Burgeoning population of North American Orthodox Jews turn their sights on helping native Israeli youth at risk.

The OU’s Jack E. Gindi Oraita Program serves as a supportive environment for at-risk teens (photo credit: Courtesy)
The OU’s Jack E. Gindi Oraita Program serves as a supportive environment for at-risk teens
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Just as in the past, Jews will flock to their synagogues throughout Israel this High Holiday season, but the difference will be that this year they will be joined by the largest contingent of North American Jews – olim, students, tourists – than ever before.
Israel has become the place where older Americans retire, younger families elect to build their lives together and raise their children here, and students come for a year or more of advanced study. Summer programs we run in conjunction with Taglit and our own NCSY bring nearly 5,000 additional young adults to Israel from North America, some to learn and some to tour – in some cases their first organized tour program to our homeland. We also cannot forget the “tourists” – those who spend every yom tov in Israel with us. I like to call these Jews part-time residents because they are far more active when they are in the country.
What started as a small outpost above a retail store on Straus Street in Jerusalem has now blossomed into a flourishing four-story building on Keren Hayesod, busy from morning until well into the night, with nearly 5,000 programs a year.
OU Israel turned 40, and is more active than ever serving more than 110,000 participants per year who take advantage of our programs and services. We offer an extensive array of classes for adults of all ages and for those with learning disabilities, and serve as a resource for young adults spending time in Israel, assisting them with an array of programs and services.
But the other phenomena we are experiencing is that these North American Jews are coming to Israel and want to do more than tour, vacation and relax. They want to have a positive impact on Israeli society and culture, and they are drawing OU Israel into new areas where we are seeing tremendous results.
Several years ago, we identified the challenge of youth at risk in Israel, not only in major cities but also on the periphery. The national school day ends early in Israel, and many children, particularly in less affluent areas, are left to fend for themselves, which in many cases leads to unfortunate results.
Drugs, alcohol abuse, gang violence and crime are some of these well-documented challenges. While formal education in Israel has received well-deserved attention over the years, the after-school day – informal education – has been widely neglected in less affluent areas where municipalities and parents do not have the resources to pay for adequate programming to keep children positively engaged. We are working to fix that.
To date, more than 40,000 Israeli teenagers have flocked to our youth clubs across the country, coming with different requests – from those who need help with their homework, to those who seek advice on how to deal with troubles at home, with their teachers, or those who want to work and/or learn. From our renowned Pearl and Harold Zula Outreach Center in Jerusalem to programs like Makom Balev and the Jack E. Gindi Oraita Program, we are bringing to bear on the Israeli market the time-tested reputation of the OU’s deep experience in youth program for all children.
Most importantly, the common denominator we bring is showing them unconditional love. They know that in an OU Israel-sponsored program they will be welcomed – we will listen, and we will try to help.
The results have been so rewarding. Teenagers in our programs are exceeding their peer groups in  national testing for college. They are going into the IDF in higher numbers than ever before, followed by higher-education programs.
So while the surge of North Americans coming to Israel has been well documented in real estate, and in travel and tourism circles, the impact they are having to improve the lives of children at risk in Israel deserves far more attention. Because of their concern, resources and commitment, they are helping improve the lives of so many native Israelis, the impact of which will transcend generations to come.
Rabbi Avi Berman is executive director of Orthodox Union (OU) Israel. OU Israel is dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity, Torah values and developing a proactive commitment to Jewish continuity in Israeli society. Over the last 40 years, OU Israel has evolved into a thriving organization, engaging more than 100,000 of Israel’s Orthodox Jews as a major source of social and educational services and programs for adults and adolescents throughout the country