Neve Ilan, Israel—The excitement and joy on the faces of more than 200 young widows and orphans, and a handful of young widowers as well, was palpable earlier this month as they gathered at a luxury hotel near Jerusalem for the seventh annual two-and-a-half day Chanukah retreat sponsored by Colel Chabad.

“These retreats have proven to have an extraordinary impact on rebuilding the shattered lives of orphans and young parents who recently have lost their spouses,“ said Rabbi Menachem Traxler of Colel Chabad, the oldest continuously operating charitable organization in Israel, established in 1788 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

While serving the poor and destitute in Israel through myriad projects and programs, Colel Chabad has always placed a special emphasis on the needs of widows and orphans. Retreats in particular “have done miracles for the self-esteem of those who participate,” Traxler noted.

Throughout the year Colel Chabad offers a wide-range of services for orphans, widows and widowers. “Most of the families attending this retreat are new to the project, having lost a parent or spouse within the past four months," said Rabbi Yitzchok Marton, project director for Colel Chabad. “It provides a non-threatening, fun way to get to know the staff and other families in similar situations. It is an invaluable introduction to the programs that Colel Chabad offers them throughout the year.”

This year’s Finger Chanukah Retreat at the C-Hotel in Neve Ilan, Israel, offered a fun-filled, action packed two and a half days, bringing new meaning to the light of Chanukah for 63 widows, seven widowers and 150 orphans coming from all Jewish backgrounds. It was a time to get away from the hardships of having lost a spouse or parent and to enjoy some holiday time together. It also provided an opportunity to get to know other families in similar situations to their own and to form lasting relationships in a non-threatening, joyous few days.

“A friend of mine suggested that I join the Chanukah retreat last year with my two children,” said Itsik, whose wife passed away last year. “I was very hesitant since we were not used to joining this type of event. In the end I said to myself and to my children ‘let’s go and try it’. We had a great time. We met many people in the same situation.”

In describing to a Colel Chabad social worker why he wanted to attend again this year when space was mostly limited to those who recently lost loved ones, Itsik explained that having an opportunity for his children to meet other children who had also lost a father or mother helped them to feel they belonged. "It's like finding family," he said.

A recent widow and her children light the Menorah, surrounded by new friends.
A recent widow and her children light the Menorah, surrounded by new friends.

The program began with time for the children to get to know each other under the supervision of Colel Chabad’s social work staff. Time was scheduled separately for the parents and the children to meet with Rabbi Amram Blau, director of Colel Chabad's Crisis Intervention for Young Widows and Orphans, and with the rest of the Colel Chabad staff.

“Scheduling retreats such as these in a beautiful holiday venue enables the widows and orphans to set aside their troubles and show more of their true selves,” Marton noted. “The timing is important as the holidays are the hardest times for families like these. We make sure they have a good time and take their minds off their sadness,” he said.

The program provided meal times together, prayer time and fun-filled activities for the mothers, boys and girls in three separate groups. Each day after the afternoon and evening prayers, the group lit the menorah together, followed by a party with a DJ, singing, fun and joy and of course donuts, a special Chanukah treat.

A special moment was experienced during the afternoon prayer service on the first day when Blau called those boys who were reciting Kaddish, the prayer recited by mourners, to come to the front and recite Kaddish together. A group of ten boys or more congregated together, giving each the support and comfort that other boys were reciting the prayer as well.

For all the seriousness of their time together, the main emphasis was on fun. On the first evening, there was a play or show, dinner and a special event for each group. The girls enjoyed a photography workshop and the boys went for an evening swim in a heated pool away from the hotel.

On the second night, the Chanukah party was followed by a magic show. After dinner fun included a Plasticine clay modelling workshop with Noam Raz for the boys, a stand-up show with Tzofia Lax for the women, and evening swimming for the girls.

Wednesday morning the group visited the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. And on Thursday, everyone enjoyed an outing at the Mini Israel Park in Jerusalem to end off the special two and half days together.

For each of the parents, the retreat offered a little something that lightened their load and gave them strength. One widow said that it was the one time during a very difficult year when she could enjoy herself while her children were being well taken care of.

For another widow, the retreat offered an opportunity for her children to enjoy craft activities. Being creative is an important part of every child's growth and development, but is a special treat for a child whose parent can’t afford such activities.

Sharona is a nurse whose husband passed away recently. She attended the retreat with her two daughters, ages 8 and 11. “It’s very hard and sad for me to be here,” she admitted, “but I see how much my daughters are enjoying themselves,” she said, as her girls ran over to show her a crafts project they just finished. “It's something that is so important, that on my own I can't afford.”

An insight to the extent to which the event enabled these families to cope with and express their feelings was captured when one child said to his mother: "We are having so much fun. It is a pity abba (father) can't be with us too."