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One Big Tent

Moishe Hellman relives five decades of unconditional giving at Ohel

Photos: Jeff Zorabedian

 

In the early 1970s, when Moishe Hellman was recently married and getting started in a real estate career, he bought a building including an apartment that would change the course of his life.

It wasn’t a prize acquisition in a chic neighborhood; on the contrary, the area was so blighted most people didn’t dare set foot there. “At that time, there were a lot of foreclosures, and banks were selling bundles of buildings at reduced prices,” says Mr. Hellman, known to all as Moishe. “Those bundles would contain some good buildings and some awful ones.”

What caught his eye was that a tenant in one of the most difficult buildings was named Goldberg. Goldberg? How could that be? Determined to find out, he ventured out to the apartment — “I took a companion, I was afraid to go alone” — and knocked on the door.

A young woman answered. “Yes, I’m Leah Goldberg,” she said casually, and noting his yarmulke, proceeded, in Yiddish, to give Moishe a brief synopsis of her life. Leah was the daughter of elderly Holocaust survivors who were the sole surviving members of their families. Leah was struggling with drug addiction and was living with a Puerto Rican boyfriend. Together, they had a child they called Mary, whom Leah’s parents called Miriam. Unable to properly care for their child, Mary/Miriam had been placed in foster care; weekly visits were arranged and supervised by an agency in Boro Park called OHEL.

OHEL, then located in a storefront on 16th Avenue and 49th Street, wasn’t far from Moishe’s home on 48th Street. He was intrigued. Moishe turned to his friend Baruch Handler a”h, an OHEL board member at the time, and asked him about little Miriam’s case, Handler couldn’t divulge details due to confidentiality, but confirmed the story was true. The idea of Jewish children in distress plagued Moishe.

“Can I help?” he asked.

“Come to the next board meeting,” Handler replied.

Before long, Moishe found himself voted onto the board himself.

He would spend the next 21 years as a member of the board, and then the next 26 as president. Along the way, Moishe also assumed his cherished role of OHEL’s ombudsman — an insider tasked with impartially investigating and addressing complaints against the organization. During those decades, Moishe Hellman helped grow the agency from 100 to 1,300 employees, currently assisting a client load of over 13,000 people in New York, New Jersey, and California.

Under his tenure, OHEL’s services expanded from a foster care agency to a multifaceted family services organization offering residential care, preventive services, elder care, shelters for victims of domestic violence, school-based services, trauma services, day programs, and Camp Kaylie. This past November, Moishe stepped down as president, but he can’t bring himself to abandon his life’s mission completely: He’ll continue in his role as ombudsman.

Moishe meets us in OHEL’s home, the Jaffa Family Center, located off Avenue M in Flatbush. The conference room, a sleek and spacious room on the third floor, seems all the more airy, as it opens onto a large open terrace with some chairs and tables. The facility includes everything from offices to therapy rooms to an urgent-care center to a communal kitchen for teaching independent living skills.

Moishe himself has a solid, welcoming, pleasant presence. Dressed like a businessman, clean-shaven with clear green eyes behind his glasses, he could pass equally for a captain of industry or the loving zeide he is. “Whatever Moishe is to OHEL, he’s the same and more to his family,” his wife Rozi declares.

He’s clearly more interested in talking about OHEL than himself. I had to hear from Rozi that he’s scrupulous about putting in his hours of Torah study, and is an athletic type who used to love playing baseball and remains a great bowler and fisherman. Yet despite the competitive edge evident even in family Scrabble games, he’s careful never to step on anyone’s toes in business. “He’ll do anything to avoid chillul Hashem with everyone, including his tenants, even if it means sacrificing money in the process,” Rozi says.

As for Miriam, the little girl placed in foster care almost 50 years ago, her birth mother died shortly after meeting Moishe. A few years later, her non-Jewish father got clean and began taking steps to take her back. But like many addicts, he soon relapsed and passed away from an overdose before he could actualize those plans. Today, Miriam is a frum wife and mother, and “Bubby Miriam” to her grandchildren.

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oishe Hellman comes by his selflessness honestly: He and his seven siblings imbibed chesed from earliest childhood. Their father, Rav Uri Shraga Hellman ztz”l, originally from Germany, went to learn in the Mirrer Yeshivah and fled with the yeshivah to Vilna when World War II broke out. There he married Moishe’s mother Chaya Bluma (n?e Scher), the daughter of Reb Nochum, an outstanding talmid of Volozhin who served as the rav in Doig, Lithuania. Alongside many talmidim of the Mir, they received their visas from Chiune Sugihara to escape eastward through the Soviet Union to Shanghai. It was during that stay that Moishe was born, and by the time the Hellmans left for New York he was three years old.

Rav Hellman took a position as teacher, then menahel, of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov in Williamsburg, moving with it to Boro Park eight years later. For 62 years, Rav Hellman dedicated himself wholly to his job in much the same way Moishe would later dedicate himself to OHEL. Toward the end of his 90 years, for example, while suffering from Parkinson’s, he still insisted on coming into Bais Yaakov every day, even though he had to be transported there in a wheelchair. His assistant principal would frequently bring him coffee and cheesecake, but one day, she noticed the coffee had gone cold and the cheesecake was untouched.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m trying to decide whether or not a student needs to be expelled,” he replied. “It’s dinei nefashos, and therefore I’m fasting.”

Like the tent of Avraham Avinu, the Hellman home was open to the needy. “My in-laws had nothing, and they shared that nothing,” Rozi recalls.

Moishe concurs: “My parents took in many downtrodden, disheveled individuals at a time that it wasn’t fashionable to do so. I’d sleep on the dining room carpet. They’d take in all the former Mir talmidim who’d lost their families in the war, and when they eventually got married, acted as their unterfierers, leading them to the chuppah.”

Rav Hellman would serve in the summers as the manhig ruchani of Camp Bnos, the sister camp of Camp Agudah. And so when Moishe was 20 years old and at the end of his seven years of learning in Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, he heard of an opening for division head at Camp Agudah. He went for an interview, certain he’d be a shoo-in for the job, given his father’s position. His interviewer asked, “If both your brother and a camper were sick, which one would you be more concerned about?”

“My brother,” Moishe answered. Isn’t it logical family comes first?

It was apparently the wrong answer; he didn’t get the job. Moishe was confused and disappointed, unaware Hashem had other plans for him. Shortly afterward, while walking down 13th Avenue in Boro Park, he ran into a family friend. “What are you doing this summer?” the man asked. Embarrassed, Moishe confessed he had no plans so far. “I have a real estate office,” the man said. “Come work for me.”

Thus was Moishe’s successful career in real estate launched. He admits he struggled at the beginning, but eventually managed to become successful while simultaneously devoting vast amounts of time to OHEL. “Maybe I could have been even more financially successful,” he shrugs. “But my heart compelled me to spend more time with the tzaros of the community, and I was able to juggle. Who knows? Maybe I did well because of the work I did for OHEL.”

He acknowledges that sometimes involvement wasn’t easy for his wife — he served on the executive board of Maimonides Hospital as well — and that his children might have preferred that he be home more often in the evenings. “We were a young family when Moishe got involved, and it meant a lot of hours — calls, meetings, running around,” Rozi says. “But all of us saw the greatness of what he was doing. He was able to relieve people’s tzaar in so many cases, and he’d come home with the most unbelievable stories. It made our children appreciate having a normal, functional family. Today all of them are baalei chesed in their own right.”

When Moishe was offered the presidency of the OHEL board, he promised Rozi — and his father — that he’d try it for only two years. Those two years became six, then 26. He also asked that his friend and fellow OHEL board member Mel Zachter join him as co-president. However, as a partner in Loeb and Troper, an accounting firm specializing in not-for-profits, Mel was unable to officially accept the presidency. But with his financial expertise to manage the budget, he was the unofficial co-president until he retired from Loeb and Troper and formally accepted the position alongside Moishe.

“I felt I could handle the people, but I needed Mel for the finances,” Moishe says. “We worked together for 18 years like brothers, and never once had an argument. He is so ehrlich. He made my presidency.” (Today, Zachter serves as OHEL’s co-president with co-president Jay Kestenbaum, whom Moishe describes as “a wonderful person in his own right.”)

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HEL was first conceived of in 1969 when askanim Max Wasser, Harris Rubin, Baruch Handler, and Reb Mechel Rabinowitz (the brother of the Skolye Rebbe) zichronam livrachah, and Hertz Frankel heard about the case of a Jewish child who had been remanded into foster care and was placed into a non-Jewish family. In response, they researched what it would take to establish their own foster care agency, and succeeded in securing the necessary licensing. OHEL would accept all Jewish foster children from the city of New York, and regardless of their level of Jewish observance, all would be placed in Jewish foster families. An effort was always made to place children in the most culturally and religiously compatible environment possible, so that chassidic children would go to chassidic families and children with little Jewish background would go to families they’d be comfortable with.

But not everyone agreed that Jewish children ought to be placed in Jewish homes. Shortly after OHEL’s launch, the ACLU took exception to the concept that a government-funded agency refused to accept children of all faiths. OHEL joined forces with Catholic Social Services, and with the help of pro bono representation, won the lawsuit. “We argued that for children in foster care, who are there because they’ve suffered traumatic circumstances, we should minimize their trauma by placing them in culturally compatible homes,” Moishe says.

To this day, the agency sometimes suffers from being misunderstood, even within the frum community. “People still tell me how they heard how OHEL takes away children,” Moishe says, but explains that OHEL has no authority to remove children from their homes. “We only receive children after they’re ordered into foster care by New York City Child Services.” That happens after a report of abuse or neglect has been investigated and proven true. Then, since the child’s welfare is assumed to be in danger, the child is placed in foster care until the problems have been remedied.

Often community members would hear only one half of a story, and Moishe became the address they’d call in righteous indignation. In fact, his career as ombudsman began when a well-known rabbi called to protest that a frum Jewish child was being held — over Pesach — in St. Mary’s Hospital amid nuns and crucifixes. When Moishe looked into the case, he realized this was a child with Down syndrome whose parents had suffered several tragedies and felt unable to care for him and asked that he be adopted by another frum family. It was unusual then for OHEL to have adoptive families willing to take Down syndrome children, but by chance they had one, who agreed to take the child. But then the prospective adoptive parents divorced and the adoption fell through. The agency had only 30 days to find a new family before state law required the agency to photolist the child with all American adoption agencies.

This child had stomach issues, which had resulted in the hospital stay. Since hospitalizations push off the 30-day countdown, it behooved OHEL to keep the child in the hospital in order to give them more time to find a Jewish home. “In the end, the child came back to OHEL, and the clock started ticking,” Moishe says. “We took an ad in the Jewish Press, which was the only frum newspaper back then. We showed a picture of a child with Down syndrome with the caption: ‘My name is Chaim. It may soon be Christopher…. Can you help me?’ A family who had their own child with Down syndrome came forward. They wanted their child to have a companion, and they adopted the boy.”

Moishe feels compelled to add that “St. Mary’s was incredibly respectful of Jewish customs. Once, when a child lost the bobby pin for his yarmulke, they called to ask if they could replace it with one of their own.”

When OHEL opened up shelters for victims of domestic abuse in the year 2000, some community members voiced their opposition.

“They told us we were encouraging divorce,” Moishe says. “Now, what really happens is that we allow women and their children to leave an abusive home and stay for up to four months to sort out their lives, and think about whether they really want or need to leave their marriages. We discuss how she would be able to manage on her own if she chooses to leave.”

He notes that the facilities are kept so secret that even he, who served as president, doesn’t know where they’re located; in the end, many women return to their homes.

Since the state funds many of OHEL’s programs, many people don’t understand its constant need to fundraise. But government funding can’t cover all the needs of Jewish families. It won’t cover tefillin for a bar mitzvah boy, yeshivah tuition, extra therapy, or new programs.

“We have a budget of $73 million,” Moishe explains, “but only 87 percent of that is funded. We have to find the other $8 million or so, but unlike yeshivos, we don’t have alumni to support us, so we have to turn to the community.

“The Ponevezher Rav, who was a great fundraiser, was once asked what he thought about when he’d go knocking on doors. He famously said, ‘I’m hoping they’re not home!’ ”

As ombudsman, Moishe handles flak from all sides, even complaints within the agency. He has a reassuring, compassionate manner that lends itself to soothing frayed nerves, and he doesn’t take any of it personally.

“When Chanah came to Eli HaKohein to pray for a child, he thought she was drunk — not from wine, but from tzaar. For me, when someone who is otherwise an ehrliche Yid says hurtful things, I see it as if they’re drunk from tzaar as well.” His eyes grow teary with emotion. “I have the ability to hear someone and feel his situation. It comes naturally to me; I learned it from my parents. I see them all as acheinu beis Yisrael.”

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n the beginning, OHEL had no greater ambitions than to be a foster care agency that included preventive care services (family therapy and support to avoid the extreme of removing children from a home). But when a facility in Far Rockaway by the name of Maimonides Institute closed down, the state asked OHEL to take over.

“They put pressure on us,” Moishe remembers. “We had no experience in residential care, but we finally agreed.”

OHEL has since opened many residences. The homes for adults with mental illness began 25 years ago when New York state funded 48 beds for men and women. Many of these consumers had previously been hospitalized. OHEL began with 36 men and 12 women, reasoning that parents would be more reluctant to allow young women to live away from home.

“We should have split it more evenly,” Moishe now admits. “But today we have over 500 residents. There’s a residence near my house in Boro Park, and I visit often. I even take donors there. Once I took a man there, and he recognized one of his old classmates. He told me, ‘I always wondered what happened to that guy!’ He has since become a member of our board.”

Early on, there was a home on Westminster Road in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, that housed foster children, mainly teens who needed more independence than a foster home could provide, or who had other issues that made adapting to a foster home difficult. One day, out of the blue, Moishe received a call from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l advocating that he take a child.

“At first I thought it was a prank call,” he says. “Why would the gadol hador be calling me?”

Rav Shlomo Zalman had gotten Moishe’s number from Max Wasser, his predecessor as president of the board, who’d gone to Rav Shlomo Zalman for a brachah. The Rav had been involved in the case of an 11-year-old child who had mental disabilities and was also deaf and mute. The parents had divorced, and the mother, who was originally from the US, was remarrying a man who didn’t feel able to assume care of the child. Rav Shlomo Zalman asked Moishe to accept the child into the Westminster Road residence.

“We weren’t prepared for this, but we really wanted to help the mother and the child,” Moishe says. “Rav Shlomo Zalman showered us with so many brachos, and before we knew it the child was on our doorstep. We had to take him and work with the situation, and knew Hashem would help.”

It was a big challenge. The boys in the Ditmas Park residence had different issues, but none of them were deaf-mute or developmentally disabled. OHEL had to pay for extra care. One night, when his counselor fell asleep, the boy managed to climb onto the fire escape. The director of the home protested, “I can’t take responsibility for this!”

Moishe offered to spend a night there to keep an eye on things and see if he could come up with any ideas. He positioned his bed across the door so there could be no more escapes. “If I hadn’t gone to see the situation with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it,” he says.

The child was later given a roommate, and OHEL hired someone to teach sign language to everyone in the residence. The boy was cared for until he was niftar several years later.

“Some cases, you just don’t see the end,” Moishe sighs, “but I always think, What if it were my child?”

OHEL has been fortunate to have had many close friends over the years who have given support and assistance.

“Rose Halpern, who manufactured Barbie dolls and later sold the brand to Mattel, read about us in a Jewish newspaper and offered to fund our Lifetime Care Foundation, a division of OHEL that cares for the needs of the elderly while allowing them to live independently,” Moishe says. “After Rose’s death, the Lifetime Care Foundation assisted Rose’s husband Maurice until his death at age 104.”

OHEL found another friend when Mr. Harvey Kaylie a”h and his wife Gloria, who lived in the Hamptons, noticed that their friends Bernie and Elaine Schickman had been showing up to shul with five extra children. The Schickmans had agreed to take a group of five siblings into foster care, and the Kaylies were so taken with OHEL’s mission that they became supporters.

Fast-forward a couple of years later, when Moishe accompanied a friend visiting his child in a camp for children with disabilities.

“It tore my heart out,” he recounts. “The kids looked happy, but surely the parents wished their children could have more of a regular camp experience. Then it occurred to me: Why can’t we run a camp for kids with disabilities that could be integrated with a typical kids’ camp? It would teach the other kids that life isn’t just about bikes and ice cream, but giving back.”

He brought the idea up to the board, but they flinched at the price tag. Moishe didn’t give up. Over the next few years he visited many camps, receiving advice from Meir Frischman of Camp Agudah, Shmiel Kahn of Camp HASC, Shlomo Pfeiffer of Camp Romimu, and Irv Beider of Camp Seneca.

Moishe and the Kaylies had become friends, and he and Mel Zachter shared their dream with Mr. Kaylie. “He told us how much funding he could give,” Moishe says. “We found a site for the camp, but it fell through. We were looking for three years, with Mr. Kaylie asking us, ‘Nu?’ He was anxious for it to be up and running, and in the end we offered to name the camp for him and his wife.”

Every year Mr. and Mrs. Kaylie would visit the camp and speak to the children in the dining hall — once to the girls’ session, once to the boys’ session. Even toward the end of his life, after he had lost both legs due to illness, he used it as an opportunity to give chizuk to the children.

“Kids,” he addressed them, “for the past six years I always spoke to you standing in this same place, on my own legs. Today, I’m standing on prostheses. But I’m still the same person! We all have our issues — we just have to deal with whatever challenges Hashem has chosen to give us.”

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HEL has been a big part of Moishe’s life for close to 50 years. “Even when I went on vacation, I often ended up spending several hours a day on the phone for OHEL,” he says. But he felt ready to pass the baton. “It’s not often a president agrees to step down,” he points out. “It’s a sign of the strength of the organization. But I think it’s time for new blood. I’m getting older, and a new broom sweeps better.” Like Miriam Haneviah, who kept an eye on baby Moshe as he floated in his basket, he says he’ll keep an eye on things from a distance.

Mr. David Mandel, the CEO of OHEL, comes to join us in the conference room. “OHEL has always had good professionals, but we thrived because of the vision of our board of directors,” he says. “Their leadership set the tone.” As for Moishe, he describes their relationship as “magical.”

Mr. Mandel comments that in every generation, Hashem sends the refuah before the makkah. “When OHEL was created in 1969, no one dreamed we would see this proliferation of mental health issues,” he says. “Who back then could have anticipated Internet addictions? High-conflict divorce? The number of people on the autism spectrum? Our community has seen a huge regeneration after the Shoah, but even if percentages of mental illness remain the same, the actual caseloads are much bigger.”

Beyond that, there’s probably a greater percentage of children living with disabilities today, because medical advances allow more of them to survive infancy.

Moishe is confident that Jay Kestenbaum, working with Mel Zachter, will do a fine job taking over the reins. Moishe’s youngest son Ruvey also serves on the board of trustees, so there will still be a Hellman on the board.

And what happens when those co-presidents retire? David Mandel fixes me with his gaze. He asks, “Where is the next generation of Moishe Hellmans? Where are the 30-year-olds ready to dedicate themselves the way he did?”

Millennials, it looks like you’ve been issued a challenge.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 771)