Think of Chabad and you will probably think of Chabad outreach - its religious services and practices, or perhaps even a kosher home away from home when travelling to far-flung places. After all, the organization has 4,700 branches in a hundred different countries - including 441 in Israel.
And for all the good for which they are famous, Chabad has a lesser-known program that deserves some recognition.
The Chabad Terror Victims Project works with families affected by terrorism. It is a voluntary program founded in accordance with the wishes of late Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, commonly known as the Lubavitcher rebbe, which works with some 3,000 families of terror victims in Israel, both civilians and members of the military. The families receive spiritual and economic aid as well as house visits, therapy and even trips abroad that aim to offer some relief from tragedy, grief and the rehabilitation process.
The project is an extension of the already vast range of activities carried out for decades by the rebbe's followers and members of the Chabad Youth Organization with thousands of families through the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, creating a relationship between the two entities that continues to this day. During the Second Intifada at the start of the millennium, terrorism was a daily event on the streets of Israel, causing Chabad to step up its work with terror victims.
"Those were terrible days, full of fear and appalling daily stories of one terror attack after another; more people murdered, orphaned and wounded, and in need of rehabilitation," says Rabbi Yosef Aharonov, who heads Chabad mission in Israel, regarding the period when Chabad began its work with terror victims.
"While it is true that we are active everywhere, from north to south, in therapy centers, university campuses, outreach to the elderly, yuoung people and immigrants to Israel, we came upon an entire expanding sector with particular needs of its own, and so we extended our activities and placed them under the supervision of Rabbi Menachem Kutner."
Searching for the joy"Sadly, when families are hit by terror, it comes without warning, but more than that, it impacts on every aspect of their lives," Aharonov says. "From the need to organize a funeral, sitting shiva (the week-long Jewish period of mourning), accompanying the wounded through surgery and rehabilitation and continuing to help family members through mental crises, questions that need answering. We offer someone who will listen to them, as well as assist with financial challenges such as loss of income, mental health treatments, medical expenses, the cost of getting to and from the hospital. It all adds up to thousands of shekels, which is a significant amount of money for most of the population in Israel."
Although there has been a drastic reduction in terror attacks, the binders detailing the unit's activities continue to pile up.
"Sadly even today there are families who suffer from terrorism. Knife attacks, stone-throwing, the rounds of fighting (with Gaza) every few years all leave families of victims demolished and trying to cope," says Rabbi Kutner. "Besides that, the effects of the terror attacks continue to physically and mentally torment families for the rest of their lives."
Take, for example, the financial assistance to families affected by terror.
"In the past few years, tens of millions of shekels have been given to families struck by terror who are in financial need," says Kutner. "There are families who are close to the poverty line, and a terror attack, with the ensuing loss of income and emotional crises, bring them to the point where they cannot pay their electricity or water bills. They come to us for assistance. There are families for whom an attack comes amid preparations for a bar mitzvah or wedding, and the last thing on their mind is buying their child tefillin or finding a place for a celebration. Here, too, we step in and do everything to bring a little happiness and joy into their lives.
"Or there is a the medical issue. For example, a child in Sderot was hit by a rocket and left disabled. We provided a wheelchair that cost NIS 25,000, and only with the wheelchair can he go to school, because the one to him provided by the state wasn't right for him."
It was Hanukkah 2003. Ravit sat at home, grief-stricken from the loss of her son, a combat soldier who fell in battle a few months earlier. She wasn't even able to think about lighting Hanukkah candles or providing her other 12-year-old son with dreidels or doughnuts.
"From my perspective, the entire world died along with my son," she says. "It's nice that its Hanukkah now and everywhere people are lighting candles and singing holiday songs. What does any of that have to do with me? I couldn't think about going on with life or about my son's right to celebrate like any normal child.
"Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. I opened and what I saw what seemed almost unreal: two Chabad hassids in traditional outfits, with doughnuts and candles insisted on bringing the holiday spirit into our home. They danced with my son, and I think that for the first time since our tragedy we smiled.
"Afterwards they sat with me to offer their assistance and found out that because of the tragedy I had decided not to celebrate my son's bar mitzvah the following year. They stressed how important it was for my son to have positive memories of his special day and offered to celebrate with him in the Western Wall. A year passed and that's what happened. Since then, before every festival – Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover - they come with equipped holiday treats and stay until I feel the holiday spirit. They are like family."
It is clear that the Jewish holidays are the busiest time of the year for the unit working with terror victims, when a loss can be felt most keenly. And this is where the Chabad young volunteers come in, as they strive to bring the holiday spirit to the homes of terror victims.
"We have secular and religious volunteers," says Rabbi Kutner. "Because there are 441 Chabad branches countrywide, we have succeeded in getting the local residents on board for this vital mission of raising morale during the holidays."