On the surface, Alex Smilansky seems a lot like any other 27 year old. He works out, takes care of himself and is an avid baseball, basketball, hockey and poker fan. He’s honest, kind and extremely easygoing. But under the surface lies a difficult, yet inspirational story.
Alex was born in Moldova in 1987, his older sister Tatiana was five and his mother had already divorced Tatiana’s father and remarried Alex’s. When Alex was only a few years old, they all moved to Israel together. Unfortunately, her second marriage, like her first, lasted only a few years and she once again remarried. With her third husband she had Sara, Alex’s younger sister and once again the family moved – this time to Toronto.
At only five, Alex found himself living in circumstances that no child should ever know exist. The family shared a tiny, run-down apartment near Fairview Mall and his mother and stepfather could rarely afford to buy groceries. However, it wasn’t for lack of employment, as Alex recalls. “It was because they spent every penny they had on alcohol.” “When Tatiana was only about ten years old, they used to send her alone on the TTC with cash shoved in her pockets, across the city, just to buy them cheap booze on the Russian black market.” Alex was too young to join her on those illegal outings, but instead was asked to go to Fairview Mall and steal toilet paper from the public washrooms or food from the food bank bins at the local grocery store.
Along with the lack of money and frustration fueled by alcohol, came the physical abuse. “My stepfather would hit and slap me constantly and chase me out of the apartment. He would hit Tatiana with a hockey stick and then beat her for running away.” Sara, only an infant at this time, was neglected and malnourished. By the time Alex was seven years old, he had figured out that if he wore three or four pairs of pants at a time, “getting spanked wouldn’t hurt as much.”
This was around the time that everything changed for Alex and his sisters. Tatiana, now twelve years old had received an especially bad beating and ran away to a friend’s house where she broke down and confided to her friend’s parents that she was scared for her life. A phone call was made that very night to Jewish Family & Child. Less than a day later, a social worker from JF&CS accompanied by a Russian translator and a police officer brought Alex, Tatiana and Sara to an emergency foster home, ready and waiting for their arrival.
That was 1994. Alex remembers the experience with a mix of relief and awe. “It was this big, beautiful home in Thornhill with loving parents, three kids and a nanny too! I had never had three meals a day, unlimited supply of toilet paper and a safe, abuse free environment before.”
Unfortunately, one of JF&CS’s constant challenges is finding a foster home that can accommodate sibling groups. Alex was able to stay in that home, but his sisters were placed elsewhere. As with most of our children in foster care, it was a significant challenge for Alex, but he adjusted well and quite quickly.
Alex lived in four different foster homes over the course of the next ten years. JF&CS worked regularly with Alex’s mom on her alcoholism and abuse (though she made little progress) and Alex even spent time with his biological father, also in Toronto. At one point, it looked like his father’s home might be a permanent solution. Alex was enjoying his regular visits and his father appeared responsible and willing. That was around the time that JF&CS sent Alex to Northland - a Jewish overnight camp. Alex had the first of many memorable summers there; however, this first summer, he returned from camp only to find his father had vanished. Alex was ten; he has never heard from, or seen his father since.
In all respects, Alex could have gone down a very dark path, but instead he truly thrived. JF&CS paired him with a volunteer ‘big brother’, who impacted his life immensely. Furthermore, the Agency (through its Levelling the Playing Field Fund) covered the cost of his joining hockey and baseball leagues and lessons and even gave him a Bar Mitzvah. Alex says, “having the opportunity to take part in organized sports and going to camp allowed me to channel any negative energy I had into having fun, making friends and taking my mind off my personal problems. The unconditional support I received over the years from JF&CS, my big brother, my foster parents, social workers and friends has really helped shape me as a person.”
In Alex’s early teens, he and his sisters were reunited in a home belonging to the Isenberg family. Along with their own son, Nathan, Jeff and Liz Isenberg welcomed the sibling trio with open arms and Alex lived there until he was eighteen. His younger sister still calls the Isenbergs her mom and dad.
The values that Alex inherited in foster care, led him to make excellent choices. “I knew I could do well in university because of the support I had at home. JF&CS helped me get a bursary to study at York, helped me with my living expenses, and was there for counselling whenever I needed someone to listen.”
About a year before receiving his undergraduate degree, Alex and Tatiana (now on her own and happily married) decided to make one last attempt to reconcile with their mother. They took her out for a Mother’s Day dinner which quickly went awry when she launched into a diatribe about how the family would still be together had Tatiana not ruined their lives by calling JF&CS for help. That dinner was the last straw due to their mother’s unwillingness to accept responsibility and come to terms with her mistakes. Alex says; however, that he has no regrets and that his sister’s “calling for help”, is what saved his life.
Alex decided that he wanted to give back to JF&CS in the most meaningful way possible – by sharing his story. In September 2010, Alex was asked to be the Keynote Speaker at the Agency’s Annual General Meeting. With the Isenberg family, his sister Sara, and his brother-in-law Paul there to support him, Alex bravely explained to more than 150 guests that he was proof of the absolute necessity of a Jewish children’s aid society and how urgently needed good Jewish foster parents truly are.
As of May 2014, Alex will just be completing his second post-graduate year in the Common Law Program at the University of Ottawa. He loves how his life has turned out thus far, summing it up by saying, “I know that most people wouldn’t agree that being removed from my biological parents was lucky, but they really have no idea about luck. Some people win the lottery and some get to travel the world, but I got out. I got saved. I’m one of the luckiest people I know.”
Brunch at the Branch
Every other Thursday, a group of 10-12 women come to the JF&CS Downtown branch for Brunch at the Branch; a program that addresses the loneliness and social isolation experienced by some of our female clients who may suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and a range of medical issues. They are current financial assistance clients and many are former woman abuse clients. In November 2013, the group participated in a Claymation production, facilitated by Reel Youth. The clients built characters out of plasticine and the facilitators photographed the characters in different situations. The end result was a series of stop motion photographs put together to make a short film.
Brunch at the Branch, led by JF&CS social worker, Fran Chodak, was launched in October 2012 and is truly an inspiring program, generously funded by the ShaRna Foundation.
Many of the names and a few of the details below have been changed to protect confidentiality.
When people donate to JF&CS, they do so for a myriad of reasons. Often, we are unaware of what brings us to a donor’s attention, as in the mysterious case of Jack Nichols.
In May 2012, we received a letter from a law firm indicating that Mr. Nichols had bequeathed a very generous sum to JF&CS. We have no record of his ever donating before, and he was not a former client. After some digging, we obtained his obituary from The Globe and Mail, though we do not know what moved him to include us in his will.
We do know that Jack Nichols was born in Montreal in 1921, was the youngest of three sons in a Jewish family, originally named Nachlis, and possessed a natural artistic ability. Jack was orphaned at a young age and tragically his middle brother drowned while trying to save a friend. He quit school at 14 and a mere two years later, was exhibiting his drawings to the public. In the 1940s, Jack was appointed an Official War Artist with the Royal Canadian Navy. Unlike most war artists, he concentrated not on weapons or ships, but on human experience. Jack accompanied our troops in crossing the English Channel on D-Day. He moved to Paris in the sixties,
became a skilled mandolin player and met the woman with whom he had his only daughter. Nobody knows why he moved back to Toronto shortly after, but upon doing so, something went awry.
Jack moved to Cabbagetown, became reclusive and had difficult dealings with art dealers and galleries. Friends reported that he was struggling and for long periods of time he stopped making art. Curators and archivists visited and neighbours looked after his legal and medical needs. He was eccentric, private and ultimately too frail to live independently; a neighbour arranged his move to a residential facility. He died in 2009 after suffering a stroke. Jack’s sensitivity and generosity represent an honourable legacy which will, through the services of JF&CS, continue to have impact.
If you would like to see Jack's story in our 2011/12 Annual Report, please click HERE
For a detailed copy of the Globe and Mail obituary, please send a request to Jo Michaels
Jillian was thirty-six when she was diagnosed with a plum-sized, malignant and inoperable brain tumor. Her oncologist predicted that she would have fewer than six months to live.
Though she felt overwhelming hopelessness, she knew she had to remain strong and competent for her seven-year-old, Abby, while it was still possible.
Jillian contacted JF&CS and was connected to a social worker in our Jewish Hospice Program who helped her plan for the challenges that would lie ahead. She knew she would soon start to lose mobility, speech and sight, but insisted on accomplishing three things before she passed: parenting Abby as long as she was capable, finishing a blanket she had begun she had just learned to knit, and ensuring that Abby wouldn’t be frightened when she died.
Jillian’s social worker created cards with words and images on them. One card had a picture of a little girl brushing her teeth, while another had the word “homework”, and so on. As Jillian’s speech capability lessened, she would ask Abby things by holding up or pointing to a corresponding card. Though Abby understood what was happening and was terribly sad, she adapted easily to this flash card style of parenting.
Jillian’s knitting proved more difficult as her eyesight and dexterity diminished, but she persevered; she needed to finish the blanket. Abby met often with her social worker who was helping to prepare her for what life might be like after her mom’s death. When asked to draw a picture of ‘where mommy was going’, Abby drew a dark grey and green sky.
Jillian survived for almost twice as long as doctors predicted - giving Abby more time to spend with her and to come to terms with the fact that her mom would be going to a place where she was no longer in pain, but peaceful.
On the day of Jillian’s funeral, Abby sat bravely in the front row with her aunt and grandparents, wrapped up cozily in the blanket her mom had finished just days before. During the Shiva, Abby’s social worker sat with her and asked her if she wouldn’t mind drawing another picture of where she pictured her mom now. Abby got out her markers and crayons and then looked hopefully at her social worker and simply asked, “Do you have any glitter?”
After the first week of grade seven at a new school, Shael told his mother he never wanted to go to back again.
He hadn’t had many friends before, and now it seemed, he had fewer. He was painfully shy and significantly shorter than most boys his age and he quickly became the target of his new school’s worst bullies.
Shael fought with his mother relentlessly that first week; he begged her to transfer him to any other school. She took him seriously, but promised him that if he stuck it out, it would get better; it didn’t.
Shael was walking home after school when a group of kids from his grade approached. They yelled insults at him and taunted him, but instead of ignoring them and walking faster, Shael mustered up his courage and stood up for himself - fighting back verbally as best he could. That’s when Shael was beaten up by three boys and left alone, trying to limp home. One of his teachers happened to be driving by, and took Shael immediately to the closest emergency room.
Shael wouldn’t name the kids who attacked him, nor did he have much to say about anything from that point on. He stayed home from school for a week and then stopped going altogether – preferring to walk around the mall all day instead.
After a few weeks of truancy, Shael’s mother met with his vice-principal who suggested that he might benefit from JF&CS’s Jerome D. Diamond Adolescent Centre (JDD). He told them that it would help Shael develop emotional, social and behavioural skills with the goal of re-integration into his public school.
Shael was both terrified and thrilled. In addition to small classroom instruction, he received individual and family counselling. He slowly came out of his shell when he realized that he was in a safe place and that he wouldn’t be tormented. By the middle of his first year, Shael had made a number of friends and found a new level of contentment and self-esteem.
He stayed at JDD for two years, and at his end-of-year awards ceremony, Shael thanked JF&CS for helping him become the student and the person that he always hoped he could be.
That September, Shael started high school with two of his JDD friends. With his newfound confidence, he immediately joined a few clubs and made several new friends quickly.
When Shael graduated, he was Vice-President of his student council and was one of the most well-liked students in the school. He was accepted into all three universities to which he applied. He credits the JDD for his academic and social success and for making him, in his own words, “bully-proof”.
Marni met Dan on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend. They fell very quickly in love and Dan surprised her by proposing just three months after their first date. She believed that Dan was everything she was looking for in a husband and accepted his marriage proposal happily.
They were married six short months later and right after the honeymoon, Dan asked Marni to quit her teaching job. He told her she should let him earn the money – explaining that if she were more relaxed, they could start to work on having a family. He was persistent and she agreed.
It was soon after leaving her job that Dan’s behaviour started to change. He would insist that household tasks were completed a certain way and would lose his temper and fight with her when they weren’t. He became frustrated that Marni had gained some weight since the wedding, and that often resulted in name-calling and put downs. Marni’s breaking point came after they had been trying to conceive for several months and had been unsuccessful. He told her it was because she wasn’t thin or healthy enough and that if she didn’t lose twenty pounds, he would leave her.
Marni hated his behaviour, but believed in her vows. She convinced Dan to go to couples’ counselling with her, but told no one about it. She made excuses for his temper; she covered for him. She blamed herself for not being able to conceive.
As they were driving home from their first insult-ridden counselling session, Dan pulled the car over, took Marni’s shoulders and shook her violently. He screamed, “You can’t even do couples’ counselling right! You’re useless! Why did I marry such a stupid, useless woman?” Though tears began to roll down her cheeks, she remained silent. He slapped her across the face then started to drive again, but she still said nothing, which enraged him even further. He drove recklessly until he finally approached a red light. She instinctively opened the door, rolled out of the slowly moving car, and ran. She cut through a dark park hoping he hadn’t, or couldn’t follow her. Hiding by the side of someone’s home, she pulled out her cell phone and called her sister to pick her up.
The next morning, Marni called Jewish Family & Child.
With a social worker and a police officer, Marni packed her belongings and moved in temporarily with her sister. She joined JF&CS’s ‘When Relationships Hurt’ group and found that she was far from alone and that some other women suffered for years before seeking help. Dan never attempted to contact Marni again, though he would have had little success after a police pressed charges and a restraining order was issued against him.
Through ongoing group and individual counselling, Marni regained her independence, moved into her own apartment and began to teach again. Her self-esteem is still fragile, but she knows she has the courage and strength to overcome this experience. “If I can throw myself out of a moving car, I think I can pretty much do anything.”
When British forces entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwestern Germany in 1945, 60,000 prisoners were found alive. Max and his father were two of them; Max was twenty years old. His mother, along with close to 10,000 others had died within a few weeks of that liberation due to typhus and malnutrition.
Max and his father migrated with a number of other survivors to Israel and just three years later, watched first-hand as it became an independent state.
When Max was twenty-five, he met and courted, Milly. She had also survived the war and moved to Israel, but had lost her whole family. They understood each other, and less than a year after meeting, they married and decided to start a family. Tragically, their infant, Isaac died from a heart complication when he was just five weeks old; they never tried to have another child.
In 1980, Milly and Max decided to move to Toronto. Several of their friends had already emigrated, believing there was more opportunity to thrive professionally. Max was a tailor, and once in Toronto, he found work at a small shop downtown.
Toronto became home to Max and Milly, though they began to detach from most of their friends with growing children. The couple lived on Bathurst Street in a small apartment. They socialized weekly at synagogue, but mainly kept to themselves.
In 1995, Milly was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. Her symptoms had been repeatedly misdiagnosed for more than a year, and within a few short months, she succumbed to the disease – leaving Max a widow at 70.
With so few friends and no family, Max had almost no support system in place to help him grieve. He had experienced such a great deal of loss in his life and lacked the skills to cope. He closed himself off to the world, staying inside his apartment because age and arthritis made working as a tailor no longer possible.
Several years passed this way, until Irv, a widower near Max’s age moved to the apartment next to him. Irv was a vibrant, active senior involved in a number of social, Jewish activities in the city. It wasn’t long before he convinced Max to join him at Café Europa – a JF&CS and Bernard Betel Centre partnership that brings Holocaust survivors together monthly for kosher lunch, music and socializing.
Max was quiet and reserved at his first lunch, but thoroughly enjoyed seeing dozens of other Jewish seniors who had stories to share that were similar to his. After only a few months, Max had made a small circle of friends – something he hadn’t had in decades.
Max is now 86 years old and aside from his arthritis, he is in good health. He has regularly attended Café Europa for a number of years and credits the program for making his senior years some of the happiest of his life.
“Not everyone can sit in a classroom and just, like, learn,” muses Jessica*, a grade ten student who seems like your average, Toronto teenager, complete with baggy sweatpants. Jessica started high school last year and in her own words, “just couldn’t cut it.” We all remember the insecurity that goes along with our first year of high school. “Will I make any friends?” “Will my classes be difficult?” “Am I wearing the right shoes?” It’s a generally agreed upon concept – starting high school is just plain scary. Now imagine you’re a teenager whose been suffering from an undiagnosed social anxiety disorder, like Jessica. She was “absolutely terrified” of her first day of high school because she knew that the teacher might instruct the students to introduce themselves. Just thinking about speaking to a roomful of strangers who would be staring at her makes her immediately nauseated. The anxiety is overwhelming, so instead, she skips the first day of class to avoid it entirely.
“That year was total agony,” she groans. “I was worried sick, like, every morning. I especially hated when I had to sit near the front ‘cuz I could feel everyone staring at the back of my head and like, judging me,” she mumbles. After an extremely difficult first year complete with truancy, illness and poor grades, Jessica’s parents learned about the Jerome D. Diamond Adolescent Centre in midtown Toronto. Founded in 1974 by Jewish Family & Child, the Centre provides a positive, supportive school environment for youth ages 12-17 with emotional, educational, social and/or behavioural challenges. It’s funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Ministry of Education. The class sizes are a fraction of those in typical schools, and Child and Youth Workers and Toronto District School Board teachers work alongside Social Workers to support each student comprehensively.
“It’s a team approach,” says Janice Kaiman, Manager of the Diamond Centre. “Our students require individualized educational and therapeutic services, but it’s with one goal in mind – to teach them the skills to transition back to their school and to manage successfully once they’re there.”
Jessica’s parents weren’t sure the Centre was the right place for her, but after one visit, they were convinced. From the outside, one might assume the Diamond Centre is just a big house on a residential street, but once inside, you’re immediately enveloped in a positive environment complete with big classrooms, a library and media centre, a school yard with basketball nets and a spacious lunchroom. “Every student here is unique,” affirms Kaiman. “They come to us from a variety of economic and geographic backgrounds and despite what people may believe, while they may be troubled, they are not violent or angry kids.”
In fact, the students at the Diamond Centre experience a range of different issues including learning and behavioural disorders, social anxiety, depression, Asperger’s syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – but they all have one thing in common – they’re all teenagers who want to fit in. The Diamond Centre recognizes this and strives to support their desire to return to community school. A number of years ago, parents of previous students were asked to participate in a focus group and one of the recurring concerns that arose was that their kids were just fine while at the Centre, but in shock when faced with the realization of what “regular” school was like. Jewish Family & Child took this very seriously and with the help of a generous donor, they hired a Transitional Worker to follow kids when they leave the Centre. “The Transitional Worker is absolutely vital to many of these students,” states Wendy Wolfman, Director of Family and Community Services at JF&CS. “They’re a mentor, a support and most importantly, a friend to the student. Sometimes the student will only need their Worker for a few months, some require a year or more of support, but in all cases, the Worker plays an invaluable role in their lives.” Unfortunately, the funding for the Transitional Worker is only available until June 2010, at which point, without further donations, JF&CS may no longer be able to afford the position and the students may once again be left to fend for themselves – a proposition that leaves Kerryn Rose, the current Transitional Worker, very concerned. “These kids need support,” she insists. “There is always something they need help with and I hate to think of them not having a shoulder to lean on or an advocate to support them.”
During their year or two at the Centre, students learn to turn around their lives and rejoin the mainstream with newfound competence and skills. They also participate in important volunteer work in the community organized by their Child and Youth Workers such as sorting food at food banks and reading to younger kids at other schools. Sharon Weintraub, a member of Toronto’s Jewish community and a former special education teacher, insists that JDD is one of the top education centres in Toronto based on its holistic approach to the child’s needs. Sharon has been making an annual donation for more than a decade specifically so that the students at JDD can experience something unique. “I know how focused these kids are on their education.” she says. “I think it’s important that they have something to look forward to … a treat, if you will.” This year, Sharon’s gift treated the students to the Mirvish production of The Sound of Music and a kosher lunch. Jessica remembers this fondly. “One of the kids in my class had never been in a theatre before!” she exclaims. “The music was amazing and I couldn’t stop singing Do Re Mi! It was so great to go on a field trip and just relax.”
When asked if the Diamond Centre is working for her, Jessica answers immediately. “Totally. I feel so much better here. I don’t know what would have happened if my parents and I hadn’t decided to participate in [JF&CS’s] family therapy. That’s what brought us to JDD and this awesome group of people that actually want to help me.” When asked what the Centre means to her, Jessica explains it as only a true teenager can. “I know I’m not like, super-articulate, but I guess I’d say that knowing how everyone here really wants me to succeed – makes me want to succeed as well – and that’s such a great feeling.”
What Jessica doesn’t realize, is just how “super-articulate” she actually is.