As Rafael stood before the juvenile court judge, he was given a stark choice: Either join one of Israel’s heavily supervised “youth villages” for teenagers at risk... or go straight to jail.Before this pivotal moment, Rafael’s life was moving steadily and irreversibly in one devastating direction. Running with a criminal crowd in his hometown of Rehovot, increasingly under the influence of drugs and never far from an undercurrent of violence – which in this final conviction had involved a knife attack with another teen – he was out of options. He chose the youth village, and the judge assigned him to a program run by nonprofit organization Lachan.Lachan operates three youth villages for troubled teens, ages 12 to 18, in the North, Center and South of the country, as well as a program for college students. Yoni Riskin, who founded the organization with Avichai Yosef in 2001, is no stranger to social entrepreneurship; his father, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, was one of the founders of the town of Efrat, and Lachan got its start in the community, taking over a couple of broken-down and unused caravans to create an alternative educational program.The three years Rafael, who is now 19, spent living at Lachan’s Yedidut youth village on a quiet moshav near Lod were transformative. Today he is off drugs, out of jail and volunteering as a counselor for at-risk kids while waiting to enlist in an elite IDF unit. For him, entering the army is an achievement in itself: When it comes to teens with criminal records, the IDF essentially prevents them from signing up and receiving all the social and financial benefits that military service provides.Still, Rafael notes that his experience at Lachan wasn’t smooth sailing from day one.“I was still involved with violence and taking drugs when I would come home for the weekends,” he says. “I didn’t believe I could make a change, and I didn’t really want to. I just wanted to go back to what I knew – a life without any rules.”But the counselors and therapists at Lachan were not so quick to give up. “They believed in me. They saw I had a spark in my eyes and potential,” he continues. “Moreover, they provided important personal examples. For the first time, I found role models I could aspire to.”One of those role models was Yoni Riskin, who says his interest in working with this population started while he was in the army.“I was a sergeant and was assigned some new recruits who had very difficult home and social lives,” says the 38-yearold Riskin. “My heart just went out to them. I began speaking with their families, trying to help them with the personal difficulties they were going through. That’s when I realized I wanted to devote my professional life to working with teens at risk.”WHEN HE finished his IDF service, Riskin trained to become a counselor with a program that helps teens at risk in one of Jerusalem’s poorer neighborhoods. His childhood friend Yosef, now 38 as well, was similarly engaged in non-formal education as the project director of a prestigious pre-army academy. The two decided to join forces and open the first incarnation of Lachan.“At the beginning, we didn’t have a shekel,” Yosef says. “We just had a dream and a group of kids that had nowhere else to go.”Riskin and Yosef scraped together a table here and a chair there, and assembled a team of volunteers to tutor students in math, Bible, English, Hebrew grammar and history. What started as classes three days a week quickly morphed into a full-time, live-in program. The caravans were converted to dormitories.“We realized that in order to straighten these kids out, we needed not only to change their days, but their nights, too. You can’t get kids to come in the mornings if they’re out all night getting into trouble. But if they’re with us, it’s lights out at 11 p.m. and up at 7 a.m.,” Riskin says.After its initial years in Efrat, Lachan continued to grow, and in 2007 it moved to a more spacious location at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. Before long, Lachan was on the road again, this time renovating a former psychiatric facility for children into a fully equipped youth village and adding classrooms, dormitories, offices and communal spaces. With additional funding from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Lachan invested nearly $200,000 in renovating the village, and the Yedidut campus became operational. Today, 24 teens between the ages of 14 and 18 study and live there. In 2009, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry recognized the Lachan program and began to fund a portion of its activities. The Education Ministry also granted accreditation to the Lachan high school on the Yedidut campus.In conjunction with financial support, the ministry began sending teenagers to Lachan who had been referred by the courts as part of the Youth Protection Authority. That move was a real eyeopener for Riskin and Yosef. If the teens had been tough in Lachan’s first years, these new arrivals were on an entirely different level, coming from severe backgrounds of neglect, lack of parents at home, endemic violence, drug addiction, sexual abuse and trauma. They hailed from some of the lowest socio-economic sectors in the country. Today, 90 percent of Lachan students come to the program after an arrest.THE ORGANIZATION brought in new social workers and therapists to cope with the changes, and developed special classes including art therapy; sports and martial arts; gardening; photography; and army fitness and survival training – the latter in cooperation with the Aharai! organization. Lachan opened a computer lab, as well as a training and employment center that offers several vocational courses, including one in professional hairdressing.“If we see that a kid has a certain interest, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,” Yosef says.The program’s overarching emphasis combines Jewish values, social pluralism, and contribution to society in general and to the community in particular. While Lachan started in a religious community, today it takes teenagers of all backgrounds, from entirely secular to strictly Orthodox.As Yedidut was opening, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry tapped the organization a second time to start a youth village in the North, between Hadera and Afula. The Tal Menashe youth village is for a younger population, aged 12 to 15, and can take up to 36 children.In late 2013, Lachan added a third youth village campus in the Negev desert, fulfilling a pledge Riskin and Yosef had made early on to bring their approach to youth wherever they were in the country. Dubbed “Wings of Love,” this southernmost village got its start helping kids deal with their problems by caring for birds. The focus has since shifted to include agricultural work with animals, but the name has remained. In addition to the usual issues that Lachan’s students carry with them, the students at Wings have suffered trauma from the years of missiles raining down from the nearby Gaza Strip.All told, Lachan now employs some 90 paid staff (gone are the days when it operated with just volunteers) and has an annual budget of more than NIS 11 million. The government covers 75 percent of that, but for extracurricular activities, renovations, overtime (there are no vacation days at Lachan, which means 150% overtime for staff on holidays like Yom Kippur), scholarships and specialized healthcare, the group must seek outside contributions. Last year, Riskin and Yosef personally stepped in for six to 12 months each to fill the roles of directors at the Yedidut and Tal Menashe youth villages.HOW DOES the organization turn kids like Rafael around? “We take a two-handed approach,” Riskin explains. “On the one hand, we are filled with love, warmth, understanding and support for the teens, while on the other hand, we enforce strict boundaries, discipline and rules. This is what sets the students in the right direction.”“These kids need surveillance 24/7,” Yosef continues. “We had one student who was a professional burglar before he came to us. He broke into our offices and stole money and cellphones.” Today that young man is a high-school graduate on his way to the army.Sometimes Lachan’s therapeutic programs evolve out of opportunity.“We have a counselor who has a background in gardening,” Riskin says.“We have a lot of gardens on our Yedidut campus. So we thought, instead of hiring a gardener, let’s teach gardening to our students. They can learn a life skill, and it will make the village nicer to look at!”
The hairdresser course came about because a student asked for it.“Today he’s a certified barber,” Yosef says proudly. “If it wasn’t for this course, he’d probably have gone back to jail by now.”Another former student found that art spoke to him; today, he has finished his high-school matriculation exams through the organization and is now studying for his bachelor’s degree at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.“Lachan’s ultimate goal is to transform youth at risk into ‘normative’ members of society,” Riskin says.Beyond working with teens, the organization also operates a program called Migdalim for college students who want to volunteer in a community. Although the program is not specifically for at-risk students, the vision is that this will allow Lachan graduates to continue within a therapeutic framework after the army. The program grants a full scholarship to its 30 participants. Some 560 young people have taken part in activities that the Migdalim students have organized.Lachan has clearly come a long way from the caravans in which it started over a decade ago. But buildings and staff are only a means to an end. It is the graduates who tell the real story.Rafael, who once was on the verge of prison, today tutors elementary school children with learning disabilities in one of the harshest neighborhoods of Beersheba in the mornings, and spends his afternoons volunteering in a clubhouse for teens. He also volunteers with Aharai! through connections he made while at Lachan.Why did he want to spend a year volunteering rather than going straight into the army? “I felt that after I took so much from the country, I wanted to give back. I wanted to fix the damage.”Asked if he feels he’s been able to influence anyone from the hardscrabble communities he’s now serving, he says, “Every day that I walk around, free in the streets and not in a jail cell, proudly wearing my staff T-shirt, I know that I’m setting a personal example. I know that I’m a leader.”“You know, I envy him,” Riskin adds. “Not everyone is willing to look at himor herself and make a serious change. Whether that’s someone at risk, or just an ‘ordinary’ person, to be able to make that step, that leap, is truly unbelievable.”For more information about Lachan: www.lachan.org.il, 052-643-5213, or email@example.com.