Marin synagogue adopts orphans of terror

Though she’s never laid eyes on them, Dr. Miriam Goldfien proudly displays a black-and-white photo of three little Israeli girls, ages 3, 4 and 5, on the piano in her Mill Valley home.

Julia Aaronson, a 12-year-old Novato girl, is selling hundreds of dollars worth of Silly Putty to help the same trio of dark-haired sisters thousands of miles away.

And while they were packing to leave earlier this week on a two-week trip to Israel, some congregants from Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar tucked away trinkets for the siblings, whom they’ll soon meet at a Chanukah celebration in Jerusalem.

Though it’s hardly an official adoption, the parents and kids at the Conservative synagogue in Marin County are reaching out in many ways to the three Israeli children who became orphans before they were old enough to start school.

The girls’ mother was killed in a November 2002 suicide bombing and their father died in an unrelated incident a few months later. The three sisters are now in the care of their maternal grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants in their 70s. Hoping to preserve their privacy, the grandparents do not want their names publicly disclosed, according to a social worker in Israel. The family lives in a barely furnished, tiny low-income apartment on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

In recent months, Kol Shofar has raised more than $10,000 to help the family through an Israeli nonprofit agency called Atzum. But the connection has gone far past signatures on a handful of checks.

“The response was beyond our wildest imagination,” said Goldfien. The Larkspur-based family physician is heading up the adoption project for the family locally after learning earlier this year about the work that Atzum does for victims of terror.

“This is the family they came up with for us, and whose heart wouldn’t break hearing that story?” asked Goldfien.

Kol Shofar is just one of eight synagogues and schools in the Bay Area assisting terror victims through Atzum, which was started about a year and a half ago. For example, Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City has raised some $20,000 for the organization, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco raised $10,000 earlier this year and Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael recently adopted a family.

“Some synagogues did it just wonderfully, without knowing the families,” said Varda Rabin, a Tiburon resident who has been introducing Atzum to the local Jewish community.

In Tiburon, Kol Shofar has rallied to the cause with everything from a Hebrew class bake sale and b’nai mitzvah fund-raisers to actual visits and letter exchanges.

Financially, the congregation has agreed to help the family with $10,000 for each of the next five years, and Goldfien said the effort, started last spring, already is into its second year’s worth of fund-raising.

In Israel, a social worker at Atzum supervises how funds are dispersed for the family’s needs. So far, some of the congregation’s money has been spent to buy a new washing machine, summer clothes for the girls and to pay for day care.

Their needs have inspired many.

As a bat mitzvah project she’s calling “Pounds of Putty,” Aaronson has raised almost $1,000 by buying the gooey play stuff in bulk and selling it by the pound and half-pound to friends.

Rachel Dimon, a Greenbrae girl who celebrated her bat mitzvah on Dec. 13, raised more than $400 by designing mosaic picture frames and selling them at the synagogue earlier this month.

And Goldfien’s son, Michael, wrote letters and raised more than $1,000 for the family as his own bar mitzvah project this fall. Hearing the girls’ story and seeing their photos “really put things into perspective about how lucky I am,” said the 13-year-old.

“This family has become a very important part of our congregation,” said Rabbi Lavey Derby, who is leading the trip to Israel.

Photographs of the girls and their grandparents, who speak Russian and Hebrew but no English, hang on the synagogue’s hallway walls along with some of the girls’ drawings.

Bruce Raful, a congregant who is coordinating the Israel trip, visited the family on his own in July.

Leading the current list of needs for the family is a new and bigger place to live, he said, and a car. The Russian-speaking grandfather confessed that he doesn’t know how to drive and also will need driving lessons, Raful said.

For Goldfien, the story of the adoption extends beyond this one family and the bonds that are forming with Kol Shofar.

While touched by the Israeli family’s plight and clearly heartened by the response from her synagogue, Goldfien said credit for locating and caring for the youngsters and more than 200 other families devastated by terror attacks should go to Atzum, whose Web site is