It's nighttime as Chaya Shitrit, 20, passes by a child's bed, forgetting to pull tight one of the blankets, as she regularly does.

"Chaya, my blanket fell off," comes a soft voice. "Could you tuck me in?"

One down, 10 more to go.

Welcome to the Shitrit home, part of the Ohr Simcha education complex in Kfar Chabad, Israel. One of two "family homes," or mishpachton in Hebrew, at the center, its administrators – a young married couple – run the facility like any other household. It's children come from all over, sharing the lamentable predicament that, for whatever reasons, their birth parents cannot care for them anymore.

Chaya and Yochai Shitrit have been married for just under two years. Together, they care for 11 children, as well as their new baby daughter.

"We do homework with them," says the husband, "play with them when they come home, give them baths, eat supper with them, put them to sleep, and everything in between. Just like any other home."

Replacing the parents of these children is no easy task, but officials say it's a very important one. Ohr Simcha was established in 1973 following a request by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, that Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim should ensure that children who otherwise would not have a warm, loving home would be cared for.

Those in the Shitrits' care have already bonded together as a growing family, albeit in accordance with Jewish law's sanctions on non-family members of opposite genders refraining from physical contact and seclusion together.

"When we recently had our daughter," says Chaya Shitrit, "they all crowded around the telephone to speak to me and were asking questions like they were siblings.

"When the youngest child in our care became jealous of the newborn," she adds, "that was ample proof to us that we are becoming one big family."

As the mere fact of their being at the center would attest, the Shitrits' children come from heart-rending family situations, sometimes dangerous. When they first started the home, the couple tried to understand where the children were coming from by asking them to draw a picture of home.

"One child drew a picture of a father with his tongue out and a knife in his head," says Chaya Shitrit.

The child came from a home where his mother physically abused him.

"The outcome," explains Shitrit, "is that the child is scared of his mother. In the beginning, he was scared of me too.

"It took a while for him to be comfortable with me, and see that we were okay and would never abuse him."

A Complex of Love

Extra-curricular activities fill out children’s days at the Ohr Simcha educational complex in Kfar Chabad, Israel.
Extra-curricular activities fill out children’s days at the Ohr Simcha educational complex in Kfar Chabad, Israel.
The Ohr Simcha complex offers day school, high school and post-high school classes. It also includes a sports area, provides after school activities and serves three hot meals in its dormitories, which house children aged six and up. Homes like the Shitrit's take children in starting at four years of age.

"All the children here," says Yosef Klein, the complex's administrator, "come here as a last resort. The natural option is to keep them in their homes, in their communities and with their friends. Only when all other options have failed are we contacted."

The table in Ohr Simcha's central office is piled with gray folders containing story after painful story. Rabbi Zev Slavin, the center's director, assures that each child receives individualized attention.

"Every child is fully diagnosed," he says. "And the staff here prescribes specific schedules specially catered for the individual child."

On a walk around the campus during the children's lunch break, one of Ohr Simcha's charges confides that he feels at home there.

"I really love to be with Yechiel," he says, referring to Yechiel Cohen, who with his wife Nechamah runs the Ohr Simcha's second family home. "Nechamah is very caring towards us and it is lots of fun to live in their home. It is exactly like our home, and their children are like our brothers and sisters."

"One day, one of the children came over to me," relates Chaya Shitrit, smiling. "She asked me, 'Why do you call it a family home? This is our home, and we should call it our house!' "