In partnership with the Jerusalem Municipality Education Department
(November 16 2016)
Chair: Tzachi Golan, Youth Development Division manager;
Renan Alian, Director of Educational Welfare in East Jerusalem, Jerusalem municipality;
Ornit Ben Yashar, CEO, Machshava Tova;
Assaf Nahari, Keshet Center Team, Youth Development Division, Jerusalem Municipality;
Ann Levi, Projects Team, Youth Development Division, Jerusalem Municipality;
Yakov Cheshin, Keshet Religious Team, Youth Development Division, Jerusalem Municipality
The Youth Development Division of Jerusalem Municipality serves young people aged 14-26 which are at-risk to varying degrees. We work throughout Jerusalem, with all segments of the population. Our goal is to help the youth change their lives for the better and help them integrate into society.
I will start with general information. There are 830 thousand residents in Jerusalem. It is the biggest city in Israel. Within the general population [secular and modern Orthodox Jews] there are two significant sub-groups: 300,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and 180,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews. A person can grow up in Jerusalem and almost never encounter members of other communities. Daily life is often conducted separately. We mostly hear about these groups interfacing in situations faught with friction – ultra-Orthodox “taking over” a secular neighborhood, or Arabs buying apartments in neighborhoods considered Jewish, such as Pisgat Zeev and the French Hill. In other words, leaving your “designated” location produces friction.
The living conditions vastly differ within each of these three communities. The Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are poorer than the general population. The dropout rates from school are higher, and young Arabs and ultra-Orthodox are more susceptible to situations of extreme risk. This reality is very challenging for us, and now I would like to ask my colleagues to briefly describe their professional challenges, solutions, and working methods.
Ornit Ben Yashar
I will start by describing my organization, Machshava Tova (“Good Thought”) and connect it to the work being done across the city. The organization was established in Jerusalem, with the goal of narrowing social gaps by using technology as a means for promoting disadvantaged groups. In 2003, the organization began working in Beit Lazarus (Talpiot), and this still characterizes our work today: we work in the neighborhoods, work within communities.
Machshava Tova operates in all parts of the city; to some extent, every Jerusalem neighborhood is a city in itself. We try to work locally, to avoid busing children. Mostly, we work in existing community centers or in centers we establish. There are mega-programs and special events that bring everyone together – these pose a challenge. Will participants come? Will they leave their neighborhood; exit their comfort zone?
I’ll talk about working in the city center, which differs from the work done in the neighborhoods. Downtown is a risk-intensive environment, where young people from different cultures show up. We run projects in the center, including a therapeutic café. It is an old café in Nahalat Shiva [a pedestrian mall in the center], which serves as a means to connect with teenagers. The café is an alternative to the streets, and aims to reach both boys and girls. We encounter very diverse youngsters: Arssim, Shababnikim [ultra-Orthodox drop-outs], punks, freaks, Arabs, Anglo-Saxons, Russians. I use their terminology, street slang. Each group has its territory downtown, and the divisions are clear. In Kikar HaChatulot [Cat Square] there is conflict between the Arab and Jewish youth.
Our job is to calm the area. Our presence and visibility are significant. In addition to the café, we run a project in cooperation with the Hebrew University. Students go downtown late at night with pitchers of tea and, along with the professional staff, provide a solution for the youth. The population remaining in the streets late at night is particularly challenging.
Our main challenges are keeping the area calm and reaching the youth. We cooperate with many other organizations working downtown: “Elem”, “Hut HaMeshulash” and others. Many of the youth reach out to a number or all of the organizations, and together we try to provide the best solutions.
I work with extremely high-risk girls, and coordinate the mentoring program. This is a joint program of the Youth Development Division, the Banky Family, and the Hebrew University. We work with young adults, over 17 years of age, who have experienced extreme situations and are now motivated to re-frame them as empowering experiences. Even more amazingly, they want to help other girls. We hold weekly three-hour sessions, accompanied by a team of therapists. Our goal is to analyze and process experiences, finding ways to develop emotional strength and provide practical skills. We want to touch a specific point and use it as a starting point for a multi-stage program to accompany the girl into her adult life.
Jerusalem offers many programs targeting girls and young women, but in my experience they stop short of providing practical skills. I worked with at-risk girls day and night, and I understood something was missing. I realized a need existed for practical skills, and this is what the program is trying to achieve. How do I get out of an abusive relationship, how do I enlist in the army [mandatory service], or enroll in a pre-service program? The girls learn to see themselves in each other, even if they come from different backgrounds and sectors. Gender is our common denominator – we believe it overrides all other differences. A Jewish girl and an Arab girl are more alike than different. It is not as simple as saying as the girls’ background disenfranchises them because of their gender. Sometimes their socio-economic background is not simple. Authentic knowledge, rooted in their own experiences, is translated into strength for helping other girls.
Even within East Jerusalem’s children at-risk, there are differences. Currently society itself is changing, and with it the ways of coping with at-risk children. Children are exposed to the Internet and to elements outside their communities, and they respond to this exposure quite differently. Lifestyles have changed; parents are no longer home with their children in the afternoon. In the past, we’d care for at-risk youth in the morning, and in the afternoon they were home, under parental watch. But today we extend our work into their homes as well, our concept being that the professional and educational staff and the parents must work in unison.
Society in East Jerusalem expects children aged 13-14 to be adults, act like men or women. These expectations do not allow room for emotional needs or addressing such needs. Today we are trying to incorporate language for emotions, to enable children and young people to express their fears and emotions, while also addressing them.
There is a shortage of responses available to the youngsters, and children do not have access to therapeutic facilities that can accommodate and assist them with their needs. We try to work with parents and school staff. Schools have become the focal point. Until recently, welfare services and therapy were considered taboo in East Jerusalem, so schools became the sites where emotional issues were addressed. We are pleased to work as part of an ensemble. Schools are being transformed from mere places of study, and they are being infused with new, therapeutic language. We are able to bring professionals into the schools, but still lack frameworks for addressing needs. Parents today are also more aware of potential solutions. They speak up – demanding help dealing with the youth.
The children in East Jerusalem are also being exposed to other cultures. When exposing them to programs in West Jerusalem, we must be sensitive – carefully examining the content and people within the program. Even models or programs that work well in West Jerusalem, must often be adapted for them to succeed in East Jerusalem. Even the definition of an “at-risk child” differs between the populations.
I will talk about our work with at-risk youth in the ultra-Orthodox [haredi] communities. Our professional challenge is identifying these youth. It is not easy to identify boys during their first stages of dropping-out. They appear to be enrolled in educational institutions, in line with their families and the community, but in fact they are somewhere else. Literally they are leading a double life. Tracking them down is complicated. Beyond that, interventions within the family and the community are often required.
We established an open clubhouse in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood. It serves as an important tool for identifying the at-risk youth. The boys enjoy a place to meet during their leisure time, where they meet other teenagers in similar circumstances. For the staff, it enables us to connect with them and understand what they are experiencing. We run a number of programs there throughout the week.
One such project is S.A.H.I. (Kindness patrol). Teenagers identify needy families in their area. Once a week they collect food donations and distribute the package to the families. There is a ceremony before going out – circle of kindness. In it, we gather and discuss the theme of giving. We have been running S.A.H.I. for over two years, and I have yet to see such an empowering project. Showing consideration toward others and giving from yourself – it simply works. One boy told me that since he started participating in the project he has stopped sneaking onto buses. The real professional challenge is always listening and learning from them boys.
I’m going to ask you to focus on the question, what is the relevance of the fact that you live and work in a mixed city? Does this aspect increase or reduce the risk? What is your view as a professional and as a citizen, as a person, in regards to mixing, or potentially mingling, with other segments of the population?
The risks and potential risks are unique for each individual, and depend on many factors at play during their adolescence. In general, emotional support is crucial for preventing them from being overwhelmed. A boy experiencing crisis can become confused in a city with so many cultures. It is easy to stumble. I grew up in Bnei Brak [a very religious city in central Israel]. Perhaps in such an insular city it will take longer to learn about certain things, even during a crisis, and perhaps during that time, the youngster can be identified and support can be provided. In a mixed city the time factor is significant. A variety of options are out there, readily available. I must separate my worldview from the boys’ wishes and desires. Such separation is required, if I am to understand and feel where the boy is. Religious beliefs can’t play a role here. The work is professional, unrelated to religious practice.
Ultra-Orthodox society secludes itself and tries to preserve its cultural values. The heightened cultural difficulties of at-risk youth from this sector should not be ignored. This tension requires a lot of work. In recent years, there is increased openness. Parents are more willing to accept children who are different. Today the tendency is to keep the deviant child within the family circle. If a family member can accept such a brother or nephew, it is a step towards understanding other populations in the society.
On one hand, a mixed city can offer solutions, but on the other hand, it can intensify risk. Today there are many lateral programs within the education system, and adjustments are being made. In most of the programs, the different sectors encounter each other at special events. This is a successful model, but if you don’t prepare beforehand, explosions can occur. Instead of benefiting from the diversity of the mixed city, you lose.
We operate an entrepreneurship program. We work with at-risk youth who struggle to fit in at school. We provide them with a working space to create a product and market it. Three years ago the program was adapted for the Arab community. We enable the youth to thrive; we provide them with a goal, and create a space for them to experience success. Only after they succeed within their community, we expose them to similar groups from [Jewish] West Jerusalem. A youngster who feels good about himself, is purposeful and happy, can save himself. He can utilize the help offered by the staff surrounding him. We have to believe in them and give them a chance. Not dictating the right path, but rather listening to see where they are at, what is happening around them. We need to be very sensitive.
Generally, every encounter between two people has the potential for differentiation or identification. An at-risk adolescent will try to weaken the other side. If I’m weak, I will feel more comfortable when there is someone weaker than me. In every encounter, I can compare the extent of my power with those around me. With a little guidance, young women can measure how strong they are, instead of how weak. We try to instill strength.
It is easier to contend with hatred and fear when you have healthy self-esteem. Once a girl fully realizes what is best for her, identifies her goals and what she needs to get there, the “other” becomes less intimidating. In general, adolescence is a dangerous period, but every positive experience can also be amplified. A girl who is used to being supported and develops the strength to support someone else – is wonderful. These are the skills we are trying to provide.
I want to differentiate between the field and the framework. When youngsters from different populations arrive at the café, we have an opportunity to connect them with each other and foster mutual respect. At-risk youth tend to dig their heels in, this is their only source of power. But youth also have an innate sense of curiosity, and slowly, within the context of a certain discourse, they are able to accept the “other.” The café is diverse. The LGBT community also frequents it.
In the field itself, I deal more with boundaries. Practically, we reach out to each population separately, without trying to make connections. Each group has distinct struggles and some are much more difficult: violence, drugs. On the streets, they have learned to respect territorial boundaries, and we reach out to each group separately.
Ornit Ben Yashar
If the internal processes are properly managed, the encounter with the “other” is easier. We create encounters between peers who learn the same content: technology. The skill set among the group is shared and equal among the participants.
Question from the audience
Yakov, The ultra-Orthodox community wants to live in an insular fashion, but is it possible to focus on commonalities and not on differences? Identifying the benefits of living in a mixed city?
When we identify common interests and organize a joint venture, partitions are indeed reduced, but such connections are based on a common field of interest or an ad hoc need. We are not trying to create one, homogeneous society. Whether we like it or not, society is comprised of different groups. The goal is to live side by side. Communities with different world views that are not in conflict with one another. A mixed city can contribute to this and create resilience. First hand acquaintance with “others” is, overall a positive notion. Resilience is fostered by growing up together.
Question from the audience
Who is considered at-risk youth? Is it someone not in school?
The accepted definition of youth at-risk in Israel is from the Hillel-Schmid commission in 2006. Youth are at-risk when they are at an at-risk situation at home, in school, or in their neighborhood.
Positive experiences with the “other” create opportunities for different ways of living. Sometimes one significant positive experience, in which I am treated with respect, is all it takes to provide an opportunity for a better shared life.
A girl deviating from the societal norm is considered at-risk. The question is the extent of such risk and the degree of support from her environment. The level of risk depends largely on the individual situation of each boy and girl.
Our job as youth workers is to enable the youth to explore a continuum. If we enable an ultra-Orthodox boy to explore other worlds without jeopardizing his place at home, everyone benefits. Our mission is to enable exploration without creating situations of critical risk.
Ultra-Orthodox boys expelled from their homes experience disconnection. The boys find themselves locked out of their families. The family wishes to protect the other children or family members from the deviant child. At first, I was very upset about this, but as we began to understand them better, we became less angry. We try to help the parents welcome the child back, return him home.
We use the aforementioned definition of at-risk youth but there are also other definitions: drop-outs, shababniks, punks. Essentially, each sector defines at-risk behavior according to their world view. A unified definition is difficult to pin down. Usually we define at-risk patterns of criminal behavior.
Question from the audience
Assaf, you related to Jewish girls dating Arabs as a problem. Why is it a problem?
This is a problem. It creates violence among the boys. It is a phenomenon we are helpless about.
In reality, some connections create difficulties when working with youth. When a Jewish girl is going out with an Arab boy, it creates a problem. A sudden transition into an unfamiliar society is dangerous.
Question from the audience
I’m from Lod. We too live in a mixed city and this issue comes up all the time. Is anyone coercing these girls? If not, it is not a problem, it’s their choice.
I prefer to steer clear of this subject and say that from our point of view, a boy who is making drastic changes, someone who suddenly becomes religious, a girl who resorts to working in prostituation – these are all dangerous situations. At-risk youth do not experience such conflicts out of strength, but rather a lack of choice. This is where we, the staff of the Youth Development Division, are.
I would like to summarize, and connect to this discussion on a personal note. As a resident of Kiryat Yovel [a pluralistic neighborhood], I believe that cultural encounters are enriching and inspiring. This is my fundamental belief, yet in the field this can also be an element of risk. I believe Jerusalem can grow into a city that is more connected and stronger, for the good of the city and the benefit of its diverse populations.