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Hayim & His Boys

Despite all of the negative news stories highlighted in the press, every now and then, you run across a heartwarming story you just must share with everyone. Well, do I have a story to share with you! It’s about a Satmar Chasid named Hayim Cohen who lives in Houston and his unique family.

 

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The Cohens: (back) Shmariyahu Yair, Avichai, Hayim Nissim, Yehuda Baruch and Avshalom;

(front) Pesach Lior, Yissachar Yomtov, Simcha Yitzhak, Elimelech Fishel and Nachman Medad.

Hayim Cohen never set out to change the world. Yet the 34-year-old Houston resident has transformed the lives of nine Jewish orphans, building a unique family of children in need.

As a child growing up in a Yiddish-speaking Satmar Chassidic family in New York, Hayim recalls that one particular Jewish injunction spoke to him in a deep, profound way. In an Aish.com exclusive interview, Hayim recalls that the Jewish instruction “Don’t cause anguish to any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:21) always felt particularly meaningful to him. He took the injunction to care for the less fortunate personally, and decided to pursue a career in social work.

He moved to Houston to study social work, working in Jewish summer camps and helping children with difficult home lives. He began to gain a reputation as someone who could help children within the Jewish community, and in 2010 he was contacted by social workers from a rural area in Texas. Two Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys were in foster care there, but the local foster home they were placed in had no way of meeting their needs. Could Hayim, located in the large Jewish community of Houston, help?

“I didn’t waste any time,” Hayim recalls. He visited the boys – Avichai and Avshalom, who were nine and ten years old – in their foster home. Their foster parents had insisted the boys remove the kippot they were used to wearing and were serving the children non-kosher food. “I jumped into action,” Hayim says, and applied to become a licensed foster parent with the state of Texas to help them. Within a very short period of time he learned a huge amount and realized the incredible need for foster homes in Texas and elsewhere.

“I never knew the level of need in the foster system,” Hayim explains. He learned that many children have absolutely nobody to support them and are entirely without relatives, friends or resources. “There are thousands of kids in that situation.” In Texas alone there are 29,000 children in the foster care system. In Harris County, which is home to Houston, there are 13,000 children in foster care. Hayim was determined to do what he could to help.

“I often hear people say ‘if I ever had the opportunity to give back, I’d give back,’” Hayim says with a chuckle. “But I tell them you do have the opportunity, it’s right here.” He acknowledges that not everyone can be a foster parent but “that chance to help, it rests with everyone.”

Hayim became licensed and Avichai and Avshalom moved in with him. It was very difficult at first, but slowly the new foster family became used to their new routine. When Hayim felt overwhelmed, he turned to his rabbi, and continued to take classes and training courses within the foster care system. He also joined a support group for Jewish foster and adoptive families. Gradually, Avichai and Avshalom began to adjust to their new lives; one day Avshalom turned to Hayim and told him that if he had to be anywhere other than with his birth family, he wanted to be with Hayim.

Hayim continued to forge bonds with local social workers and worked hard to expand resources for Jewish children within Texas’ foster care system. His Yiddish-speaking Orthodox foster home was a unique resource, and a year and a half after he took in Avichai and Avshalom, Hayim got a phone call about another Yiddish-speaking, religiously observant Jewish child in CPS (Child Protective Services) care.

Yehudah was 11 years old and is “such a special kid” Hayim explains. At first, he was traumatized and didn’t want to play with his new foster family. Hayim, Avichai and Avshalom would play board games in the evening together, while Yehudah peeked out from an open door at them, afraid to join them. Finally, one day, Yehudah came and sat down and started playing the board game with the others. “We didn’t say anything,” Hayim recalls. “We just acted like he’d always been playing.”

Soon, Hayim enrolled Yehudah – and his foster brothers – in a local Jewish boy scout troop, as well as another group for young boys called the Houston Police Explorers, run by the Houston Police Department. The boys began to blossom. Hayim home-schooled the children. He’d learned that children from difficult backgrounds can often best be helped by public schools, yet he didn’t want to compromise their religious Jewish education either. He also had to work around the complex schedules of therapists and counsellors his foster children required.

Hayim’s solution was to turn a room into his modest house into a classroom, complete with a smartboard on the wall, and transform his home into a fully-functioning home school. Hayim hired tutors to teach the boys both secular and Judaic studies, and he’s proud today that all of his boys are working at their grade level.

A couple of years later, another boy, Shmariyahu Yair, joined the foster family. He was followed by Yissachar Yomtov and Simcha Yitzhak, two brothers whom Hayim calls the “babies” of the family: they were two and four years old when they were placed in the home. In 2017 three brothers joined the family: Nachman Medad, Elimelech Fishel and Pasach Lior.

As the foster family grew, they forged special bonds with one another and Hayim decided he wanted to transform his family, becoming not only a foster father, but a legal father as well. Over the span of several years, Hayim has adopted all nine of his foster children.

It has made for an unusual home. Hayim hopes to find the girl of his dreams to marry, and he acknowledges that his family’s large size presents special challenges. “It’s difficult to date; you can imagine,” Hayim explains, joking that “you can imagine coming to somebody and saying you want to date them – and you also have nine children – I hope you like to cook!” he finishes with a laugh. Still, Hayim has faith that God willing, he’ll meet his bashert soon, and she’ll embrace both him and his warm-hearted family.

In the meantime, the boys want to give back, helping other foster children in similar circumstances they were once in. The boys recently hatched a plan to make a difference in the lives of Houston’s foster children.

With nine growing boys, the family is always looking for inexpensive places to buy clothes. A local store was recently going out of business and slashing all their prices; Hayim and the four oldest boys went shopping. As they browsed, the store owner announced that all the inventory was now 90% off. Avshalom, who’s now 18, turned to his father and asked wouldn’t it be amazing if they could buy all the school uniforms in the store – and donate them to foster kids?

The Cohens have long donated clothes to a Houston-area charity called BEAR (“BE A Resource for CPS kids”) which distributes clothes to foster children. “Kids often come into foster care with only the clothes on their backs,” Hayim explains. His children understood that reality, and each year would donate a few outfits to the charity. This time, Avshalom had a more ambitious plan: to donate hundreds of articles of clothing.

The boys discussed the idea. They each had saved up their allowance for months: would they be willing to part with their savings to help foster kids on a large scale? Avshalom in particular had been saving up his allowance to buy one of his brothers a set of books written by Maimonides. Would he mind Avshalom spending the money on charity instead? The answer was clear: all the brothers decided to help buy out the store.

The store owner was so impressed he lowered the prices even further, and together the boys bought 1,200 school uniforms and 4,000 pairs of socks for $300. On May 20, 2019, they donated the clothes to charity. Hayim becomes teary recalling his sons’ charity and willingness to go without in order to help others.

Hayim has tried to use the publicity his unusual family has received to educate the community about adoption and foster care, including in the Jewish community. “Our community is nervous when it comes to adoption,” Hayim told reporters, “because they feel like there are no Jewish children in foster care. Jewish children in foster care doesn’t mean we’re an imperfect people. It means there are issues that are out of our control.…. People have been blinded by the old idea that kids in foster care are ‘damaged goods’. These are normal kids who have gone through an abnormal situation. They deserve the same love, respect and dignity that we give to every other person in our daily life.”

Hayim hopes that his example will inspire others to act to help others, and to understand the magnitude of the need in the foster care system. “We can all do something,” he notes. Not everyone can adopt or be a foster parent – but we can all challenge ourselves to move out of our comfort zones to care more, to do more, and to try and make a lasting difference to others.