SAHI: Turning Israeli youth at risk into community activists

SAHI is dedicated to youth at risk. Many of these youngsters say they would be living on the street or addicted to drugs if they hadn’t gotten involved in SAHI.

 SAHI volunteers standing in a circle of loving-kindness. (photo credit: NETANEL TEVEL)
SAHI volunteers standing in a circle of loving-kindness.
(photo credit: NETANEL TEVEL)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Several dozen teenagers milled around in the cool Jerusalem evening outside a community center in the southeastern neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv. They were doing what teenagers do best – making a lot of noise. Many of them were smoking, two girls were dancing to very loud music, and friends loudly greeted one another.

But after someone said, “Okay, let’s go,” the teenagers snapped into action, quickly filling blue plastic bags with a variety of food staples such as pasta, oil, and that most Israeli of all foods, Bamba. The teenagers had collected the food earlier in the week by asking shoppers at a local supermarket to purchase a few extra items. 

The food packages will be delivered to more than 60 families who are having trouble making ends meet and have been selected by the welfare authorities or the youths themselves. 

What happened next was simply inspiring. The kids stood in a big circle they called a ma’agal hessed (a circle of loving-kindness) around the bags of food. Each one said to whom they were dedicating that day’s donation project.

“For a refuah shlema of Miriam Bat Esther,” said one girl, saying she hoped for a full recovery from illness for a relative. The entire circle answered out loud, “Amen!”

 A sense of solidarity: Volunteers marching together while holding SAHI flags. (credit: COURTESY SAHI) A sense of solidarity: Volunteers marching together while holding SAHI flags. (credit: COURTESY SAHI)

“For the success of SAHI,” said a tall shy boy, and they answered “Amen!”

“In memory of Dov Ben-Shira,” said another girl, and they answered “Amen.”

A few read from their phones long lists of those who needed healing. This went on for more than half an hour, and the “Amens” were always enthusiastic.

Afterwards, the young people broke up into groups and went out with volunteer drivers to deliver the packages.

SAHI: Saving Israel's at-risk youth through activism

Donating food is nothing new in Israel. But what is unique here is the way the food is delivered and who is making the deliveries.

The method of delivery is called matan b’ seter, or “giving in secret.” The young people are told to put the bag of food by the door, knock on the door, and then run away. This way, the recipient is not embarrassed by having to accept assistance.

But even more unique are the young people who are offering the assistance. SAHI is dedicated to youth at risk. Many of these youngsters say they would be living on the street or addicted to drugs if they hadn’t gotten involved in SAHI.

“When you are a teenager and you feel nobody wants you, it’s very bad. But now when I look back, I see that if they hadn’t kicked me out of school, I wouldn’t have found SAHI, and it has transformed me.”

Matan (not real name)

“I was kicked out of school, I was in distress, and I even had suicidal thoughts,” 17-year-old Matan (not his real name) told The Jerusalem Report. “When you are a teenager and you feel nobody wants you, it’s very bad. But now when I look back, I see that if they hadn’t kicked me out of school, I wouldn’t have found SAHI, and it has transformed me.” (Note: All names of minors have been changed for privacy reasons.)

“For the first time, I had a goal in life,” he continued. “No matter what I was going through, I knew that on Thursday I would come here, and I waited for it all week. It changed me – I became happier, calmer, with more self-confidence, and it’s all because of SAHI. Helping with these food packages made me feel good in a way that I never did before.”

Today, Matan has excellent grades and is on track next year for a year of volunteer service before joining the Israeli army either in the intelligence unit or as a combat soldier. He has also been nominated for a national award as an outstanding volunteer. As a “local leader,” he is responsible for organizing donations in one of the SAHI branches and receives a stipend from the NGO.

Before SAHI, many of these youths would not have finished high school or been drafted into the army because of their problematic pasts. And although the proportion of youth serving in the army has declined, it is still an important rite of passage into Israeli society and a path to further advancement. Now these kids are all finishing high school and talk about doing “a significant service.”

SAHI is a Hebrew acronym for Special Hessed (good deeds) Unit. It started in 2009 when the two founders – Oded Weiss and Avraham Hayon – lit a bonfire in Kiryat Gat and seven youth who were hanging out on the street showed up. They told the teens they wanted to help people in the neighborhood who needed assistance with food but didn’t know how to find them.

Today, SAHI has 1,500 members in 40 chapters around the country and helps some 1,800 families. 

“It is a great privilege to be part of this,” Hayon told The Jerusalem Report. “When I see all of these chessed fighters, and their leaders, and our National Service volunteers, and even a few of our female soldiers who are here, it just makes me happy.”

Hayon never expected to be part of SAHI. He came from the production world but was always looking for more meaningful work. He found it in SAHI. 

SAHI is organized like an elite army unit and even uses a similar symbol. The members all have T-shirts and sweatshirts with the SAHI logo, which they proudly wear. Hayon said the SAHI concept goes beyond food assistance to concern for others.

“You won’t see anybody here sitting alone,” Hayon said. “If someone is alone, then someone will go over and sit next to them. If they see an old person on the bus, they will get up for them. If they see someone carrying heavy bags, they will help them. It becomes almost second nature.”

During the evening I spent with SAHI, I saw that Hayon was right. So-called nerdy kids were just as accepted as the cool kids. In fact, some of the nerdy kids are now heading projects of their own to visit children in hospitals or to raise money to buy heaters for the elderly this winter.

The annual budget of SAHI is just over $4 million (NIS 13 million). It comes from a wide variety of sources, such as private donors (small and large), philanthropic foundations in Israel and abroad, municipalities, councils, and the Ministry of Education, which provides about five percent of the budget.

There is also a network of volunteers who support SAHI. 

“SAHI’s value to all communities is immeasurable,” said Justine Zwerling, head of Middle East for Shore Capital Markets and a member of SAHI’s Board of Advisors. “SAHI is the catalyst to empower the most disadvantaged teenagers and youth. SAHI gives youth the gift and support to change their and others’ lives and then, in turn, become the leaders of change. It supports the most at-risk through giving and, in turn, gains family, friends, and community. In my humble opinion, SAHI’S ideals should be rolled out globally.”

“SAHI is the catalyst to empower the most disadvantaged teenagers and youth. SAHI gives youth the gift and support to change their and others’ lives and then, in turn, become the leaders of change. It supports the most at-risk through giving and, in turn, gains family, friends, and community. In my humble opinion, SAHI’S ideals should be rolled out globally.”

Justine Zwerling

Many of the chiefs, as the counselors are called, are alumni of the program, such as Liad Keliyaho, 24. With a pierced nose, she projects a cool vibe, and the youth obviously trust her.

“I was in SAHI since I was 14,” she said. “I did a lot, a lot, of nonsense. I barely went to school, and they didn’t want me there because I was so problematic. But when I found SAHI, it just spoke to me. I think this was the first thing in my life that I was committed to and actually kept going.”

Through SAHI, she graduated high school and served in the army. She said that when she recently returned to the school, the principal asked her if she had come to try to finish her high school diploma. “I told her I didn’t need to and that I had already finished it.”

“Nobody believed in me, only SAHI believed in me,” she said. “After the army, I was looking around for what to do, and SAHI gave me a feeling of significance in my life and in myself. It helped me find myself,” she recounted.

Matan agreed. “My dream is to start an organization to help kids with suicidal tendencies like I had,” he said. “When you work, you make money; but when you volunteer, you can transform yourself.” ■