Building trust

At-risk youth and social workers from Berlin and Jerusalem participate in an annual exchange program to learn more about each other’s cities and culture.

Berlin Jerusalem exchange 521 (photo credit: Inbar Ben-Yitzchak)
Berlin Jerusalem exchange 521
(photo credit: Inbar Ben-Yitzchak)
Both Berlin and Jerusalem are capitals that were divided. They have many immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Muslim youth. A lot of construction is taking place,” notes Robert Pomierski of Berlin, mission leader of Berlin youth social workers who visited Jerusalem last week.
While Berlin is much larger, with nearly 3.5 million residents living in 12 large boroughs, both cities have a devoted cadre of professionals working tirelessly to locate, empower and advance at-risk youth.
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In June, Jerusalem social workers of Kidum Noar (“Advancement of Youth,” the division of the Jerusalem municipality dealing with at-risk youth) visited Berlin as part of an exchange program, now in its sixth year. Pomierski, a social worker with the Outreach Mobile Youth Work in Berlin, initiated the program with Hezi Shilo, head of projects at Kidum Noar. Each year, either at-risk youth or social workers from the two cities participate.
Pomierski spent a year in high school with a family in Herzliya when he was on the American Field Service program. He learned Hebrew in ulpan, and participated in excavations in Gamla. During the 1991 Gulf War, Pomierski, then a student at the Alice Salomon School of Social Work in Berlin, came with other students to the Hebrew University’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work to show solidarity with Israel. His practicum in 1993 as a social work student in Kidum Noar cemented his connection with this division (today part of the Jerusalem Municipality’s education department), which helps 9,000 at-risk youth throughout Jerusalem.
According to Pomierski, who was in Jerusalem last week, the exchange program is about more than just youth outreach.
“With our shared history, it’s very important that both sides get to know each other,” says Pomierski.
“Germany has changed since 1945. Still, many differences of opinion exist between the populations of the two countries. The youths of both countries have to get to know each other. There are prejudices because they don’t know each other.”
Understanding the historical connections between the two countries and challenging stereotypes is empowering, he explains.
“Germany and Israel have a special relationship. As Germans, it’s not easy to go around with our horrible past. In Berlin many young people use the word ‘Jude’ for a victim or as a curse. It is very important to show them real Jews and Israel as a state, and not follow the propaganda and TV reports. When the German and Israeli youth meet on this program, they learn via personal interaction. Several will visit the other country again. They become ambassadors in their respective countries and relate their experience to their surroundings.”
According to Shilo, it isn’t only the German youngsters who are ignorant about the Holocaust.
“A few years ago, I asked some local youths why they didn’t participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony,” he says. “When they told me it was ‘a holiday for Ashkenazim,’ I realized something had to change.”
To date 45 Jerusalem youths have visited Berlin, and 45 Berlin youths have visited Jerusalem.
“The Jerusalem youth get to know Berlin,” says Shilo. “They learn about its place in the Holocaust.
They participate in a ceremony at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. They realize that German youth are just like them. Long-term relationships are formed. Some stay in touch through Facebook. The workers also stay in touch and some visit Israel again.”
This year’s group of 10 participants from Jerusalem included Russian, Ethiopian, Arab, secular and religious social workers, mirroring the city’s diverse sectors.
Inbar Ben-Yitzchak, a graduate of the Hebrew University, has been working for Kidum Noar for two years in Gilo and Har Homa, where she meets individually with at-risk youth referred from schools, the welfare office or by other youth.
“I was interested in learning about the programs in Berlin, about their fieldwork, to meet co-workers and broaden my professional knowledge,” she says.
Ben-Yitzchak’s impression was that the Berlin social workers dealt more with community-oriented projects and youth clubs, as opposed to individual therapy.“Perhaps this is due to the tremendous size of Berlin, and its large migrant population from many countries,” she says.
She learned about the difference between the migrants with citizenship and those without, who don’t have all the same political and economic rights as German citizens.
“This came across in the issue of male prostitution, which is legal in Germany, meaning they’re entitled to benefits as legal workers.”
Ben-Yitzchak was impressed by a project utilizing social media to help alienated youth stay connected and receive guidance.
“Once there were telephone lines which promised anonymity, today it’s done through the social media,” she says.
During the reciprocal visit to Jerusalem, the Germans visited the Dead Sea, the Knesset, Yad Vashem, the Old City and the Mahaneh Yehuda market, and dined with their hosts on Friday night.
They saw projects like Yam B’Yam (Jerusalem at Sea), the dance studio at Malha and Selan (Sport L’Kidum Noar) soccer teams.
“There are many similarities between the approach used in Jerusalem and social work in Berlin,” says Willy Essmann, director of Outreach Mobile Youth Work. “Maybe in Jerusalem there is more attention to the individual.
In Jerusalem the development of the individual is communicated more between the different levels of the social service. We think that we can implement parts of this perhaps more systematic way of problem solving.”
“Like in Jerusalem, our social workers represent the varied populations of Berlin. About a third of the social workers are migrants of Arab, Turkish or Kurdish origin,” explains Essmann.
“The teams are often mixed, with different sectors working together.”
Daniel Fritz, completing his first year as a social worker in charge of a youth center in Berlin’s periphery, notes: “What impressed me most in all these projects is the family-like atmosphere between the youths and the social workers, which I sometimes would like to have in my youth center.”
Holocaust commemoration was part of both groups’ visits. In Berlin, the Israelis went to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which today is adjacent to one of its suburbs.
“I learned in history lessons that the Jews were sent to Poland and murdered, not in Germany itself,” says Ben-Yitzchak. “Sachsenhausen was initially for Soviet prisoners of war, and later became an extermination camp with a gas chamber.”
Ben-Yitzchak recalls the moving ceremony in Hebrew that she organized.
“This visit was an eye-opener, also for the Germans who hadn’t been to the site. It was hard for them. They were in shock and felt guilty. In ensuing discussions, the Germans were interested in Israel’s coping, considering the world’s opinion about Israel. They asked about our army service, a source of pride in Israel, as compared to Germany where service isn’t compulsory. They raised the mistreatment of Palestinians, and I explained the importance of our defense and not putting ourselves at risk. In the long run, it’s important what we do today to prevent the Holocaust from happening again.”
Also on the itinerary were visits to the Berlin Holocaust memorial and the Reichstag.
The Germans were touched deeply by their visit last week to Yad Vashem.
“Although growing up in Germany, where I learned much about the Holocaust in school and at memorial sites and museums,” said Fritz, “the visit to Yad Vashem deeply moved me, because it was embedded in a trip to a country where I could experience the culture and people that were nearly extinguished from Europe because of Nazi Germany.”
“...It’s unbelievable, and [it] makes me very sad that anyone, and even more so ancestors of mine, were able to do such horrible things, or stand by and let them happen. Although I don’t feel guilty about what happened, I take it as my challenge that nothing like this ever happens again. I deeply wish that if in a similar situation I would have the strength to fight against it.”
On Friday evening, Essmann and other group members were hosted by Shabi Amedi, director of Kidum Noar.
“It was very exciting to experience and to celebrate the beginning of Shabbat. I am grateful that I could have participated in something very special in a very friendly atmosphere of hospitality,” says Essmann.
Such direct contact with Israelis, at work and in informal settings, changed the Germans’ perception of the reality in Israel.
“I thought I was familiar with the Middle East and Israel from the news in Germany,” explains Essmann. “But I realized that I only had a poor idea about living conditions in Israel, how daily life runs, how people cope with the difficult political situation and how multicultural and colorful the country is in reality. Although I knew something before my visit, from my experience here I see that the situation is much more complex than I thought before.”
Other participants echo the sentiment.
“Regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I now see that everything is by far more complicated than the impression from the media,” says Fritz. “What impressed me is that despite the tension from the conflict, both Israelis and Palestinians seem to me to be deeply cheerful people who laugh a lot.”