, I like to use a line from my husband: “It’s not the children’s fault.” I stress all the time that whatever you may think of our values or choices, children are children and need to be cared for. In general, I’m forceful in pushing for what our families need; I can be tough as nails, but I also hold no grudges.
Finding the funding is the most consuming need in running a multiple-service organization like mine. Our operating budget comes from the government, but representatives are constantly threatening to cut it, so we always need to be alert. Baruch Hashem, I’ve never had to de-launch a program due to lack of funds, but it requires constant effort to get what we need, and often the Eibeshter saves the day at the 11th hour.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen a huge upsurge in poverty and demand for our (now remotely operated) services. We’re providing treat parcels to single moms, have hundreds of kids tuning in to story time twice a week in their choice of Yiddish or English, offer meditation sessions for women, and teach cake decorating, makeup application, and other useful skills to teens.
One thing that bothered me about the coronavirus response was the demonization of children. I felt that in the rush to lock everything down, we made kids into pariahs: “You’re super-spreaders! Stay away!” In my position on a parent committee to promote adherence to the health guidelines, my colleagues and I work on spreading a positive message: “Stay safe at home! These are the activities, programs, and treats we are providing….”
In my husband’s memory, we’ve established a fund to offer an alternative to our popular summer programs, which are out of the question this year. We’re subsidizing car rentals for families to get away, and sponsoring free outdoor toys.
As lockdowns around the world ease, and we cautiously stick our heads outdoors, I hope that, like my husband’s illness, this challenging time will prove to have been a catalyst for growth and a springboard for even more chesed and achdus in my amazing community.
L’illui nishmas Avraham Yaakov ben Pinchas Zelig
If I had unlimited funds: I’d build a community cafe, attached to the Centre, where women could come sit, socialize, and watch their children play, free of charge.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 703)
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