New kids on the block

At least 1,000 religious Zionist teens are living in improvised shelters in Jerusalem.

It's Purim eve in the center of town. Nearby is the Hetzroni Zula, a refuge for street youth, offering them shelter and other types of assistance, including therapy. Two girls, who appear to be hardly 14, are standing on the street. One is wearing what could be a gypsy costume, the other a low-cut dress and lots of make-up. Both sing aloud and hold cigarettes, and the one with the low neckline holds an almost empty bottle of beer. I ask them if they frequent the Hetzroni Zula. Their reply is quick: "Who are you looking for there?" they ask, looking at me with suspicion. I answer that I am not a parent looking for her child, but a journalist interested in the zula's story. The girls smile, laugh and answer together: "We are regulars at the zula. What do you want to know?" I ask them if their parents know where they are (it's almost 1 a.m.). "Maybe they know and maybe they don't," answers the girl holding the beer. "They've probably gone to sleep long ago, but for us, the night has just begun," she adds as they step away. Zula is a term in Hebrew slang used by youth to denote a private gathering place, away from parents and other authority figures. In recent years, however, the term has been co-opted by professionals who work with street youth. "We use the same term to make these youth feel comfortable, but these zulas, unlike the others, are not totally off limits to us," explains Shabi Amedi, head and founder of the Youth Advancement Division of the municipal Welfare Department. "For example, the Hetzroni Zula, created by an association from the religious Zionist milieu [the Israel Center], and working in close partnership with us, offers everything a typical zula offers: a casual, open and free environment. At the same time, it is a place where they [youth] can get shelter, some food, listen to music and also receive some preliminary forms of therapy if they want," continues Amedi, a veteran of the Black Panthers movement and a social worker well known for his unconventional approach and therapeutic methods. "But above all, these are places where we can find out how they [the street youth] are doing, how they feel. We - whether it's the people from the association or at other zulas or our own social workers - can keep a kind of contact with them, and sometimes this is crucial for their well-being." The "clients" at the Hetzroni Zula are mostly teenagers from religious Zionist backgrounds, who are more or less in contact with their families. The staff at the Hetzroni Zula, like the few other zulas that operate downtown, are very cautious, even suspicious. They won't let anyone "outside the system" enter their premises, and they rarely talk or give out any information, especially not to the press. "Everything I'd say could work against us and against the youth's interests," explains Nati, the director of the Hetzroni Zula. "We work in close contact with rabbis, who advise us on how to deal with specific situations. We are here to offer professional help to these young people who are going through a difficult period. "But it's all very fragile: One word misunderstood and the whole enterprise could be doomed, since the youths' parents and the religious Zionist community at large are very sensitive to the issues here," continues Nati, who wouldn't even give his last name. "It's true that we're witnessing lots of problems with the adult population in this community," says Amedi, "but from my experience, I know things will improve. It was the same when we began to treat young haredim who wandered the streets. At first, the rabbis and the parents refused to admit these things could happen in their community, but later on they understood that this attitude wouldn't eliminate the phenomenon, and some courageous people, even rabbis, began to cooperate. "I am more than convinced that the same thing will happen with the religious Zionist community. There is no other way to help these young people," continues Amedi. "Actually, it is already happening, with a group of prominent rabbis who work with the association [at the Israel Center] and advise the staff of the Hetzroni Zula. They understand that they don't have any other choice." FROM SECULAR to haredi to Arab, Jerusalem's streets have been home to youth of assorted backgrounds over the years. "When we first realized that there were young boys and girls living in the streets, they were mostly from secular homes," Amedi recalls. "[They were] teenagers who ran away from their parents' authority, or from violence and sexual abuse inside their families, who fled to the streets. "Then came the young Arabs, who came to Kikar Zion for alcohol, drugs or homosexual encounters - impossible things to obtain in their communities," continues Amedi. "Then we encountered a new phenomenon: Young haredi boys, some of them sent by their parents from the USA or England to study here in yeshivot, who dropped out and also found themselves on the streets. They used alcohol, [and] later on also drugs, and there was a total disconnection from the institutions in which they were enrolled. They had no one and nowhere to go to - they couldn't find their place in their communities," Amedi says. "It became such a large-scale problem that we had to open a special program for them, using the language and the customs they were used to. "And today, we have the newcomers: the youth from the religious Zionist community, some of them from the settlements, those we had never seen here until recently, and their numbers are growing," he adds. Recently, Channel 10 aired a documentary on the life of Naf, a young boy from a haredi family, who ended up on the streets. The documentary was dedicated to the harsh reality of children's lives on the streets, whether haredi, secular or Arab, a narrative for which Naf became the symbol. Naf (short for Naftali), at the time barely 14, although in no way the first haredi youngster who found himself living on the streets, rallied city councilors, Knesset members, the local media and the mayor himself to the street youth cause. "I put the story of the street kids on the table. No one can pretend they don't know about us anymore," says Naf, now 20. Today Naf, who doesn't touch any drugs, including alcohol, works in a supermarket and is studying hard to finish his matriculation in anticipation of pursuing university studies. He shares an apartment with his girlfriend, and though he hasn't returned to the haredi way of life, he is closer to his family, who have renewed ties with him. Naf is not willing to talk or to expose himself as he did a few years ago, but he keeps in touch with some of the employees of the Youth Advancement Division, for whom he has become a model of rehabilitation. "Sometimes we even consult him when we deal with a particularly tough case," admits a social worker from the division. No doubt Naf represents a success for the rehabilitation system. "But for one Naf who made it out of the streets and the despair, we still have many hundreds who are stuck in the streets, with drugs, alcohol, prostitution and lots of despair," says Amedi. THE NUMBERS are astonishing. By the end of 2007, there were 7,884 street youth aged 14-26, known and registered in various ways with the Youth Advancement Division. As for the "newcomers," the numbers are even more dramatic: "For years, we hardly ever had more than 10 cases of youth from the religious Zionist community," says Amedi. "But today, we know of at least 1,000 of them, which means about 1,000 in addition to those with whom we still have no contact, which could be twice that figure." According to a social worker who meets with youth from this sector on a regular basis, some are from families who came to Jerusalem after evacuation from Gush Katif in the summer of 2005, others are friends from the surrounding settlements, but most are locals from religious Zionist families, who, like many other young people their age, prefer the attraction of the streets to the quiet life in their communities. "Not all of them leave their communities forever," explains Jocelyn Vaknin, who heads the program established for religious Zionist youth within the Youth Advancement Division. "Some of them will eventually go back home and continue their lives. But others won't. Our job is to offer them solutions that will allow them to feel comfortable, without setting all the bridges behind them on fire." "The situation of those who come from the settlements, what we call 'hilltop youth,' is slightly different," explains a social worker from the division. "For them, since the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which they call 'the expulsion,' they all share a harsh anger. They left their home, they are very frustrated by what they consider the betrayal of the older generation, they have lost faith in their teachers, their parents, their rabbis. "It's not that they are not religious anymore; sometimes, on the contrary, they become more observant in their way, but they flee from anything that might seem to them 'bourgeois' and 'establishment' or 'conventional,'" the social worker continues. "New age ideas are very welcome among them, and in any case, they have to discover other things. Besides the freedom of choosing not to go to school or yeshiva, many of them have discovered alcohol, a certain amount of liberty between the sexes and even drugs. But the most common thing is the lack of any kind of authority." ETIA DAN, the head of Menifa, a religious Zionist association that works with both the Education Ministry and the municipality to tackle the problem of street kids, sees things a little differently. "These young people [street kids] are disconnected - from their families, from their communities, from their institutions. They are experiencing difficulties in their studies, and they live with hard emotional problems," she says. "We - the educators and the social workers - know today that in every group of youth, there is always at least one or more who have experienced some traumatic event, whether it is abuse, a terrorist attack or a trauma connected to the disengagement from Gaza," she explains. "This is the reality with which we work." Dan has a different approach to working with street kids than those who collaborate with and are associated with the zulas. "I know the people of the Hetzroni Zula; they work hard to save these young people, it's a real mesirut nefesh [self-sacrifice]," says Dan. "But I have a different concept: I do not wish to tell these youth that I had drug experiences in my youth; I do not believe that a zula, where they can smoke nargila and listen to music, replaces the need for hard work and study; I do not try to flatter them. "Instead, I say loud and clear that they have to go back to school, do their bagrut [matriculation] and return to their homes and families," continues Dan. "Of course, I am well aware of the problems which brought them to the streets in the first place, whether they are just hanging around until late or have already crossed the 'border' and left home. "I work on the assumption that they have to get back to their original frameworks, but with help, support, sensitivity, attention to their special needs and problems," she explains. "I don't care when they want to study - they have a choice - but I am adamant that they have to study. "And you will be surprised, but this approach works," she says. Menifa has operated in the Jerusalem area for almost five years. Staff members work with street kids on a range of problems, from identity issues to difficulties with math. "We're holistic," says Dan. "If a young boy fails a class, he may be more likely to give up on other things, so we work both on improving math skills, for example, and on his identity problems. We do not seek to separate these issues; we believe they are parts of the same issue. But we will not renounce a normative life: education, family and community." Dan notes that there are more boys than girls living on the streets, but adds that "the girls are in much more serious trouble, due mostly to their naivete and their education from home. Thus they get into trouble more easily, and their problems are very serious." Despite the challenges, "we do not give up, and have even succeeded in convincing principals that they [troubled kids] deserve a second chance." For example, "We once had a case where a principal, upon hearing that two of his female students were considering suicide, decided to throw them out," recalls Dan. "For him, he was saving the school and all the other girls [from the troubled girls' influence]; for us, it was the worst thing to do to these girls. I can tell you that today, we are not in this situation anymore." Dan adds that one of the difficulties in dealing with the street kids' problems is the lack of support from the religious Zionist community, particularly from its leaders. "In the budget that Shas recently received from the government, NIS 100 million was allotted for dealing with this kind of problems among haredi youth," says Dan. "Alas, this is not happening in the National Religious Party, apart from one or two MKs. There is still not enough awareness among our leaders." Still, she is convinced that "like the haredi sector, here too [religious Zionist sector] there will be no other choice but to acknowledge the problem." ON A recent Wednesday night, three girls dressed like typical settlers sit on a stone bench at the top of Rehov Yoel Solomon, off Kikar Zion. I ask them where they live, but their response is evasive. I ask them if they plan to spend the night here, in the street. They answer together: "No, we have a zula, but we don't go home." One of them adds: "Our parents are not expecting us so we're not in a hurry to get back." Later on, one of them admits that her family lives in one of the settlements nearby, but immediately adds: "But I haven't been there for a while, just on and off, since I fought against the expulsion." The zulas, small places where street youth meet and occasionally sleep, long ago became a tool for the municipality to keep some kind of contact with the youth - haredi, Zionist religious and others. "We know where they are located; that's where we go to fetch them when it snows," explains Amedi. "There are some encouraging facts. For example, the age [of street youth] has stopped going down. I remember the terrible stress we felt a few years ago when we discovered young girls barely aged 13 and 14 engaged in drugs and sometimes even in prostitution. Today, this trend has slowed and most of the girls we take care of are aged 17 and above. "Also worth noting is that drug use has dropped, although we have seen a concomitant rise in the use of alcohol," continues Amedi. "Not that alcohol is safe, of course not, but just because it's kind of cool now. As a result, we have seen a lower use of drugs." Another thing that has changed is the hours. "Once we used to see them all [street kids] coming to Kikar Zion or Kikar Hahatulot around 11 p.m. or so, and hanging around there until late. Today, you won't see them before 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. "You won't find them on Sundays; they rest from all the partying over the weekend," he adds. Also encouraging is that "With the large majority [of street kids] we have established some kind of connection," says Amedi. "We go slowly, on tip-toe. Sometimes one word out of place and all our efforts are lost. So we preserve their feeling of freedom, and still manage to include different ways of giving help, support or even, if we are really lucky, some therapy. "We work on whatever can be agreed upon," explains Amedi. "For example, if a youth is still interested in serving in the army, we work only on preparation for the service, nothing else. If we identify a risk of dropping out of school, we concentrate our efforts on that issue, despite other problems, at least at the beginning. Many times it works, but it also doesn't sometimes and it is very frustrating." "We have two social workers specifically working with the young religious Zionists here [Youth Department Division], but we work in close partnership with the Israel Center, who opened the Hetzroni Zula, and they work closely with rabbis," adds Vaknin. "We offer various types of therapy - intensive, individual or in groups. Everything is according to what we feel is best for them, according to their own situation. Sometimes we accompany them and their families to court if necessary, to the police interrogations; sometimes we check for employment options - anything that is needed on the ground to prevent a total break. "Many of them continue their studies. We provide help and support since we believe that these two things - ties with their families and studying - are the best ways to assure the tools to carry on with their lives once they have aged a bit," continues Vaknin. According to data from the Youth Advancement Division, many of the religious Zionist street kids still study in their original schools. In addition, many of their home communities have faced up to the facts and together with a group of rabbis, have tried to preserve supportive frameworks. "For example," says Vaknin, "when there are drug addiction situations, they [religious street kids] go to Retorno, a special institution for addicted religious youth. You will never see them arriving at Malkishua Drug Rehabilitation Center. "At Retorno, which is directed by people from the religious Zionist community, the therapy is given in accordance with the requirements of religion, although of course it also takes into account the fragile and special situation of these young people," explains Vaknin. "For example, if someone doesn't show up for morning prayers, they [staff] will turn a blind eye, but a morning prayer is still part of the daily schedule." "WE ARE well aware of the situation," admits Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim in the Old City. "It is not such a new phenomenon. It has happened with secular youth, with haredi youth, and it was clear that it would finally reach also our [religious Zionist] youth. "Of course the problem became harsher with the expulsion from Gush Katif, but it started a few years earlier." Although Aviner is not an active member of the rabbis' committee heading the Hetzroni Zula, "they often consult me, and I, of course, help as much as I can. "The most important thing is to provide these young people with frameworks of study and to do whatever can be done not to lose them," says Aviner. "I am in close contact [with the staff from the Hetzroni Zula and Menifa]. We are aware of the problem and we try to find solutions, not to ignore it." "At the moment, there are 950 youth registered at Hetzroni," says Vaknin. "We know there are up to 1,200 youth who come on a kind of regular basis and receive various types of care, including individual therapy. "We are seeing more and more cooperation from the parents," she continues. "There is still some kind of denial, especially from the most prestigious institutions, but the families are not trying anymore to ignore the facts, and they cooperate and help the best they can; they all understand it is crucial for rescue from the streets."