It’s midnight in a high-crime city in the center of the country, and ELEM’s
weekly “commando night” is about to begin. The charity’s volunteers head out in
a big body panel van looking in parks and building courtyards for at-risk kids
in need of some guidance or just a ready ear from someone a few years
The vans are operated by ELEM – Youth in Distress in Israel, a
nonprofit that helps atrisk kids and is mainly funded by the International
Fellowship of Christians and Jews, called the Keren Leyedidut in
The van program is one of ELEM’s outreach programs meant to
establish contact with kids in the parks and back streets where they gather at
night. The organization operates 15 vans in 18 cities from Eilat to the far
north, where a single van crisscrosses the towns of the Upper Galilee and the
In most cities, the volunteers set out twice a week and park in an
area where kids congregate at night.
The van, which they say serves as a
sort of safe area, includes a table and chairs, warm drinks and snacks,
backgammon boards and card games, as well as pamphlets on safe sex, drug abuse
and ways to avoid violence.
On “commando night,” however, volunteers
drive around actively searching for kids who may be in trouble and need someone
to talk to.
Volunteers said they always keep water and juice on hand to
help sober up kids who have drunk too much and are dehydrated, while the snacks
and cup o’ pasta meals are kept in stock for kids in worse shape, who may not be
able to count on a warm meal at home. As opposed to the vans operating in
suburban areas, having warm food on hand is more important for the Tel Aviv
night van, which often deals with youngsters who have run away from home and are
living on the streets in the big city.
For these kids, many of who are
using heroin or working in the sex trade, ELEM volunteers try to counsel them on
avoiding drug use or promiscuous sex. However, when all else fails, and they
realize that they cant prevent the kids from harming themselves, they hand out
condoms or clean needles, so at least the kids can avoid contracting HIV or
“We try to guide them, we aren’t here to preach to them,”
said Shmuel, a volunteer with the night van. “We don’t come with the approach of
nagging them, or asking them why are you shooting up? Why are you sleeping
around? Our approach is to tell them if you’re going to be shooting up, at least
use a clean needle so you can protect yourself. And if you’re going to have sex,
make sure to use a condom.”
While teen runaways and hard drug addiction
are more common for the Tel Aviv van, in the other towns volunteers deal mainly
with neighborhood kids drinking and smoking in parks into the late hours of the
“In a lot of these older cities, people aren’t allowed to expand
their homes bigger than three rooms, so once the house is full, the kids feel
cramped and have nowhere to go, so they head out to the parks to be with their
friends,” said Shirit, who has volunteered with the night van for the past two
ACCORDING TO ELEM, the most common problems it deals with are
drinking and smoking, but also gambling, which over the past year has become
rampant in parks and bomb shelters. Volunteers said they feel that their
presence can be a calming factor, and that they can reach out to kids who most
people tend to avoid. In addition, at times they have served as character
witnesses in trials of young people they have worked with, and have also helped
them acquire legal representation.
Volunteers for the night van program
are all older than 24 and come from a variety of backgrounds, with most of them
from middle-class families untouched by many of the difficulties suffered by the
kids they are trying to help.
“There is a big difference between empathy
and identification. It’s like how you don’t have to be a disabled person to help
the disabled. No matter who you are or where you come from, if you can connect
to them, it’s all that matters,” said Shmuel.
While they feel that their
presence can help prevent crime, volunteers said that they often have a less
than warm relationship with the local police.
“Our relations with the
police aren’t always friendly, because we don’t report kids to the police for
doing drugs. We’ll go to the police if we know that a kid is going to commit a
serious crime, or we will go to the police immediately if we know about someone
having a firearm,” Shirit said.
She added that increasing cooperation
with the police is problematic since their work is completely dependent on
earning the trust of kids, who won’t speak with them if they think they are
working with the police. At the same time, Shirit said that the group doesn’t
feel that it is by any means a substitute for the police or social
“We don’t try to replace the schools or the police; we just try
to go where there is a vacuum. Counselors and schools wait for the kids to come
to them, and police usually come when a crime has been committed.
out and try to prevent problems by finding the kids and speaking and listening
to them where they are.”
The commando night method works in a rather
straightforward manner. The van drives around in problem areas the volunteers
are familiar with, and looks for groups of youngsters loitering. Two volunteers
will get out of the van and walk up to the young people, asking, “Can we bother
you for a minute?” before sitting down for a talk.
While the prospect of
approaching groups of intoxicated young men in public parks in some of the
country’s roughest cities may sound harrowing, according to volunteers, the
response is almost always positive.
“I’ve been doing this for two years,
and I’ve never been harassed or cursed out. I can really only think of two
occasions where someone has told me to leave him alone,” Shirit
That said, the group does have some rules, for instance, if
youngsters are too drunk or seem too unruly, they won’t approach them to
They also won’t get involved in personally breaking
up physical altercations. Also, they don’t allow smoking or drinking in the van,
and ask youngsters that if they have a knife, to hand it over before coming to
talk to them. Shirit added that ELEM’s rules for operating and for reporting
crimes to the police are exactly the same as state social workers.
a.m. on a Tuesday night in mid-October, two volunteers, Yael and Dani, approach
a group of young men on a park bench in a neglected corner of a working- class
Tel Aviv suburb. The young men outnumber the volunteers about five to one, have
glazed-over eyes from smoking hashish, and a few seemed to have drunk alcohol..
The youngsters were from the suburb’s poor community of Caucasian immigrants,
and spoke in street Hebrew peppered with Russian and Arabic curses.
volunteers introduce themselves and start speaking to the youngsters, who begin
to test them, asking if they’re undercover cops and offering some low-grade
teasing. Dani gets the conversation going by asking how many of them are in the
army, and only two raise their hands, with one of them saying, “We have our own
While the rest of the group goofs off on the park benches, a
skinny 20-year-old with a scorpion tattoo on his left hand inked in prison takes
Dani aside and asks him if there’s anything he can do to help him get into the
army. The young man said he’d spent several years in prison for attempted
murder, and now that he’s out would like to start a new life and make the army
his first step. Dani speaks to the young man for several minutes and offers some
advice. Minutes later, the volunteers bid farewell and make their way back to
“Look, there’s no way the army will take someone like him,
someone who was in prison for a serious charge. Still, you can see that they
want help, and that even with tough kids, when someone comes to them, talks to
them, they respond to it, they aren’t used to it,” Dani says.