Wine and hessed

An evening with Telem Center founder Benayahu Dvir spotlights the plight of haredi girls out on the streets.

RABBI BENAYAHU Dvir (left) makes a l’haim with chef Itzik Danieli. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
RABBI BENAYAHU Dvir (left) makes a l’haim with chef Itzik Danieli.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Benayahu Dvir does not hail from an academic background, nor is he a psychologist, social worker or therapist. Nevertheless, he established the Telem Center whose staff have – over the past decade – saved hundreds of haredi girls from the streets.
You’re involved in an area that’s tough to absorb. What drew you to this world from the outset?
As a young man I learned at a yeshiva that, although considered prestigious, was very rigid. It was hard for me because I was a “sensitive type.” Externally I fitted in, but inside I felt “different.”
Then my father passed away, making it even harder for me. I began to act out, adopting complex coping mechanisms which I eventually managed to successfully overcome, but with no small effort.
That’s why I feel I understand the youth who reach breaking point. They simply crash, and then are rejected by the system. I was where they are, so I can’t just stand by and watch this happening when I know I can do something to save them, in the simplest meaning of the word. For me, this is a personal mission. The small sensitive child within me is completely connected to their experience, and drives me to help them.
So many have disappointed the street kids. What makes them trust your team?
We’re an alternative system. We face them eye to eye, without judgment, and without any preconditions. Because of my own experience, I have the tools to really help them, beyond the regular abilities of an adult able to display empathy.
I understand them, I get their distress. My connection to them comes from internal identification and linking, and they feel it.
What’s the difference between girls on the street from the haredi sector and kids from other sectors?
The more closed and protected the environment from which the girl comes, the greater her fall, compared to girls whose environments were more open to start with. The haredi home is extremely conservative and tries to screen children far more from the outside world.
The culture shock experienced by the haredi girl is far greater. She could be in such a state of crisis that she may break all boundaries out of sheer confusion and shock. It’s like a person not used to liquor who downs a huge amount in one go, and in the process loses control.
The street has the same effect, creating tremendous confusion, and girls from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds can be easily lost.
Why do you focus specifically on girls?
When I started out, I was working with the boys. But rabbis and educators from the haredi sector approached me and asked me to do something for these girls, since the help options available to them are so few. There are multiple options for young men at risk. They receive more assistance, are related to more forgivingly, and that makes it easier for them to reenter normal life. But for female young adults at risk, as far as their families and their communities are concerned, the moment they’re on the street it’s as though they’ve been marked with an X and they’re totally rejected from the system. It’s also extremely hard for the girls to cope with their situation, and they feel ashamed and guilty. But that’s precisely when they need warmth, understanding and containment the most. The distress they experience is beyond description.
Support is far more critical for girls than for boys. A young man who sleeps in the street for a night will survive a lot better than a girl, who may be taken advantage of and reach situations from which there’s no turning back.
What I don’t understand is why families from the Orthodox sector give up so easily.
They don’t, actually, but they’re between a rock and a hard place because the situation is complex and confusing.
The families are as confused as the girls.
They don’t really know how to react or what to do. Often they’re not aware early enough of their daughters’ real situation and stresses. They approach the girls’ problems incorrectly, thus increasing the disconnect and distancing from their daughters even more. By the time they wake up and realize they need a different way of addressing their daughters’ needs, it’s often too late. But from my experience, I can honestly say that a good proportion of the parents really do make every effort, and don’t give in.
You’re actually assisting young women whom haredi society has given up on and isn’t interested in, so how does that area of our society view your work?
They are actually pleased someone is out there helping, and I work with the rabbis’ blessings. We want to address their need, not necessarily from the perspective of a return to religiosity, but a return to the self, touching on those areas that cause youth people to suffer.
Our goal is to give these girls the ability to look themselves and their families in the eye from a place of maturity and short term, from a positive place, and help them cope successfully.
No doubt there are families that don’t want continued contact.
Sometimes the difference between the world the young person has reached and that of her family is so broad that the parents have no tools to deal with the situation. Parents are also afraid that if one of their children has been exposed to the outside world, it may bring confusion into the lives of the other children, since that outside world suddenly brings concepts into the home that previously had not been part of their lives. There’s also the stigma of community, and fear of “What will the neighbors say?” or “How will others react?” or “What will happen to the marriage possibilities for the other siblings?” This level of complexity does not exist in other sectors.
AT THIS point, looking out through the restaurant window towards the street, Dvir identifies Hannah and Leah (not their real names), two young women from the Telem Center’s school. He gets up immediately and invites them to join us at the table, offering them dinner. In an instant, his seriousness dissipates and he adopts a light-hearted approach.
Dvir’s teams’ protégées are not an uncommon presence at this restaurant, whose owner, chef Itzik Danieli, is a source of employment and goes out of his way to offer them help and support.
Dvir: Meet Hannah and Leah, our students.
Finkelstein: Leah, I’m interviewing Rabbi Dvir for an article in The Jerusalem Post. Do you want to tell us about his school? Leah’ Sure! This school changed my life. Now I’m 17½, but if you’d have seen me in the streets three years ago, you’d have looked away. No one saw me. I was invisible.
Finkelstein: You hit the streets at 14? Leah: Yeah. Long story. But now it’s all different. Can you believe it? Three months ago I did my matric exam in art! Finkelstein: Hey, congratulations! And kudos to you! ‘Hannah’: She really does deserve congratulations.
She was in such a state of anxiety on the morning of the exam that she wouldn’t get out of bed.
Leah: When my teacher saw I hadn’t turned up she drove over in her car and persuaded me to come. If not for her, I wouldn’t have gotten through it.
Dvir: You must be proud of yourself… Leah: Yes, very much. It gives me a feeling that I can succeed, that I have something to look forward to.
Finkelstein: When was the last time you felt that way? Leah: I haven’t felt that way for years.
A few days ago I was walking down the street in the morning and suddenly I saw my father on the other side of the street.
We haven’t been in touch for four years.
He doesn’t care about me. And suddenly he’s there up ahead, and he doesn’t even notice I’m standing there and looking at him. Right then I was thinking that he doesn’t even have a clue I’d just taken a matric exam, and that the only person I wanted to do it for was my teacher. She’s more than mother and father together.
Finkelstein: Would you want to renew the relationship with your parents? Leah: No. They gave up on me when I needed them, so there’s no point.
Dvir: Earlier I heard that you two were looking for some place to sleep. Where will you be tonight? Hannah: Great question! I didn’t get on with the family that was hosting me, and Leah has just broken up with her boyfriend. So we’re out looking.
Leah: “Boyfriend” (making quotation marks with her fingers). I was only with him because I had nowhere to live.
Hannah: I’m almost 19, and I don’t have a place of my own. But things could be a lot worse.
After a brief conversation, Dvir makes a phone call and arranges for them to sleep with a family, and we continue our interview.
Rabbi Dvir, it’s almost nighttime. How is it possible they didn’t know where they’d be sleeping?
That’s how it is. It’s a very harsh reality.
It’s difficult to find families who will open up their homes. If only we had a sufficient budget to allow us to house the girls in protected apartments.
I noticed that when the girls joined us, the way you spoke changed, you appeared to turn into a completely different person.
I spoke to them as an equal. These girls have experienced the ugliest aspects of life, and the way to approach them is not through logic and authority.
They’re highly sensitive and need to be approached from an understanding of their situation. They quickly perceive if someone’s is talking down. It’s important to make them feel they’re not alone, that they are understood, and that real help is being offered, not just lip service. My way of talking to them is much less effective with adults, and cynics, but suited to people whose state of mind is that of a betrayed individual with a confused psyche. There’s no situation more sensitive and explosive than that. And that’s our area of activity.
How long did it take to get these two young women back on track?
We never measure in terms of “here and now” because that’s frustrating and pressure on the girls. We’re talking about years of effort during which we work on reinstating faith and developing a reliable base from which they can grow. It’s like running a marathon. You need to build up your strength and take many a deep breath if you’re going to reach the finish line.
Share a remarkable success story from your organization.
One young woman had reached a really dangerous situation. She came to us by chance, through one of our female staffers who noticed her on the street and fished her out, so to speak, listened to her, really heard her, and supported her emotionally, without a word of criticism. Our staffer saw a wounded creature in need of a great deal of compassion.
Very slowly this young woman began appearing at one of our informal frameworks run at night, where she could get a hot drink, a warm meal, and even then, we did very little initially as far as rehabilitation. She was in a terrible state. We gave her lots of space and – very slowly – got her to participate in various activities and classes. Eventually she joined our educational framework.
We found her a family that took her in, gave her a place to live and helped her distance herself from negative factors on the street. Two years ago she graduated high school. She’s now come full circle and is studying social work.
That’s one big circle.
Yes, absolutely. She went back home, and helps her mother a great deal, assisting her younger siblings to cope with the father, who’s the problem element in the whole story. I’m sure she’ll do incredibly well as a career woman, because, like me, she has firsthand experience in the field and a deep understanding of the cruelty of being out in the street in the most fragile moments of our lives. It’s worth keeping in mind that the way to get back on top still involves no small number of falls along the way, which we, as therapists, also need to contain. Only professionals truly connected to the places these girls reach can successfully contain such circumstances, and lead them forward towards their goals. And this level of complexity is our daily fare.
What advice can you offer parents who feel something’s not okay with their teenager, but don’t know what to do?
Firstly, and most importantly, never consider your child’s behavior as a personal insult. She, or he, could be experiencing some kind of difficulty – but the moment you make it personal, it turns into a locking of horns between the two of you. If your goal is your child’s best interests, neutralize your own ego and honor, and find out how to help your child to cope. Perhaps your child’s feeling vulnerable in all kinds of ways and experiencing difficulties you aren’t even aware of, but may not want your help; and that’s legitimate.
So don’t be ashamed to seek professional advice, because you aren’t the first parent in such a situation, nor will you be the last. The most important thing is to keep the door open to your child’s world and be connected to her or his stress, in real time.
That’s not so easy to achieve.
Every morning, we start our day with a prayer that says, “God, the soul you gave me is pure.” We’re given a deposit of purity: our precious child. And whether our child listens to us or not, we need to remember that the goal is the child, watching out for that child, allowing that child to grow and shape her- or himself according to her or his traits and capabilities, in order to become a person who is able to lead a meaningful existence. Once we view things this way, they tend to work out.
Our success as parents can be seen in our children spreading their wings, taking flight, and reaching for the heights. 
The writer interviewed the rabbi over dinner at Noya restaurant, 3 Shlomzion Hamalka Street, Jerusalem; (02) 625-7311.
Rabbi Benayahu Dvir can be contacted at, or 054-919-8717.