MasterChef winner, mayor cook to save detox center

Avi Levy and Nir Barkat cook “meatball surprises” to draw attention to a Jerusalem rehab for teens in danger of closing.

October 4, 2011 03:37
4 minute read.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat joined Israel’s newly crowned MasterChef, Avi Levy, on Monday afternoon to cook “meatball surprises” to draw attention to a Jerusalem rehabilitation center for teens, which is in danger of closing at the end of the month.

The 20-year-old Lifta Detoxification Center, located in the abandoned Arab village of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem, has 16 beds and is one of only two centers in the country that treats adolescents battling alcohol and drug addiction.

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Jerusalem-born Levy, who won the MasterChef reality cooking competition on September 24 in what was Israel’s most-watched television event of all time, was forthright on the cooking program with his own struggles with substance abuse that landed him in jail. He learned to cook while he was incarcerated, and has volunteered for the past year as a mentor at the Lifta Detoxification Center, known by its Hebrew initials, Ma’agal.

In an effort to improve services for substance abuse, the Health Ministry recently published a tender for a new, larger adolescent substance abuse institution, but disqualified Ma’agal from submitting a bid for the tender for “technical reasons,” said Hela Yaniv, the director of the Jerusalem Anti- Drug Association and one of the founders of Ma’agal 20 years ago.

“This center has gone through so much knowledge and experience,” said Yaniv, who received the news that the center would soon be closing. “This is a place that works well, it needs to be strengthened and improved, not closed,” she said.

Ma’agal has 16 beds for teenagers who willingly come for three months of detoxification, intensive therapy, and life counseling, though some are recommended by courts or social workers. It also has Arab nurses and counselors for east Jerusalem teenagers who don’t speak Hebrew and can’t go to other treatment centers. Yaniv said the Health Ministry wants to consolidate two small centers for teenagers into one large center near the Tel Aviv area, ignoring the needs of Jerusalem residents who want to be close to home and familiar frameworks.

A spokesman for the Health Ministry said that while the ministry supports the work of Ma’agal, the physical condition of the buildings was unacceptable, forcing them to turn to other organizations. He said they want to maintain a detox center in Jerusalem for teenagers.

Levy and Barkat donned aprons on Monday afternoon in the kitchen of Ma’agal to highlight the center’s unique location and successes while they cooked a meal of “meatball surprises,” meatballs with bits of fried cauliflower or sweet potato inside, a dish that Levy used early in the MasterChef season.

“I want to show kids that there’s a beautiful life without drugs,” he said.

Though Barkat said he is more of a barbecue man than a cook, he enthusiastically chopped cauliflower and eggplant along with Levy as he stressed the importance of saving the Jerusalem facility.

“We must ensure that Ma’agal continues the path it started years ago and enables young people from around Jerusalem and everywhere around the country to rehabilitate themselves,” he said. “It’s wrong to close something that’s not broken,” Barkat added, citing the center’s successes over the years.

One of the teenagers at the center said it was “really cool” to see Levy cook for them after months of watching him on TV, though he was worried about the future.

“If they close this place, I am going to die,” said the resident.

“This is my second time here, the first time I was not here with my whole heart, and when I got out I understood that this place can save my life,” he said, adding that closing the center would be sending the teenagers back into the streets to continue abusing substances.

“I take my hat off to [the teenagers here], to come for treatment at such a young age,” said Levy. “They know they’re on the right path and this is the only place that can help them.” Levy recalled that even though his mother fought tirelessly to save him from substance abuse, waiting outside at all hours of the night for him to come home and begging him to stop, she was powerless to help and he needed professional help. Levy has credited cooking with helping him to rehabilitate.

“To cook is to get away from all the troubles they’re going through during the day,” echoed Levy. “They’re cooking and they’re getting out all the thoughts and the things they don’t want to deal with now, so cooking for them is therapy.”

Levy added that Mayor Barkat was a decent chef.

“If he wants to change professions, I’ll hire him for sure,” he said.

Judy Siegel-Itzkovich contributed to this report.

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