Israir director draws on own troubled youth to help at-risk kids

Ben-Haim is among 1,500 volunteers who give back to the community via one of Elem's outreach programs.

Azrieli 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Azrieli 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Israir Managing Director Israel Ben-Haim, volunteering for youth-at-risk charity Elem is more than just giving back to society, it's also about saving lives and sharing experiences. "I can really identify with these children that I've met through Elem," Ben-Haim told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview on Thursday. "And, I think I get much more out of it than they do." The son of immigrant Holocaust survivors, Ben-Haim described to the Post how he grew up in a poor neighborhood of Kiryat Tivon, near Haifa, and after almost dropping out of school, was sent to a special military school, went on to join the Israel Air Force, become a pilot and succeed in becoming managing director of a major corporation. "I am familiar with what it is like to be on the edge of society," he said. "For many of these 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds, school is the main problem. Not all of them are dropouts, but these days schools just don't have the desire or resources to give them that extra help they need." Even with his busy schedule, Ben-Haim manages to dedicate three or four hours a week to Elem's mobile help unit in Ramle, talking to and running activities for troubled teens. "I build my work schedule around my volunteering," he said. "That means if I have to travel, I always try to make sure that I go Sunday or Monday and return by Tuesday, or I go later in the week. "I try to share with them my own stories of growing up, because I like them to be able to identify with me, to show them that we share some common ground." Ben-Haim is among 1,500 volunteers countrywide who use their experiences and expertise to give back to the community via one of Elem's outreach programs. The organization notes a growing number of troubled teens, pointing to a 5 percent rise in 2007 in the number of youths either homeless or wandering Israel's streets late at night, while their parents work or due to strained relations at home. The organization says that in 2007, it provided programs or temporary shelter to roughly 32,000 youths in 30 locations, with some of the children being as young as 10. Elem's annual campaign, "Lights of Hope," calls on the public to send a donation via text message - to 9960 with the number "10" in the text message to donate NIS 10 and "light up" one of 600,000 light bulbs on an enormous Star of David flag clinging to the side of the Azrieli Center's new square building in Tel Aviv. On Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will light the central Star of David emblem in a ceremony to highlight the organization's continuing work. "There are things that I have seen in my three years as volunteer for Elem that I was not aware of before," Ben-Haim said. "The biggest problem is kids who have dropped out of school and are starting to get involved in a life of crime. I feel positive that these kids do not want to be there, but they just feel as though they have no choice." Drugs and alcohol - including among children as young as 12 - was a fast growing problem, Ben-Haim said. "They tell you how the alcohol makes them forget everything." One way Ben-Haim believes he can help these children is to talk to them about his experiences in the military in an attempt to encourage them to join themselves. "Many come from an environment that is not supportive of the army," he said. "However, I try to help them with that. They are always shocked when they hear that I, a pilot, would come to visit them in their neighborhood." Ben-Haim recalled one teen who "was a drug pusher and would come to our [mobile] unit every week stoned or drunk." "Our team leader took him aside and started to talk to him. She encouraged him to get help at a social facility in Ramle. It turned out that he had been physically abused as a child and that was the root of his problem." Ben-Haim said that with Elem's help, the youth finally enrolled in the army and now worked with the IDF to persuade other troubled teens that they can serve in the army if they get motivated enough.