On February 21, Shaike El-Ami planned his day so that he would be free in the afternoon to pick up his son Dror from their home in Arnona and drive him to university for his economics exam. But what awaited El-Ami as he entered the house was the most difficult spectacle a father could face. Dror, 23 years old, took his own life. He was buried the same day, accompanied by his family and thousands of Jerusalemites who were stunned and heartbroken.
The family was flooded with love and care during the shiva and it was precisely then, during those terrible days, between a burst of tears followed by moments of silence, that El-Ami, a well-known and beloved public figure in the city, realized that what broke his son’s soul shouldn’t remain concealed, like a dark and frightening beast, without any care or treatment.
El-Ami, who runs the Ginot Ha’Ir local council, and his wife, Hagit, a designer and florist, owner of the Teva Va’Perah shop in Givat Shaul, knew immediately why it happened – they knew it was the evil beast that had kidnapped their youngest son’s young life, the bullying and exclusion by children in his class that he experienced when he was still in the second grade and, which, despite endless attention, care, protection and familial and social support, continued to gnaw at Dror’s soul.
It turned out that his teacher had an intense confrontation with Dror. It seems that she actually did not know how to deal with such a sensitive yet highly intelligent boy, and as she confronted him in the class, she actually gave the green light to the children... to abuse him.Hagit El-Ami
“At the end of second grade we felt that something was wrong,” Hagit opens up. “It turned out that his teacher had an intense confrontation with Dror. It seems that she actually did not know how to deal with such a sensitive yet highly intelligent boy, and as she confronted him in the class, she actually gave the green light to the children... to abuse him. When we realized what the ‘something wrong’ was, we moved Dror to another class, in the same school, and things seemed to calm down. However, two years later, according to the rules, the boys and girls were separated [into] new classes, and as a result, he found himself in the same class with the abusive children again. From a happy and sociable child he suddenly became a withdrawn child, in depression, and he refused to go to school and to eat. It took us months of treatment to realize he was actually experiencing post-trauma.”
Shaike and Hagit recounted how at that time, while their child was suffering from depression as a result of being reunited with the classmates who had abused him and cut him off from all social activities, the school staff and the parents of the students didn’t express any interest in the matter, and they were left to find answers by themselves for their heartbroken boy. What added to the family’s pain was the fact that at the same time, one of the girls from the same institution was diagnosed with cancer, with the staff and parents giving that family their full support, concern and accompaniment.
“But for us there was nothing, no one came, no one asked, no one was interested in listening and we were alone with Dror, who locked himself in his room and no longer wanted to see anyone and did not return to school for many months. It was a terrible sense of being abandoned by the whole system,” the El-Amis said in a cracked and sad voice.
When the El-Amis understood that Dror couldn’t continue to bear the loneliness caused by what he went through at school, they didn’t hesitate and decided to leave town. “We moved to Jerusalem, he started a new school, graduated. It seemed that he had overcome the dark days,” continues El-Ami.
Dror became a sociable child again and was successful at school. “Upon graduating from high school,” adds Hagit, “he went to an army preparatory academy [mehina] and there also he integrated excellently, acquired a lot of friends who continue to visit us even today. Subsequently, he raised his profile level to enlist and also managed to serve a significant and good service in a top unit. Upon being released from army service, he began his studies at the Hebrew University and everything seemed good.”
“But then,” adds El-Ami, “something, we will never know what, took him back there, to the traumatic days. It was something that nobody could foresee, something like a truck suddenly bursting onto the road... or a volcano that erupted unexpectedly, but it was something he was not able to go through again.” The parents said they were told that the coronavirus possibly changed something in the chemistry of his brain, “but we don‘t know and we understand that we will never know. One thing is sure – Dror couldn’t again face the terrible moments he had lived through years ago.”
The decision to do something significant and take action following this disaster, and not just remain stagnant in their overwhelming pain, came at an early stage. “It was first and foremost our decision as a family. Almost intuitively, we didn’t really talk about it but what we wanted was first of all to tell the whole story, not to hide, not to stay silent. We knew that we had to speak out. I already spoke out at the funeral. The first step was clear to us, as a family, that we were telling the whole story. That we’re not hiding that it was a suicide, and [that was] mainly because it had a context, it had a background. After all, we understood immediately where it came from, what it transpired from.
“So starting from the shiva, we were telling what had happened to Dror. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do in our eyes. I cried, but I kept talking, and there were lots of questions that arose and things were said. Nothing was silenced. You know, when facing such a disaster, there are two types of responses for the families. Some don’t talk or tell or open up about it. But then if the family doesn’t talk about the background, even those coming to console won’t dare talk about it.
“During the shiva, we realized it was the right time to tell about what happened to Dror way back, in his childhood. It started with me defining him as my ally, because he was like that – in recent years it has been like that. In the whirlpool of the days of the shiva, we realized that what we had with Dror in recent years was really a deep alliance. We had deep conversations, there were things we did together – he lived here, in our house, we would sit together with a drink, go to a movie together... there was something deep, which for me, was the expression of the deep bond formed over the years and made us allies really. It was the kind of relationship that very few parents get. I knew he trusted me. In his special way he told me that. He knew I was there for him. And I believe he did not betray that.”
SHAIKE AND Hagit say that right from the initial mourning period, between the waves of weeping and sorrow and being wrapped in the love of thousands of people, a decision was made to act so that they could spare other families from going through what they went through. For El-Ami, a public figure and accustomed to representing the public, it was almost self-evident – the action would come to and through the community.
“We knew we had left behind something that required action to be taken, that required correction, a repair,” continues El-Ami. “For us it wasn’t important to indicate where it happened and who the people involved were – we are looking ahead, we want to take our disaster to a place of repair. Hagit and I talked about it and it was clear to us that we wanted to reach the shloshim [30-day mourning period] with something cohesive, with a clear direction. During that month I met with many people, professionals. We talked about how and what, and came up with an insight into what needs to be done and what needs to be promoted. In a very hassidic way of thinking, I’d say that we had here a precious stone, a wonderful child that we gained, and now in his special way, he is ‘a blowing wind, fixing the world.’ And it rested on us.”
An association, Wings of Dror (Dror means a sparrow and freedom in Hebrew) was set up, and about two weeks ago the first conference was held. The organizers presented the association’s major points and its planned direction, and what the association will focus on. The major aim is to build up a system for support, counseling and accompaniment for families dealing with similar situations, with the principle being that it is a matter of the community – and not a problem for the children or the responsibility of the school. “We left the conference with plenty of insights and recommendations, and we now need to formulate all of that into a strategy and to start to work,” says El-Ami.
The main insight El-Ami and his partners in the project found was that the central issue is the connection to the community: when a child is bullied or worse and nobody stands up – except for his family – it is not the education system’s problem. This is a problem of the whole community and the parents, who together have a responsibility to act in such cases.
“I talked to educators and also the psychological service at the Education Administration [Manhi] – and the frustration there at hearing about these things was so high. They told me that actually I was bursting into an open door – they told me how much they were trying to deal with these phenomena, of exclusion, rejection, boycotts and vulnerability among students, facing all the violence that exists today on social networks, in shaming. They had to admit that they don’t have the necessary tools to combat these phenomena. And it is clear to them that the right and most appropriate tools are in the community. But they simply don’t know how to reach the community.”
There are several plans for action in the association’s mission, says El-Ami. First of all, assistance and support to families in situations of personal and mental crisis. How to make it so that in times of crisis, the community will be present and the family will not be left alone with the crisis. The second guideline is the prevention of abusive exclusion. This is the heart of the story, points out El-Ami, adding that here, too, it is not the problem of the education system but of the community. “It is about how the community copes with it.”
The association is now planning its first public move, a campaign that will change the community’s awareness, one that will make it clear that it’s the community’s role and responsibility to prevent social exclusion. El-Ami gives the example of a synagogue rabbi taking a drastic step to find a solution.
“Imagine that a resident comes to his synagogue on Shabbat, and says for example – my son is excluded in his class, the children don’t play with him and are boycotting him, and the rabbi decides that now they are stopping the prayers and will discuss the case to find out what happened,” says El-Ami. “It’s a very strong expression. It’s what I mean when I say that the community needs to take responsibility – this is what we need now, what our society needs and that’s what we intend to lead.”
El-Ami and his partners in the association are preparing to launch a broad campaign, where on the one hand they will seek to harness a range of leaders, both spiritual and communal, and they will appeal to all types of networks and all relevant organizations, from all sectors, including the secular public, with its leadership. The first move will be how to build a new language of community responsibility for families and also a language for dealing with these difficult phenomena. “So that our children will understand that social exclusion is a bad thing,” says El-Ami.
“Perhaps the most important issue is to make people understand that exclusion and shaming among children is not children’s matter, but is all of our problem, that there are red lines and it is the responsibility of all of us that they don’t be crossed,” concluded El-Ami. ❖