Home is clearly where the heart is for Hal Laufer. His face is all aglow as he turns the pages of his family album, filled with pictures and memories of his wife of 46 years, Sonya, their two children and three grandchildren playing in the backyard of the North Bellmore house where they lived for more than 30 years. For Laufer, it was the first home he ever really had.
Laufer, who moved to East Meadow with his wife five years ago, grew up as a foster child from the time he was still in diapers. His mother, Stella, died following a bout with breast cancer before he was 2, and he was left with his father, Martin, who was ill-equipped emotionally to care for Laufer and his older siblings, Willy and Gladys. The three children bounced from one foster family to another, never finding much stability in temporary homes or even learning about the doctrines of their religion.
"The first foster home I went into was with Jewish people, but they were not Orthodox. So I was 2 and eating bacon," says Laufer, 80, who works part-time as an insurance broker. "At 5, I left them and went to an Orthodox family, and I was told that I couldn't eat bacon and had to wait six hours before a meal."
Laufer's situation was made even more difficult because of dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Though he eventually attended City College of New York, hoping to become a radio announcer, his learning disabilities hampered his goal to earn his degree. Still, he's always valued education and has tried to make it easier for other foster kids to go to college by hosting a benefit for his Hal Laufer Scholarship Fund, which has raised more than $50,000 in the past 17 years. This year's event will take place Thursday, Nov. 12, at the clubhouse of The Seasons, a gated community in East Meadow, where he lives.
"Hal Laufer has never forgotten his growing up as a foster child and has spent a lifetime being a true champion of foster children," says John Imhof, commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Social Services. "His annual fundraisers and golf outings have raised tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship monies. Giving back is what Hal is all about."
Laufer says, "It's something that I just wanted to do. So I made some calls with Social Services and said I wanted to raise money for foster kids." Last year the events raised enough to provide $1,000 scholarships for two teens.
For the first five years, the fundraiser was done as a golf outing. Eventually, the event was moved to restaurants such as Domenico's in Levittown, where guests enjoyed dinner and entertainment. Headlining the bill was Laufer, who is a trained vocalist and has performed the songs of Frank Sinatra at various clubs and restaurants, such as Villa d'Aqua in Bellmore and Don't Tell Mama in Manhattan. For the past two years, the fundraiser has been at the clubhouse and last year attracted about 120 people. Once again, Laufer will take the stage with his singing partner Andrea Beerman. The event will also feature a magic act and crooning by Johnny Cupples. A ticket to the event is $20, which includes dinner, but many who attend donate more.
Life as a foster child
The fundraiser is a labor of love for Laufer, who grew up in Brooklyn and was first placed in an orphanage after his mother died. "My father had his problems. He fought in World War I and got wounded in Northern Italy," Laufer said. The physical and emotional scars of war coupled with his wife's death were more than Martin Laufer could handle. Shortly after his children were sent to the orphanage, it closed due to lack of funding. From there the children were sent to live with the family who taught them that everything tastes better with bacon.
Until the time Laufer was 15, he lived with five foster families between Bensonhurst and Bedford-Stuyvesant, never establishing roots. "I remember that I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I was playing with my friends outside. A social worker was carrying my bags and came over to me and said, 'We have to leave now.' And my friends said, 'Where are you going, Harold?' " Laufer recalls. "I was being taken to live with another family."
Though Laufer says he was generally treated well by the families he stayed with, it was difficult being separated from his siblings as he got older. One family couldn't care for all three Laufer children, forcing his sister to move to a new home. Then, his brother turned 14 and moved in with his dad.
The one note of stability for Laufer was that his father, who worked as a housepainter, was allowed to visit him every weekend. One foster family even hired Martin to paint their home while his son was living with them. Laufer moved back with his father at 15.
"Initially, I kept in touch with some of the foster families I was with, then no," he says. "It was gone with the wind."
A born entertainer
The fundraiser gives Laufer the chance to show off his affection for the songs of Sinatra. His love affair with popular songs came as a child when he would listen to Bing Crosby and then sing for anyone who would listen. "I always wanted to entertain people; I wanted people to like me," he says.
As an adult, Laufer performed with various theatrical companies on Long Island, such as Plaza Theatrical Productions, for whom he played the male lead in "Funny Girl" at Eisenhower Park. "He has such a beautiful rich instrument, one of those things you're born with," says Patti Dunham of Sea Cliff, who was Laufer's vocal coach for five years. "All I did was give him the nuts and bolts and breathing techniques."
Each year, Dunham would host a student recital at a Manhattan nightclub. Laufer, she says, was a standout and she knew he should do more performing. Through Dunham he met Beerman, another of her students, and they began performing together in 2009 at libraries and local restaurants. Laufer does a Sinatra set, then Beerman sings a mix of show tunes, Latin songs and standards. For a finale, they perform some duets.
"He's got a wonderful sense for that kind of music, and he really knows how to sing with a lot of feeling," says Beerman, a retired language pathologist from Bayside. "We have a nice chemistry and friendship and that comes across. We interject some nice patter and have a good time when we're entertaining. That gets translated to the audience."
In 2013, Laufer published the 28-page book "Foster Thoughts," detailing his childhood experiences. "My thought was I hoping more kids would read it and realize they're not alone," he says.
Likewise, he's gotten thank-yous from kids who've received scholarships over the years, but the only applause he's looking is when he performs. "A few kids sent me letters, but they don't know me from Adam," he says. "I mostly just want people to know about the foster system. You find a lot of kids going through foster care and they have social problems. But I'm still here today."
HAL LAUFER SCHOLARSHIP FUNDRAISER
WHEN | WHERE Thursday, Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m., The Seasons clubhouse, 1475 Front St., East Meadow
INFO $20, reservations recommended, includes dinner and entertainment; call 516-307-3629 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9 thorugh Thursday, Nov. 12.