New foundation works with aquarium to combine fun, education

By Fran Memberg | fmemberg@atljewishtimes.com

Charitable work for Israel hooked Yaacov Haller on working with children.

Yaakov Haller started his professional career as a commodity futures trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange. What was supposed to be a temporary detour working with a nonprofit organization made Haller realize his real passion was bettering the futures of people, especially children.

In 2014, Haller launched the nonprofit KIDUSH Foundation (www.kidushfoundation.org) to bring hands-on learning experiences to children with serious illnesses requiring long hospitalizations. The foundation’s first program, in cooperation with the Georgia Aquarium, was set for March 12 to engage patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.

The Georgia Aquarium provides educational programming in schools and has provided support to hospitals, but the KIDUSH project is the aquarium’s first onsite hospital educational outreach, said Kelli Edwards, assistant manager of public programs at the aquarium. Edwards and an environmental educator were scheduled to present a program about understanding the needs of the aquarium’s whale sharks.

“We decided to concentrate on understanding whale sharks and other sharks because of most children’s fascination with sharks,” Edwards said. For the KIDUSH project, “instead of concentrating on how we can take the children to the sharks, we decided to bring the wonders of sharks to the children.”

Future experiential education programs are being developed with other major Atlanta companies, all focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts.

Haller, 39, is a native New Yorker who moved to Atlanta last year with his wife and family; Mindy Haller grew up in Dunwoody and is a graduate of Dunwoody High School.

Haller was raised in New York’s Washington Heights Orthodox community. He earned a degree in finance from Touro College and started his career at the Mercantile Exchange in the late 1990s.

When a client asked him to help generate funds for terror victims in Israel, Haller became the face of the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund. He reached out to communities and schools to raise funds through walk-a-thons and other events and traveled to Israel every six weeks to distribute the funds.

“That opened my eyes to the power of school activities,” said Haller, who was impressed by the responsiveness of day schools.

Eventually the solidarity fund merged with another, and Haller was at a crossroads. He said that because of his success working with students, “I felt I could be effective in formal education.”

Haller created and directed an Internet radio program, “Nishma” (listen up), spotlighting student activities; it broadcast for two years before Haller became the middle school student activities director at Kushner Yeshiva High School in New Jersey, where he also taught Judaics. He was also a Hebrew school teacher, synagogue youth director and, with his wife, a staff member at an Orthodox summer sleepaway camp for several years. While at Kushner, Haller developed a fundraiser model, 4K4Kids Charity Run, an annual event for Jewish teens in the greater New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area to benefit their schools and charities.

When the Hallers learned in early 2014 they were expecting their fifth child, they made the decision to move to Atlanta to be close to Mindy’s family. That brought Yaakov to another career crossroads. He saw an opportunity to use his teaching background to do good for others, taking inspiration from his father, who, years before, organized a bikur cholim (visiting the sick) group in the family’s neighborhood.

Haller developed the idea of project-based learning modules to supplement the homework coordinated by in-hospital staff and local teachers that keeps children current with classwork while they are hospitalized. KIDUSH projects are not tied to county or state curricula.

KIDUSH is an acronym representing the program’s core elements: knowledge, inspiration, determination, unity, support and hope. “The goal is to foster a love of learning and a love of the discovery of learning,” Haller said. “It’s capitalizing on the ability of students, especially those with handicaps, to achieve success through education.”

Before moving to Atlanta, Haller created KIDUSH with support from a network of personal contacts and family foundations in the New York/New Jersey area who believed in the project. An application for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status is pending; once approved, Haller will apply for foundation grants. This year’s 4K4Kids Charity Run in New York on April 19 will benefit KIDUSH. An Atlanta 4K4Kids is planned in November.

Audra Berger, an elementary instructional supervisor for the Millburn, N.J., public schools, advised Haller and is on the KIDUSH board. Berger said she is unaware of any similar in-hospital programs. She said her role is developing the instructional components for the ideas Haller develops with corporate partners, determining the problem the patients have to solve and the instructional learning outcome.

Activities are self-contained, one-time sessions.

Berger applauds Haller for reaching out to critically ill children. “You have to be a special kind of person to work with this population,” she said. “It’s emotionally draining.”

Haller is adding Atlantans to the KIDUSH advisory team. Andy Grant, a CPA and a longtime friend of Mindy Haller’s family, is KIDUSH’s financial adviser. “I think Yaakov has identified a need, and he is very passionate about providing quality education to the kids that are stuck in hospitals. If you spend five minutes with Yaakov listening to his vision, you would also be interested,” Grant said. “I think [KIDUSH] will provide quality content in a manner that the kids will truly enjoy. There isn’t a lot to be excited about being stuck in a hospital bed all the time.”