It is an unlikely love story. Mali is a “Sabra”, a native born Israeli and Yaakov is from Mexico. When Yaakov was 11 years old, the family moved to Jerusalem.
Yaakov and Mali had both finished their studies and were living and working in Jerusalem when they met through a mutual friend. They married in 2001 and moved to the Benjamin community of Ofra. It was important to them to raise their future children in a warm and friendly community and Ofra’s location near Jerusalem was an added bonus. Today, the Sztriglers are parents to five beautiful children- daughters ages 15, 13, 12 and 9, and a 6 year old son.
It was 12 years ago that Mali began her tenure as the director of Heart of Benjamin, a program for children from the Benjamin Region suffering from a host of physical, educational and social challenges. Although Mali’s education was in operations management and she had no experience with special-needs children, she applied for the job because it was close to home and she had two small children. Within weeks, she had fallen in love with Heart of Benjamin – with the children, their families, the volunteers and the staff.
The Sztriglers do not have special-needs children of their own, but the Heart of Benjamin children became a part of their family. Yaakov volunteered whenever he could, spending time with the children and their families. And as soon as she was old enough, the Sztrigler’s eldest daughter became a Heart of Benjamin volunteer. “These children are special, not because they have special needs, but because their happiness and love is so pure,” explains Yaakov.
Mali believes that Heart of Benjamin’s location in Ofra is what has enabled it to flourish. “Just as we believe having a strong sense of community is important for raising our children, the spirit of community cooperation in Ofra has been essential to the success of Heart of Benjamin.”
When Mali became director, she was advised by then Benjamin Regional Mayor, Pinchas Wallerstein, to contact Sondra Baras, at CFOIC Heartland. It was the beginning of an important, fruitful relationship. Soon Sondra was bringing Christian groups to visit and see for themselves the amazing work of Heart of Benjamin.
Over the years Mali and Yaakov have both enjoyed hosting Christian groups who come to Ofra. For Mali, every visit is moving. “It shows that there are people who understand and love us.” She recalls one visit in particular: a German group visiting on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day was particularly moving for Mali, a daughter of Holocaust survivors. The group has been providing regular support for Heart of Benjamin ever since.
Yaakov is a licensed tour guide. He loves to host the Christian groups when they come to visit, taking them up to the Amona hilltop, and explaining the Biblical significance of the region. He has also guided visitors at the neighboring site of ancient Shiloh. “There they pray for the good of Israel and the settlement movement. Their love for the nation of Israel surprises me every time.”
Yaakov and Mali have formed meaningful relationships with CFOIC Heartland supporters over the years. It’s not just about work — it is an integral part of their Jewish experience. “We see the Jewish return to Israel and later, Judea and Samaria as the fulfillment of prophecy. We believe that Christians visiting Israel from all over the world is also the fulfillment of prophecy,” explains Mali, quoting the Bible: “And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” (Isaiah 2:2)
About six years ago, Mali did not have enough money for the Heart of Benjamin Passover camps. She had faith that somehow it would work, but she had no idea how. “The very next day Sondra Baras called to say that CFOIC Heartland donors had just given NIS 45,000 for the camps. It was as if she read my mind!” Mali says. “It was such a relief knowing that we had the means to continue the important work we are doing.” For several years now, CFOIC Heartland has supported the Passover and summer camps and Mali is so grateful!
From the beginning, Mali was determined to build a permanent facility for the Heart of Benjamin. For nearly a decade, she moved this dream forward, raising funds from family members and close friends.In 2011, CFOIC Heartland received the first of many donations from John Hagee Ministries for this project, which enabled the project to reach completion in 2015.
In 2014, Mali was offered an important job at Israel’s Ministry of Economy, and had to decide whether to leave Heart of Benjamin. After working so hard to raise the funds to build the permanent facility, she was reluctant to leave before the job was done. Mali and Yaakov had both invested so much into the project. Working like the team they are, they decided that Yaakov would replace Mali at Heart of Benjamin and see the building project through.
It was a seamless transition. The children already knew Yaakov and loved him. Under Yaakov’s direction, the permanent facility was completed and a new program was initiated — a special-needs daycare center for babies and toddlers. For Yaakov, his work at Heart of Benjamin was “the highlight of my life.”
Last summer, Mali attended the CUFI Summit in Washington D.C with Sondra Baras where she had the opportunity to thank Pastor John and Diana Hagee in person for all they have done for Heart of Benjamin. It was her first time at a large Christian Zionist event and she was brought to tears. “It was very emotional to see how Christians were talking…” she stops herself midsentence, “if only more American Jews would talk like that about Israel!”