Michal (not her real name) is the middle child of a dysfunctional haredi family of 11 who left home at age 12 and spent the next few years drifting from place to place. She sometimes slept on the streets, and never attended school.
“It was very dangerous, but I knew how to protect myself,” she says.
At 17, she began taking a string of low-paying jobs to subsist. She managed to get a bed in a structured program just six months before aging out of the social welfare system, which means losing significant financial, educational and social support available up to age 18.
“I started to panic about going back to the hard life when I turned 18,” she explains.
“I had no friends, no high school diploma. I was working at one job after another and barely surviving.”
And then Michal heard about Atara, an organization founded in 2014 to help at-risk young women transition successfully to independent living, education, employment, housing, health and social integration after aging out.
ATARA’S STRUCTURED residential program, currently accommodating 46 girls in three group homes, combines Sherut Leumi (National Service) with intensive life-skills mentoring and tutoring toward an academic high school diploma. Each girl comes from a family background ranging from severe physical and emotional abuse to neglect and dysfunction.
In partnership with Telem, a network of support centers for at-risk haredi high school youth in Jerusalem, Atara operates under the umbrella of Ha’Aguda LeHitnadvut (Volunteer Association), the oldest and largest civil-service organization in Israel. Completing National Service entitles the girls to government benefits.
“I wanted to do National Service and take responsibility for my own life, but I didn’t know how to live with others or how to keep a job,” says Michal. “At Atara, they help me with all these things.”
Through her volunteer position and part-time job last year, “I realized I was finally giving to the world, not just getting from the world,” she says. “This is the first time I feel like I am succeeding in life.”
According to Atara founders Yifat and Kory Bardash of Efrat, about 4,000 young adults without family backing age out of Israel’s social-welfare system each year. While some come out of residential and therapeutic programs that gave them the wherewithal to go on to National Service, the army or higher education, “most are ill-prepared to make it on their own and are forced into premature independence, with no support system,” says Kory.
Prof. Rami Benbenishty, a researcher of at-risk youth in Bar-Ilan University’s social work department, says the high rates of unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancies, illness and prostitution among this population “are all evidence that they cannot do well without continued support.”
Yifat Bardash says the Atara project “leverages every shekel invested in these girls” until they reach 18.
“Transitioning to independent adult life can be challenging, even for those with a strong education and supportive family,” she explains. “How can we expect an 18-year-old girl, without any family support, without a high-school diploma and no financial backing, to live independently? Being preoccupied with daily survival leaves no room for hope or the ability to actualize their dreams.”
Bardash is not a social worker. She is a mother of five, with an industrial engineering degree from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and 20 years in corporate and nonprofit management.
About six years ago, when she and her husband were living in Jerusalem, they provided emergency shelter for a young Jewish woman rescued from an Arab village.
Last week, they happily attended her engagement party, says Kory, a New Jersey native who made aliya in 1995 and married Yifat, a fifth-generation Jerusalemite, 15 years ago.
When Yifat was a teenage National Service volunteer under the auspices of the Volunteer Association, she worked with at-risk youth and won a national award for developing an innovative program.
This experience sensitized her to the sector, and as she and Kory took in several youth at risk, she saw that much more needed to be done.
“Tragically, there was no program specifically tailored for this population.
The government does offer a limited range of solutions to aged-out youth, but it is not comprehensive,” she says.
Knowing that some form of national service is a critical key to productive citizenship, Yifat approached the Volunteer Association to partner with her in establishing Atara. The name was chosen for its traditional femininity and its meaning, “tiara.”
“We are putting a crown on their heads, lifting them up and giving them a chance,” she says. “We aren’t trying to make them something they’re not, but letting them find their own powers and fulfill their own potential without the distraction of all the bad things that happened to them.”
Atara’s social worker interviews each candidate and follows her through the year. A “house mother” supervises each of the three kashrut- and Shabbat-observant residences. One houses 10 participants in their second year, including Michal.
“This not just National Service with a house,” says Michal, who is studying for her two remaining matriculation exams.
“I’m doing things I never thought I could. For the first time in my life, I am proud of myself. I know I will be something because Atara changed my life.”
From the Volunteer Association’s perspective as well, the organization is already a success.
“This project gives the [young women] an opportunity to believe in themselves, in their strengths, and restore their confidence that they can fit in and enter the job market and studies,” says CEO Yaron Lutz.
“Their service in places like hospitals is actually a great way not only to give to society, but also to build their own character,” he says. “They come to know that they can do it, and they can give and not only get.”
KORY BARDASH, a financial professional and Atara’s fund-raiser, explains that religious girls, “particularly from the haredi community, are the most vulnerable of this population. They are not only disconnected from their families and community, but from society as well.”
Last winter, Yifat met a girl who had been sleeping in a covered Jerusalem parking lot with other girls in the same situation.
“She told me that somebody came and asked her if she wanted to come and stay at his house, and she went, since she was so cold,” she relates. “He raped her, and she didn’t say anything because where would she sleep tomorrow? It broke my heart.”
Though Atara offers much more than a place to sleep, the impact of this single aspect cannot be overstated.
“They are so appreciative for nice rooms, warm beds and nutritious food – all the things we take for granted,” says Kory. “It’s heartbreaking. The girls come to the house with two or three supermarket bags of their possessions. That’s all they have.”
He reports that mayors throughout Israel have expressed interest in starting Atara homes, and many young women are on a waiting list for spots in the existing residences.
“No other organization is doing what we do,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to make real social change in Israel, and it would help if the government would extend social welfare benefits to age 21. There are many studies that show that there are significant savings in expenditures on someone who successfully ages out, compared with someone who doesn’t.”
For Yifat, the beginning of the school year is a hectic time.
“I have 46 new ‘daughters’ and I have to provide for them from A to Z. The idea is that they leave survival mode and acquire everything they need to prepare effectively for a life of independence,” she says.
She devotes much effort to finding job-training courses, apprenticeships, colleges and workplaces willing to take a chance on Atara girls.
“They really want to work aside from the 30 to 40 hours of National Service, because they need the money. And on top of that,” she explains, “they are all studying for their bagrut [matriculation exams]. I want to give them peace of mind to be able to work and to learn.”
THE BARDASHES believe their own children have benefited from Atara, despite the time it takes their parents away from family life.
“They learn about giving, about considering the other, and that people are different. They see how we can make a change, something you cannot teach them in any other way,” Yifat says.
“Our kids have always been great in welcoming these people; there’s nothing like the hug and smile of a little kid,” she continues. “They don’t know everything that’s going on with our girls – we never go into details – but they know these are unfortunate people we are blessed to be able to provide for.” ■ For more information, see the organization’s website: http://www.atara.org/ Our-Story.html