11-year-old bringing joy, toys to Moscow orphans

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Ariane Rosenberg lives in a good home in Oakland with a loving family. Like most 11-year-olds, she goes to school, rides her bike, surfs the Internet and plays with her friends.

But even at 11, Ariane knows that not all kids are as fortunate as she is.

So when she learned from family friend Yitz Applbaum of nearly 3,000 Jewish children in Moscow who live on the streets, don’t attend school, struggle for food and are clothed in rags, she was determined to help.

Applbaum visited Russia in December and upon returning to the Bay Area, he relayed stories to Ariane. He told her of a nation where some kids are forced into state care, and often out on the streets because their parents are abusive, have alcohol or drug dependencies or are simply too poor to care for them. Russia, he said, is a nation where Jewish kids in need of a home are sometimes turned away from state care because of their religion.

On a visit to a state orphanage that housed dozens of babies, Applbaum, a senior vice president at Bank of America in San Francisco recalled, “It was absolutely amazing. You could have heard a pin drop…there was no crying. These babies had no one to care for them. There was no involvement. I picked one up and it just screamed.”

And then he told her of a special place — a place of hope for homeless Jewish children growing up amid rampant anti-Semitism — the Passin Waxman Center.

“I thought it was very touching because it was the first Jewish orphanage since Stalin’s time,” Ariane said. “I knew I had to try and help these kids to make the orphanage stay alive.”

She decided to “collect toys for them to enjoy, to help brighten their lives because they don’t have their parents and they might be sad.”

The Passin Waxman center, which is in Moscow, was founded in 1999 by Broadway producer Anita Waxman with the help of Pinchus Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow.

Waxman’s daughter Tracy Dayton is executive director of the Passin Waxman Center Foundation in New York, which raises funds for the center. She said her mother was prompted to start the orphanage when she discovered the abysmal conditions of most state-run orphanages in Russia.

“Kids are strapped to beds and dehydrated so they don’t bother anyone to go to the bathroom,” Dayton said. “They’re undernourished and abused. No child deserves this.”

Applbaum contends that these institutions are not “dirty places,” but in fact just the opposite. They’re “too sterile,” he said.

“There’s no love.”

And that’s why the Passin Waxman Center, which today houses 39 kids, provides them with a full, enjoyable life in a loving home.

“We’re trying to make sure these kids are hugged and loved and taught,” said Dayton. “We want them to sing and dance and have a fun life. At the same time we want to instill Judaism in them. A lot of these kids didn’t even know they were Jewish before entering into the home.”

Since February, Ariane has been successfully collecting toys and money for the orphanage at her synagogue, Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation. “I’ve actually gotten quite a lot of toys,” she said. “It makes me feel proud that my congregation really cares.”

In addition to her synagogue’s support, Ariane has gained the support of several manufacturers and retailers including Wild Planet, Mrs. Grossman’s Stickers, Toy Smart and JCPenney.

“She’s really made a full-time commitment to this,” said Applbaum. “This isn’t just a fly-by-night attempt. I think it will mean a lot to these kids just to know that others are thinking about them.”

In the process, Ariane has also gained respect from the Passin Waxman Foundation.

“She’s an amazing, amazing child,” said Dayton. “Usually 11-year-olds can’t think beyond their Nintendo. It takes a special child to take on a project like this.”

But to Ariane, there’s nothing special about it. She’s just following her heart and her mother’s example.

“When I was little, my mom did tzedakah to raise money and [provide] clothes for Bosnia,” recalled Ariane. “I remember watching her get donations and put clothes in bags.”

Ariane’s mother, Kathi, said: “We’ve always tried to nurture our children’s desire to try and help others. We’re very proud of Ariane.”

Applbaum will bring the toys to the children after Ariane’s bat mitzvah on Labor Day weekend. Until then, Ariane will continue her efforts.

“If it all works out, I’d love to do more,” Ariane shared. “It really makes me feel proud and great to know these kids are going to get these toys.”

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.