Sarah Feinhandler contracted polio and became disabled when she was eight years old. She wears braces on both her legs and walks with difficulty on crutches. Despite this hardship, she has never allowed it to encumber her ability and passion to make a difference in this world. "Who says my life has been any harder than anyone else? This is a hurdle that made me stronger. I have never viewed myself as a cripple. Who isn't disabled in some way? With others, it's something else -- perhaps divorced parents, tragic circumstances, or maybe just poor choices? Not everyone has crutches to enable them to walk."
Mrs. Feinhandler has instead dedicated her life to helping abandoned Jewish girls in Israel, counseling them on how to take their first real steps -- steps toward a normal life.
"I heard about terrible things taking place in homes in Israel -- many parents were spending less than an hour per day rearing their kids. I was witnessing a breakdown in society. When I saw abandoned children being left to roam the streets, I realized I had to do something." In 1983, having supported her husband, Rabbi Aaron Feinhandler, in building the yeshiva Machane Yisrael, Mrs. Feinhandler established Ohel Yisrael in the Jerusalem suburb of Geula, an institution that inspires young women at risk to turn their lives around.
Social workers from throughout Israel send girls with nowhere else to go to Ohel Yisrael. The girls come a various backgrounds - all of them victims from a hostile world that has rejected them. Prostitution, teenage pregnancy, orphaned, addiction. One girl's father killed her mother.
"Ohel Yisrael takes in wandering souls -- girls who somehow land up on our doorstep, and offer them shelter. Our door is never closed to anyone," Mrs Feinhandler says.
"Life is a miracle. Why should my legs define me as anything? What are we here for - to waste our time with nonsense?"
She teaches them that life can be different, building them up stage by stage until they are able to stand on their own, get married and build a thriving Jewish home for themselves.. "They come with broken wings. I teach them how to fly."
The organization receives no funding from the Israeli government and relies on donors for support. They are regularly in financial difficulties, but Mrs. Feinhandler never loses hope. "God sometimes challenges us to find the right solutions. We are frequently saved by miracles. This doesn't surprise me. Every time I marry off one of my girls, I know that miracles do happen!"
She gets her strength and determination to run the school of 60 girls, ranging from 17 - 35, by seeing herself as blessed, and not focusing on the burden of her own disability. "Life is a miracle. Why should my legs define me as anything?" she asks rhetorically. "What are we here for - to waste our time with nonsense?"
It was with this attitude that Mrs. Feinhandler set about creating a life for herself, seeing possibilities where other people saw obstacles. She is a mother of five married children, and over 20 grandchildren. Yet, she boasts a family numbering thousands since she considers every student one of her own. In fact, many call her "ima" -- Hebrew for "mother. " "We really are all one family," she says.
To date, over 400 girls have "graduated" from Ohel Yisrael into the stability of family life.
"My old friends tell me they feel so empty. I feel rich," says Odelia Levy, a student at Ohel Yisrael. "I'm so thankful Mrs. Feinhandler was here for me, because if I hadn't found this place, who knows where I'd be?"
Ohel Yisrael is the Women's Division of Machane Yisrael.
9 Leib Str.
P.O Box 5666,
For charitable Donations:
ATTENTION OF MACHANE YISRAEL
P.O. Box 19
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
To: American Friends of Machane Israel,
4901 - 18th Ave, Brooklyn NY, 11204.
Tel: 718 - 436 7826