The holiday season is a particularly hard time for families who have lost a loved one. Colel Chabad, Israel’s longest-running social services organization, is once again treating over 400 orphaned children and about 130 widows to a three-day Hanukkah retreat at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem.
“For widows and orphans, Hanukkah, which is a very family-oriented holiday, is a particularly difficult time,” explained Rabbi Yitzchak Marton, Director of Programming and Educational Projects for Colel Chabad, to Breaking Israel News. “Participants in the Colel Chabad Hanukkah Retreat program might arrive feeling sad but everyone leaves empowered and full of the light and joy of the holiday.”
The Hanukkah Retreat is now in its 13th year. But this activity is not held in a vacuum. Colel Chabad runs year-round programs for widows and orphans which provides food, clothing and social services to close to 330 widowed families and over 950 orphans annually.
“Rabbi Amram Blau is integral to the success of this program as well as the year-round accomplishments of the orphans Colel Chabad cares for,” continued Rabbi Marton. “Through his tireless efforts, each orphan is provided with tutors, extracurricular activities like music and sports, and development and career counseling, training and loans to assist the orphans and widows to flourish in life.”
Colel Chabad social workers are involved with orphans from the start of the school year until its end. Then, they follow up with them over the summer vacation. The Hanukkah Retreat program is an opportunity to build deep and lasting relationships beyond the regular phone calls and letters.
“Having people actually see each other, enjoy activities together and participate in support groups creates meaningful connections, especially during what can be a challenging time,” said Rabbi Marton. “90 percent of the people participating in this retreat are new to the help that Colel Chabad provides. 10 percent of the participants have joined us before. However, they are in need of further uplifting and we are there to give what we can.”
The three-day Hanukkah Retreat is an all-expenses-paid vacation for the participants. Colel Chabad even covers the expense for families to travel from all over the Holy Land to the hotel.
The retreat not only includes full accommodations at the hotel but also involves extensive entertainment and travel programs to help participants get their minds off their personal losses and enjoy Hanukkah like any other family. “Colel Chabad believes that it is very important that the mothers and children share quality bonding time and have fun together enjoying each other’s company during this retreat,” explained Rabbi Marton.
“One of the highlights of the program is when each family lights their own Hanukkah menorah together. Gifts are provided along with music, dancing and entertainment each evening.”
Many of the children have lost their fathers in the line of duty or in terror attacks. Sadly, the number of participants in the Hanukkah Retreat is on the rise. Participants span the entire range of the religious and non-religious spectrum. The one uniting factor is the sense of family and comfort they receive knowing that everyone there truly understands what the other is going through yet seeking to enjoy the holiday season nevertheless.
“Our vision as an organization is to look beyond the instant solutions and come to assist people in those moments where the rest of the world might be busy celebrating on their own,” said Rabbi Blau. “We know that when these children and widows are given the attention they deserve it allows them to celebrate the holidays with a sense of respect.”
Rabbi Marton pointed out to Breaking Israel News the desire of Colel Chabad to be able to invite back to the Hanukkah Retreat every orphan and widow who has already joined in the festivities along with any new orphans and widows of whom the organization becomes aware. “However, this is a very expensive and extensive program,” he shared. “We strive to do all that we can for as many people that we can. We are aware that this retreat lets orphans and widows know that people really care about their welfare and their future.”