Locomotives in the attic

Shimon Futerman, social worker and model train expert, uses his skills to make a difference.

train 88 (photo credit: )
train 88
(photo credit: )
The first thing that catches your eye as you enter Shimon Futerman's attic is a large wooden platform on which model railroad tracks wait patiently for him to breathe life into them. Looking up, your eyes encounter another wooden platform screwed into the ceiling on which another model railroad is laid out. Pick a book from his shelves and the subject will inevitably be related to the same theme. The small space is packed with albums of every variety - photos, stamp collections, phone cards and encyclopedias - that all focus on trains. Although Futerman is in his 50s, when discussing his favorite topic he wears the expression of a young boy. "The first train I loved wasn't mine, it belonged to a friend," he relates. "Model trains have always been quite an expensive hobby. That was certainly the case when I was a child. They were something only few people could afford." Eventually, for his bar mitzva, Futerman received his first model train and ever since he has saved up to expand his train collection. Futerman shared the joy of train-model building with his own children (who are now adults). "They used to like to paint the small figures and decorate the little houses," he recalls with a smile. The first prototype of a model train was manufactured five years after the first trains began operating about 180 years ago, explains Futerman. "The model trains are a precise replica of the real ones, to such an extent that when a train engineer adopts a new design or an upgrade, another engineer will adopt the same innovation for model trains." Futerman admits his hobby often requires great financial sacrifices. "If I have to choose between buying a kitchen gadget or a locomotive, I will definitely choose the latter," he says. "The prices of locomotives can range between NIS 1,000 and up to NIS 4,000. Since quality is what matters, saving money is not much of an option for me. Nonetheless, I save by painting the figures and the rest of the items [such as houses and tunnels] myself instead of buying the ready-made ones which are much more expensive." Futerman recently put his talent to good use when he created a model train city for the exhibition "Train Tracks to Jerusalem" held at the Tower of David Museum. The exhibition focused on the historic railway from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and also introduced visitors to the variety and aesthetics of model trains. An open space in the citadel's courtyard was filled with model trains, while one of the rooms inside the museum displayed Futerman's magnificent model train city in its entirety. "That model is the only one of its kind in Israel in terms of size and scale," says Futerman. "It consists of 120 meters of railroad tracks and six tunnels; the longest one is eight meters long. There are 500 different kinds of figures, 120 different brands of houses and nine trains that run throughout the miniature city." As for the capital's light rail project, Futerman says, "This initiative was a blessing from the start, since good transportation could revive the city. However, the Jerusalem Municipality lacks the ability to operate the project professionally and it is obvious that no one is in a hurry to resume construction any time soon. In the meantime we suffer from endless traffic jams." Despite the time and energy Futerman devotes to trains, he still finds time for another great passion. For the past 20 years, Futerman, a social worker, has also dedicated himself to the education and wellbeing of children. "I believe in education by action and by example," he states. "When a child is raised in a caring home and taught values of decency and good citizenship he will eventually be capable of telling right from wrong and coping with bad influences." For 10 years he worked at the Home for Children at Risk with children who were sexually abused and neglected, and had developed severe behavioral problems. "These were children whose experience of abuse was so bad that it was impossible to place them in foster homes. In other words, they belonged to no one and I had to work hard to give them some self-confidence and rebuild their trust in the world. I was merely trying to give them a better start in life and mend the scars their parents left them with." Currently, Futerman works for the Israel Anti-Drug Authority as a supervisor for drug-abuse programs in Jerusalem. He creates programs and activities for parents, teachers and youth to increase their awareness of the dangers of drugs. His approach to education, however, is not solely based on feeding people's fears. "I try to give hope for a better future instead of making an issue out of drug use," he says. He admits that the thing that scares him most is when teenagers express a lack of hope. "When they say to me 'There is no God,' that means, 'I can do whatever I want and nothing can stop me.' When a teenager hears from a friend that drugs make him feel good, that teenager wants to try them himself. Therefore, instead of merely forbidding drug use, parents should try a different take on exploring the subject with their adolescent child and helping him or her reach the right decision." Futerman uses creative methods such as film screenings to add spice to the battle against drugs. "We used the movie The Matrix to explore the theme of free choice." In the film the hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker, discovers that the world around him is a computer simulation called the Matrix that uses humans as fuel in its quest for total domination. Neo has to choose whether to continue his false life and remain part of the system or choose his own destiny and destroy the Matrix. "This theme helps young people appreciate the challenge of 'free choice' and realize one should not to do something just because 'everyone else is doing it,'" he explains. Futerman uses the same ingenuity as he helps parents improve their communication skills with their adolescent children. "We meet for a session in a downtown caf where the parents sit at the bar and talk to the bartender who role-plays as a teenager... Through this technique, parents come to realize the mistakes they have made with their children and begin to change their attitude toward them." With the same dedication and patience he expends on his model trains, Futerman helps teenagers mend their lives and assists parents in rebuilding trust, hope and enthusiasm for life.