Our sages set a rule of mutual responsibility. Every Jew, they argue, is responsible for his fellow Jew’s wellbeing. Hence the proliferation of foundations in Israel which assist the needy of all ages and walks of life.
One notable nonprofit organization is Elem, established in 1981 by social workers and judges from the US and Israel. It was founded to help rescue youth at risk from drugs, alcohol, homelessness ,sexual abuse and teenage prostitution. Thousands of volunteers work round the clock patrolling at night the streets of Israel from the North to Eilat tracking down and attending to secular, religious Jews and Arab youth at risk. Elem currently runs 82 projects spread over 42 locations providing both aid and shelter.
Elem’s goal, Nava Barak, the organization’s president for the last 20 years, told me recently, is not only to treat addictions but also their prevention. An encounter between a youth at risk and a volunteer is the beginning of change. For many of them the shelters are the only home they had ever known.
Nava Barak described to me how her personal involvement started with a visit to a hostel in south Tel Aviv in 1996 that was forever to change her life. For hours she listened to youngsters recounting horrifying stories of sexual abuse and addictions. Nava decided to put all her extensive contacts in the business sector in Israel and worldwide to good use and raise funds for their activities. Thanks to her educational background she set out to increase awareness of Elem’s crucial mission to save youth at risk.
In 2019, the Elem Foundation won a much deserved award titled “The Most Effective Foundation” in Israel. Each year, Elem submits an annual report to the president depicting the magnitude of the crisis and remedies undertaken. They also present their case in the Knesset. In 2020 Elem has reached out to more than 20,000 teenagers.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 brought about not only a huge rise in emergency calls for help but also a decrease in funding due to the economic crisis. Elem’s annual budget of 50 million shekels is 50% funded by the government and the balance by private donations and the business sector. The pandemic has put the youth at risk at even greater risk from the domestic violence virus. With the educational system shut down for prolonged periods of time there has been a sharp increase in anxiety, depression, panic disorder and domestic violence not only among the youth at risk but also teenagers with no such issues before. Nava Barak praised Elem’s team of thousands of volunteers working hard to save lives. She told me of a recent case where a social worker talking to a teenager online detected imminent danger and was able to prevent her from taking an overdose and committing suicide by racing to her home in the nick of time.
On a much smaller scale, the Youth Village of Kiryat Ye’arim has been rescuing and rehabilitating youngsters since 1951. The Village was founded by Swiss Jews and the Jewish Agency for Israel. About one hundred at-risk youth students live and study there in Kiryat Ye’arim, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It has a dorm, high school, educational and sports facilities.
The Village provides therapy in various types to the students. The small classes in the school enable the students to graduate with the Bagrut (matriculation requirements). Students choose a specific workshop major such as carpentry, silver work, communications, fashion design and technological sciences. The dedication of the team of teachers and social workers in the Village is unparalleled. They manage to transform lives on a shoestring budget.
I had a firsthand encounter with their work when I gave a ride to a student one day. I casually asked him about the dorm and his studies. His answer was: ”I would have been a crime statistic and not an honors student had I not spent the last four years in the Village.” He told me how much he was looking forward to serving in the Israeli army soon. The Talmud stated it best: “Whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”■
The writer is a journalist and director of TLC of Potomac, Maryland, and currently resides in Jerusalem