Humans and Animals in Mutual Assistance

How We Got Started

By Avshalom Beni, Founder and Director


I discovered through my work with children and Holocaust Survivors another deeply seeded memory of my own which had subconsciously influenced my gravitational pull towards the story of The Little Prince and his precocious and “therapeutic” fox. It lies in the memory of this simple photograph of me as a five year old child.  


This picture was taken just after Pesach in 1953.  I had just shared my bagel with my beagle. She was my best friend in the world, and I called  her “Sandy”. I am sitting in my father’s store. My father was a furrier just like his father and grandfather and I suppose many other great grand fathers as well.  He made fur coats and he loved animals; one of the great contradictions of his life and of my childhood as well.  As one can see in the picture, was not in a very festive mood. 


My father and I were waiting for the new owner to come any moment to pick Sandy up and take her away.  I was holding her for the last time. I’m sure I was praying that the sun would stand still and Sandy would stay on my lap forever. But I wasn’t the stuff great biblical heroes were made of, I was no mighty Joshua. I was just a little kid holding on to his first puppy for the very last time.  My dad tried to explain to me that Sandy’s grandfather was the famous “International Champion Thornridge Wrinkles” and that she was going to go live in a big house in the country and have a grand life, but all that made no sense to me. All I knew was that Sandy couldn’t stay with me forever, and my heart was broken. 


Sandy’s Famous Grandfather


In the meantime my own grandfather, Zeyde Shmuel,  who wasn’t all that  famous, was sitting on the other side of the room silently observing me. He lived in a small room on top of my father’s store. He was crippled with an amputated leg due to advanced diabetes. I knew that he was kind even though his appearance scared me a little bit. A pair of crutches were standing by his wheel chair. He looked at me and tried in his own strange way to make a silly face, and then when that didn’t work, he leaned over and in a loud whisper and confided in me that the puppy I was holding was very special and would be blessed and protected for the rest of her life. 


He explained that my puppy was going to her new home on the very same day as “Birkat HaHama”.  It was a very special very rare prayer recited only once every 28 years, and that he that he himself  had said this prayer only twice before in his whole life, and that that prayer would ensure my puppy a safe and happy journey.  “Birkat HaHama”,   he said., “is a prayer for the sun. It is when the sun and the stars and the moon stand side by side just as they did on that very day G_d created the world and the whole universe as well.  It is a time of creation and it is the celebration of G_d’s warmth and light, of giving and keeping us alive. “


Looking back, I’m quite sure my Zeyde didn’t say it just like that in his very heavy Yiddish accent, but that was clearly the message and that is what I held inside me for nearly a lifetime. That dormant memory awakened during an AAT session at the Hostel for Holocaust Survivors while a patient was telling me how her little brother had secretly said ”Kaddish” over their puppy when they were children. The child’s hapless animal companion was killed by their neighbors’ children while they were  being dragged out of their home to be transported to the camps “It started out as a beautiful sunny day”, she recalled,  “but it was the worst day of our lives.


There he was, my little brother trying to protect his poor puppy until they just tore it out of his arms and dragged us all away.  I never really wanted to think about that day”, she added, “ until now, here with this puppy on my lap. Only now when the sun shines, I know that it is a good day  and that the puppy is safe and that I’m safe”.  “Birkat HaHama”, I responded softly. “That’s the prayer my zeyde told me about -- the special prayer that would protect my beagle puppy the day she was taken away.” I thanked this wonderful old soul for sharing her memory and rescuing my own. “Birkat HaHama” has indeed become both a prayer and a name for me.  Both are primary expressions of reaching out.


We offer our prayers to G_d and our  names to those born to us whom we cherish in love and hope and grace. After all, our first step in meeting, approaching, and acknowledging others in our lives is through our mutual recognition of each others’ names. We personalize and individualize each other through our names Conversely the Holocaust depersonalized and delegitimized human beings through the nullification of their names. “From name to number to nothing”, that is how the same woman at the Hostel for Holocaust Survivors described the number on her wrist, nearly 13 years ago in one of my first sessions.  


That stark observation from our patient had a profound impact upon my approach with regard to all beings, human and animal alike. It became clear to me that my ability to help others depended first and foremost upon my ability to listen to them and learn from them, to keep listening to them and to keep learning about myself through them.   It was only natural that our Organization would have its own personal history, its own special story and a prayer behind its name.  


Names have always played a crucial role in our therapeutic work with humans and animals alike. In every HAMA session we always begin with a name. We always differentiate and individualize and make every living soul, human and animal alike, count not as a number or color, size or age, but as an individual with a name, a personal identity, a unique history.


In our special world where people and animals come together and reach out to each other, heal and rescue each other, names are a port of entry into each others’ lives. Birkat Hachama ("Blessing of the Sun") is a Beraita mentioned in the Talmud. That blessing, that name, which inspires us every day in our work has existed for nearly 2,000 years.


To many of the children  we serve, old and young, HAMA is like a “ship on wheels”, a tiny life raft from  “Noah’s Ark”, a mission,  a memory, a prayer, a tiny star like compass pointing  homeward though a brighter better rainbow after a long hard storm.  “Here comes the sun....Here comes the sun....Here comes {HAMA}....And I say it’s all right”    ("Here Comes the Sun", George Harrison, The Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road) 

As the founders of HAMA, Pam (far right) and I (2nd from left) have endeavored to bring the best of our American and Israeli narratives together.  We will always cherish our closest childhood friendships which have endured to this day for over half a century and our wedding day in the Reed College Chapel by Rabbi Yonah Geller, who had so touched our lives. These are but two of the many shining memories of America we had left behind.


The life journey of nearly 40 years which followed was in large part our Israeli story as parents, kibbutzniks, educators and now grandparents from afar.Despite the fact that Pam and I have lived more than half our lives in Israel, songs like Dylan’s "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence”, and Joan Baez’s “For Sasha” still ring true in my soul and make me yearn.  And while these songs will stay with me forever, I have come to realize that they are my songs and that the next of HAMA’s leaders and visionaries will have songs of their own. Pam’s songs have changed over time.  ​They have become the songs of  prayer and love of Torah, the Psalms, the writings of Rambam, Chofetz Haim and Carlebach among many significant others. These are the songs which now “rock her soul”.

And while I cannot go there with her as far as she would want me to, I have come to realize that her spiritual world has enriched my own in many ways and that her faith has provided me with a much greater and deeper sense of compassion and yes, if I must confess, a deeper awareness of my own imperfections and the need for “Tikkun”. Pam has established one of  HAMA’s  most successful and significant projects,  ​The HAMA English Tutorial Center which helps children referred to us through their schools to overcome challenges inherent in AD(H)D, dyslexia, and other  related learning disorders. HAMA’s English Center has indeed become a “Gateway to English through Animals”.   Apart from her full time job, she also taken on the unenviable task of our bookkeeping on a voluntary basis.

Who We Are



Avshalom and Pam Beni, Founders

​(told in first person, by Avshalom)