In one of the most neglected neighborhoods in central Israel, one organization says it has found the solution to fighting crime: Showing troubled residents you care.
For years, the Oshiyot neighborhood in Rehovot was a hotspot for drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime. Home to 18,000 residents, the heavily Yemenite, Ethiopian, and Russian neighborhood was known in the city as a place you didn't linger at night, a part of town where knives are drawn in the parks and alleyways after dark.
These days, Oshiyot has been cleaned up in a turnaround that many residents say is nothing short of miraculous. The people of Oshiyot and the police who patrol its streets say that the turnaround is largely thanks to the efforts of an organization that moved into the neighborhood with a mission to renew a blighted corner of forgotten Israel.
According to data released by Israel Police, the neighborhood has seen a 65% drop in property crime over the past five years, a statistic many say is linked to the founding of the organization Garin Ha'Morim in 2003. The drop in the crime rate has led to a sharp rise in apartment prices as well, with some residents saying houses that were going for NIS 300,000 just five years ago are now selling for NIS 500,000 and more.
The Garin Ha'Morim program was founded by Moreshet Yaakov College and Rabbi Haim Fogel in 2003 with the goal of improving the lives of schoolchildren and adult residents in Oshiyot. Chairman of the board of trustees of the Orot Israel college and one of the founders of the Tzvia chain of girls' religious boarding schools (ulpanot), Fogel saw Garin Ha'Morim as a way to give graduates of the teaching school an opportunity to volunteer and give something back to the community.
In a recent interview with Metro, Rabbi Fogel said that "our idea was to create something we call 'life teachers.' These are teachers who don't only help out in terms of schoolwork, they also help with sports, life counseling, and other areas where people need assistance."
Fogel said that the organization saw the need to immerse teachers in the community to make them a part of their students' lives long after classes let out. For this purpose, Fogel decided that the newly-minted teachers must live in the neighborhood, to be part of the changes they are trying to effect.
"The madrichim (counselors) live inside the neighborhood, inside Oshiyot and this makes a big difference," he said. "If a teacher only teaches at the school, their influence ends at 2 p.m. and they're [the children] back out on the street, where there are other influences."
Fogel's words are born out by Rehovot police chief Dep.-Cmdr. Ofer Dagan, who told Metro that the turnaround in the neighborhood can be linked to Garin Ha'Morim and their efforts - together with the police - to improve Oshiyot.
"There has been a huge change in Oshiyot, even just over the last two years," Dagan said, adding that "it's not only because of these classes, but also because of the citizen patrol that [Garin Ha'Morim] started in the community, in which they help us, and we help them patrol and stop problems in the community before they start.
"The police did a great deal, but the majority of the credit no doubt goes to this program," Dagan said, adding that Garin Ha'Morim had made a big difference mainly because of its work with troubled youth - which he referred to as being "on the margins, [and] already known to the police."
Dagan said the program "has reached out to them, spoken to them, and helped show them that crime is not the way to go."
Garin Ha'Morim manager and Midreshet Yaakov alumnus Ophir Abuksis took Metro on a tour of the Oshiyot neighborhood recently when the program was holding its weekly meetings. The first stop was a bomb shelter in a cul-de-sac near Rehov Herzl, close to the Oshiyot junction.
With the smell of fresh paint on the walls, Abuksis walks down the stairs into a warm, 20-smile greeting from a group of little girls meeting in the shelter for their weekly recreation and tutoring class with Garin. The girls are sitting in a circle reading from a script and acting out a play, with one child wearing what appears to be a Mordechai costume which is fitting for Purim.
Ten computers line a back room in the shelter, as do wardrobes and bookshelves holding a trickle of books. Moriel, a young volunteer, explains that most of the girls come from homes where they don't have access to computers, and many of their parents lack the reading skills to help them with their homework or recreational reading. Moriel says the classes taught by Garin Ha'Morim are meant to serve as a bridge between formal learning in school and informal extracurricular learning. Here, in a once abandoned bomb shelter, they get tutoring and big-sister-style guidance from a pair of girls performing their national service as counselors for Garin Ha'Morim.
After leaving the girls' class at the first shelter, Abuksis heads across the cul-de-sac to the bottom floor of a two-level home. The door opens to an apartment full of Yemenite men from Bar Mitzvah to great-grandfather age, reading Jewish scripture and rocking in prayer. On the other side of the room, in the kitchen, Yemenite women sit in two rows of plastic chairs conversing.
On the tables in the living room, plastic bags
overflow with leaves of Khat, a plant whose leaves produce a mild, stimulating narcotic effect when chewed. Chewing Khat is a cherished tradition and a widespread addiction in Yemen, and a fact of life that the men reading holy books in the Oshiyot apartment found hard to part with in Israel.
This is called a "tachzina" Abuksis says. "It's a big tradition in Yemen. It's a house where men sit around and chew Khat, read prayers and study Torah. They say the Khat helps them concentrate."
"I tried it once, it was too bitter for my taste," Abuksis added, before offering a handful of the pick-me-up leaves.
Though the tachzina was not an official Garin Ha'Morim-run facility, Abuksis said it was an important reflection of the character of the community and the people whom Garin Ha'Morim has invested so much time in helping. Abuksis said that the tachzina was an integral part of Jewish communities in Yemen, where the synagogue was the center of Jewish life and the anchor of the community.
"Most of them [Yemenite residents of Oshiyot] immigrated to Israel in the '90s, not back in the earlier waves of immigration from Yemen. Many of them were faced with a very difficult situation," he says. "Not only that they came so late, but that people were prone to think of the Yemenite community as a veteran community, and when they think of new immigrants, they think of Russians and Ethiopians, [but] they forget about those immigrants from Yemen who came in the '90s, many of whom were - and remain - very poor."
Abuksis drives his car down the dark streets of Oshiyot, parking outside a large, green park bathed in the glow of streetlights.
"You see this, all this? Just a few years back this place was full of drug users and prostitutes, it was known for this," Abuksis said, adding that "we wouldn't have come here at night back then."
Abuksis walks to a bomb shelter and unlocks the door, the smell of fresh paint again wafting into the air. "We received these bomb shelters from the municipality," he says. "Before, they were full of trash and a haven for drug users and the like."
The municipality was more than happy to turn over the shelters to Garin Ha'Morim, Abuksis says, and today, though the shelter is still not entirely set up for classes and after-school activities, it and the other Garin basements bear no resemblance to drug dens of a formerly desperate part of town.
Abuksis is quick to point out that it isn't just the renovated bomb shelters and the once a week after-school tutoring and life counseling classes that make a difference. Rather, it's the program's general effort to make a difference in the lives of residents that has left an imprint on the residents of Oshiyot.
Some of the youth who were at one time or another on the verge of a downward spiral met that night in a two-story house in Oshiyot, where, on the rooftop terrace, they sat 20-deep around a table piled-high with burekas, soft drinks, cake and Arak, reading Jewish scripture and having heated discussions about Judaism and life.
In the middle of the table, a cell phone lay propped open. On the other end of the phone was Eliran Levi, a one-time reputed mobster who listens to the Garin classes once a week from prison, where he is serving a sentence for attempted murder. Levi is held up by Garin as an example of how even the most hardcore, troubled young men in the neighborhood can turn their lives around when someone shows they care, and devotes even just a portion of their time to helping them improve their lives.
Yossi Hadad, a volunteer in Oshiyot, helps run youth programs for teens as young as 13 years old, saying he can already see a great change in the neighborhood.
"When I first came here to work, my wife didn't want to live out here, she refused," he said. "But nowadays, you can see a difference, even though there are still problems."
Hadad said a lot of the problems for the Yemenite community in Oshiyot can be linked to the difficulties of immigrating to Israel and the often earth-shattering cultural implications it can hold.
"They come from families where the father was
the center of the family. Suddenly, the father can't support the family and his children speak the local language better than he does. In situations like this, the father becomes frustrated and the family's situation deteriorates, leading to all sorts of problems," he explains.
Hadad said that programs for older residents can be just as important as those meant to help juveniles, describing how relationship counseling, domestic advice and workshops for new immigrants taught in the bomb shelters of Oshiyot can make a big difference in the lives of the neighborhood's troubled residents, and help one disadvantaged pocket of Israel turn the corner.