Friday night in the park

As teenage drinking steadily increases nationwide, Parents Watch is on the street to help ‘good kids’ stay out of trouble.

By LARRY DERFNER
February 26, 2010 17:47
FLOURISHING STIGMA. ‘There’s no real difference to

alcohol teens 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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A quarter to two in the morning last Friday, Dekalim Park, city of Modi’in: About 100 teenagers, mainly boys, are shouting and horsing around, many of them drinking vodka or beer. The walkways and grass are littered with bottles and broken glass. A man and a woman wearing blue “Parents Watch” jackets stand quietly to the side, watching, offering tea from a thermos to whoever asks.

A 17-year-old couple is snuggling on a bench. The boy says he’s had “a couple of drinks,” the girl says she’s had none, and, by their voices and manner, this is believable. Explaining the Friday night routine, the boy says: “A few of us chip in and give NIS 20, NIS 25 to somebody who’s 18 [the legal minimum age to buy alcohol], and he buys us a bottle of vodka.” His parents tell him not to come home drunk, and he says he complies. As for the girl, her father is a policeman, but he doesn’t give her a hard time. “What’s he going to tell me, I’m not a kid anymore,” she says. “And anyway he knows I’m a good girl, that I don’t drink.”

On Friday nights in this middle-class city of 75,000, groups of teenagers hang out drinking in a few different parks, with Dekalim being the biggest draw. Occasionally a kid who’s too drunk to make it home is driven to his door by one of the patrolling parents. Now and then a fight breaks out, but it usually gets broken up quickly. No teenage drinker in Modi’in has been shot, stabbed or otherwise badly injured during the Friday night drinking scene in the parks.

Asked how many kids end up falling-down drunk, the Parents Watch woman says that in the two years she’s been spending one Friday night a month on patrol, she’s come across maybe half a dozen such cases. “That’s out of thousands and thousands of teenagers in this city,” she points out. Her partner adds: “I’d say only a negligible proportion of kids in town are actually going out and getting totally drunk.”

Whether the scene in Modi’in is better, worse or about the same as in the country at large is hard to determine. On the one hand, the local school programs to dissuade pupils from drinking are considered exemplary, the educational and economic level of the population is high, and the test scores in the schools are at the top of the national scale. But on the other hand, the rise in teen drinking is seen mainly as an outgrowth of the rise in prosperity and Western-style consumerism, with rich kids tending to drink more than poor ones – and Modi’in residents tend to be hard-working, ambitious, worldly and preoccupied with “quality of life.” Still, to whatever extent the local teenage drinking problem is representative of the nation’s, one thing that’s clear is that the problem – in Modi’in as in the country as a whole – isn’t as bad as the media and many politicians would have people think.



“IN THE last year, there’s been a bit of hysteria surrounding this phenomenon. It’s not accurate and it’s not helpful,” says Galia Shaham, head of the Education Ministry’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention.



True, statistics from the Israel Anti-Drug Authority show that teenage drinking has been sharply on the rise in the last five years. And the news stories of teenagers getting into drunken, at times fatal, brawls at late-night clubs, of 13-year-olds ending up in the emergency room after drinking themselves unconscious, and of drunken teenagers causing lethal car crashes are not made up. But the question of how dark the big picture is depends on the picture it’s being compared to.

In relation to the drinking habits of earlier Israeli generations, today’s teens qualify as hopeless alcoholics – but that’s because previous Israeli generations, bred on Zionist idealism, economic austerity and cultural isolation, were, except when making Kiddush or celebrating Purim, basically teetotalers.

But compared to teenagers in the rest of the world, Israeli teenagers are, in general, a sober bunch.

“Israel does not have a history of hard drinking, and as such has developed a culture far less reliant on alcoholic entertainment than exists in other Western countries,” wrote columnist Seth Freedman in Britain’s Guardian last November after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu likened teenage drinking here to a “fast-spreading, virus-borne epidemic.” True, there are some troubling statistics – for instance, the World Health Organization finds that this country has the world’s second-highest rate of 11-year-olds who drink, after Ukraine. And Israel Police say traffic accidents involving intoxicated young drivers is increasing by as much as 2% annually, according to Yair Geller, head of the Israel Anti-Drug Authority.

But taken as a whole, and in comparison to other countries, the teenage drinking problem here is still marginal.

“Israeli youth have one of the lowest rates of binge drinking in the world,” says Shaham.

“Overall, between the ages of 11 and 21, we’re lower than any country in Europe, lower than the US,” says Geller. “We rank with Croatia, Estonia, maybe Switzerland. The highest rates of teenage drinking are in Scandinavia, England and Germany.”

However, the thing that troubles parents and officials who deal with the problem is that it’s growing fast.

“We’re at the bottom of the international ladder now,” says Geller, “but at the rate we’re going, we’ll be up around the middle in a few years.”

LAST WEDNESDAY night, nearly 40 members of Modi’in’s Parents Watch gathered in the lobby of City Hall for a reality check. The volunteer group, one of dozens that patrol parks in cities across the country, was set up by the municipality two years ago. The parents were here for advice on how to deal with drunken kids from Elad Goldenberg, a former official with Elem (Youth in Distress). It emerged during the evening that the members of Parents Watch were patrolling the parks on Friday nights with varying goals in mind, and that many were at a loss as to how to achieve them.

“The other night this one kid was breaking bottles on the ground and I told him to stop, and he said, ‘I don’t care what you say,’ and he kept on doing it. What do I do in a situation like that?” asked one father.

“Once at Dekalim me and the other volunteer I was with saw a drunken boy take a girl behind the bushes. We stood there and looked at each other. We felt helpless. What are we supposed to do?” asked a mother.

“We haven’t decreased the consumption of alcohol one drop. We’re just there to catch them when they fall,” said a father.

“Maybe this is too much for us,” suggested another dad.

Asking the parents their purpose on patrol, Goldenberg got a variety of answers: to ensure the kids’ safety, to demonstrate parental responsibility, to lend the youngsters a sympathetic ear.

The parents stressed that not all the kids in the parks drink, and that among those who do, very few get truly plastered, and that of those who do get plastered, fewer still do this on a weekly basis.

The volunteers said the teenagers begin gathering in the parks around 11:30 p.m., and by 2 or 2:30 a.m., the scenes of full-blown drunkenness begin. Goldenberg gave the parents a few tips: “If most of the kids are just having a good time and not hurting anybody or hurting themselves, give them less of your attention and concentrate more on the few who are really problematic. It’s not necessary to get them to talk to you, what’s important is just to be present for them, for them to know that you’ve seen them at their worst and you’re still not giving up on them.

“Too many adults have already given up on them. And if you want to get some of these kids to talk to you, to open up to you, you should get to them by 1:30 because after that, they’ll be too drunk to talk or listen.”

He noted that his experience isn’t with Friday night suburban teenage revelers, but with out-and-out “street youth” – those who’ve drifted away from school, who spend much of the day drinking and many or even all of their nights away from home. Nationwide, Goldenberg said, there are fewer than 1,000 of these kids.

In Modi’in, there are none, says city councilman Ilan Ben-Sa’adon, head of the council’s Drug and Alcohol Prevention Committee and an active member of Parents Watch.

Says Shaham: “There are cases of chronic alcoholism among teenagers in this country, but it’s not what you could call a phenomenon. Even the kids you see getting drunk in the parks are not alcoholics. They don’t do this regularly. Once in a while they’ll go to the park and drink too much – much too much – and their body will react. They don’t know how to drink, they don’t know what it does to them.”

There have been instances of high-school pupils getting drunk on overnight class trips, along with tales of students hiding vodka bottles in Pringles cans, in shampoo bottles, in all the places teachers don’t think of looking.

“A couple of months ago a high-school principal in Kiryat Yam took a class on an overnight trip, and when he found out that some of them had been drinking, he called them all together, gave them a talking to, canceled the trip and brought them all home,” she says approvingly.

Many Israelis blame the wave of Russian immigrants for introducing this society, especially the young, to drinking, but Geller says this is merely a “stigma.”

“There’s no real difference today between the level of drinking among immigrant teenagers and sabras,” he says.

Neither, says Shaham, is there any difference in alcohol consumption between secular and religious Jewish teenagers, noting, “We have a problem in the religious schools on Purim.”

The one demographic group that still shuns drinking, says Shaham, is Muslims.

ON THE bench at Dekalim, the policeman’s daughter sitting with her boyfriend says: “The kids who drink are the ones who aren’t doing well in school, who come here to cut loose. It’s all from peer pressure.”

Today a high-school student who doesn’t drink runs the risk of being considered a hnun, a nerd, says Geller.

“A kid who really wants to be popular is expected to able to talk knowledgeably about alcohol – which one tastes the best, which one is the best deal,” adds Shaham.

As for why a noticeable upswing in teenage drinking began in the middle of last decade, neither Shaham nor Geller could point to anything specific that happened at that time. Instead, they suggest a gathering of forces that had been present for a generation or so: prosperity, exposure to instant global media and marketing, frequent travel overseas (with stops at duty-free stores for whisky and wine), and the spread of all-night snack bars that sell alcohol.

“We’re in the midst of a cultural change,” says Shaham. “Once Israelis considered it unacceptable to drink. Now we’re imitating the Western world, and alcohol has become part of the ‘good life’ – part of dining, part of entertainment. There’s been a great increase in the marketing of beer, wine and hard liquor.

“I don’t know if we can turn back the clock,” she continues, “but we want to help young people avoid the worst consequences of drinking, we want to make it so that getting drunk will not be the stimulation they seek during their adolescence.”

Steps are being taken. Aside from Parents Watch and various alcohol awareness programs in schools and youth groups, a raft of new, tougher anti-drinking laws is likely to pass the Knesset by the end of the current session in three weeks, says Geller.

“What we’re hoping for are laws that will ban the sale of alcohol between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. except in pubs and banquet halls; a prohibition on drinking in parks, at beaches, on the street and in other public venues; the requirement of a warning about the dangers of drinking on every bottle or can of alcohol; and a maximum three-month prison term for these ‘machers’ – adults who buy alcohol for minors,” says Geller.

Later on, he says, a second stage of planned anti-drinking laws would include heavy taxes on alcohol that would make it harder for teenagers to afford to buy it, along with yet harsher punishments for the range of alcohol-related violations.

In Modi’in, says Ben-Sa’adon, a recently passed municipal law forbids the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. “A few times we’ve caught these all-night snack bars selling alcohol to minors, and we’ve shut them down for a week or two, which costs them a lot of money and acts as a deterrent,” he adds.

At three in the morning last Friday, wearing his Parents Watch jacket, Ben-Sa’adon was in Dekalim talking to a few boys of about 17 who were swaying on their feet and slurring their words.

The youngsters give Parents Watch good reviews. “They’re nice people. They give you tea. They drive you home when you get too drunk,” said one boy on a bench. Nearby, a very drunk boy of about 17 or 18 was seated between two sober girls. “We’ll take care of him,” the girls tell the parent volunteers.

“I had a little too much to drink,” says the boy, his head in his hands. “Can I get some water? My hands are sticky.” One of the fathers pours some water into his hands. “Dance with me,” the boy says, getting up and heading toward the father, who backs away laughing, and the boy sits back down on the bench between his two minders.

Ben-Sa’adon is listening to a drunken boy of about 17 who keeps saying how he’s going to return to yeshiva and stop drinking. He’s praising various rabbis, kissing his fingers, looking up to heaven and couching every promise in the phrase
“Don’t tell me b’ezrat hashem – help yourself a little, too,” Ben-Sa’adon urges the boy, and the boy gives him a hug. Several other boys are coming up to Ben-Sa’adon, calling him “Ilan” and hugging him. Ben-Sa’adon has been coming out to the parks with other volunteers every other Friday night for over a year.

“I’ve seen kids as young as 12 drinking,” he says. “A couple of kids have had to go to the hospital.” He adds, though, that the drinking in the parks “is mainly a Friday night thing, very rarely do you see it in the middle of the week. And there’s no drinking in the schools.”

A boy comes up and tells Ben-Sa’adon that he got drunk over past weekend, but didn’t drive. “Good for you, good for you!” the councilman tells the boy, who comes in for a hug.

“When I was growing up,” he says, “I could very easily have ended up a street kid getting drunk all the time, and I want to keep these kids away from that.” He figures that over the course of the night, he and the other volunteers prevented three fights from breaking out in Dekalim by stepping between the disputants.

“Once I was limping for a week when I broke up a fight and got kicked accidentally,” he says. “But as a rule, the boys cool off in a half hour, and then they’re friends again.”

Toward 4 a.m., as the shift ends, Ben-Sa’adon says he and the other parents saw a lot of teenagers drinking, a lot of teenagers drunk, but nobody who needed to be escorted home. “It’s been a quiet night,” he says. “No violence, no trouble. When all is said and done, these are good kids.”   

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