By Ilan Preskovsky
Built from the ashes of a terrible tragedy, Havat Ephraim, a children’s petting zoo in Beit El, Israel, has been a constant source of chesed for nearly twenty years now. Between providing work opportunities for struggling adults and therapy for troubled children, the zoo stands as a testament not only to the young boy in whose memory it is named but for the Jewish and, indeed, deeply human ability to create meaning out of even the most seemingly meaningless darkness.
As its founder, Tuvia Victor, tells it, it all began on the sixth night of Chanukah in 1996 with a typically barbaric, cold-blooded terror attack. As a medic in the IDF, Tuvia was called on to provide medical aid at the site where a group of terrorists, yemach shemom v’zichrom (may their names and memory be blotted out), had opened fire on a group of innocent civilians. When he reached the site, he noticed, to his horror, that the young boy suffering from what was clearly a fatal wound was his neighbour Ephraim Tzur and, worse, that there was nothing he could do but bear witness to this young child’s passing. Ephraim’s mother, Itta, was rushed to hospital but she sadly succumbed to her wounds.
The next Shabbos, Tuvia happened to visit the pen where young Ephraim and his friends kept an assortment of animals and noticed a hand-painted sign that said “Ephraim’s farm – in memory of our friend Ephraim Tzur”. Inspired by this humble tribute, Tuvia decided to follow their lead and took over the children’s zoo, renaming it after Ephraim and expanding it considerably with the help of the Beit El city council. Although he remains a full-time accountant, Tuvia has been deeply involved with Havat Ephraim ever since.
More than just a tribute to the name of his fallen young neighbour, Tuvia has turned the zoo into something that genuinely enriches the lives of his community. For the children of the community, Havat Ephraim offers peace and serenity away from the hustle and bustle of modern 21st century life. Children and their parents can take a stroll and interact with the animals. Nursery school classes come for educational outings. But it’s not just a nice place to get away for a few hours, as it offers some concrete therapeutic value for more troubled children as well. The zoo offers a programme for school children to come and work on the farm after school for a few days a week or during school holidays. The programme, which specifically revolves around working with other kids in caring for, feeding, and cleaning the animals, socialises kids who are more withdrawn and grants confidence to kids with low self-esteem, while at the same time developing the sort of empathy and care that comes with looking after these animals.
Along with the educational, therapeutic, and recreational benefits that Havat Ephraim offers to kids, it also boasts an employment programme for adults in need. Whether the adult in question is between jobs, has been unemployed for months, or already has a job but desperately needs to supplement his or her income, the zoo works according to the Rambam’s truism that the highest form of charity possible is to provide someone with a job. Assigned work according to their abilities and qualifications – making it similar, if not always identical to “regular” jobs – those on the programme usually stay with it until they find other work to fill their needs, but, until then, it not only provides them with a way to feed their families (in some of the more extreme cases, workers even take home leftover food originally meant for the animals as well) and something to give them the self-confidence to get back on their feet. Like everything else about the zoo, the programme runs almost entirely on donations, with small grants from the city council being Havat Ephraim’s only other source of revenue. To find out more about this beautiful “living tribute” to Ephraim Tzur, visit: www.beitelzoo.com