Riding home

The annual Shanti House ride generates NIS 500,000 for the home for youngsters who have no other place to live.

This year’s Desert Shanti House ride goes from the main Tel Aviv branch to the Desert Shanti House facility in the Negev. (photo credit: AMIR GAI)
This year’s Desert Shanti House ride goes from the main Tel Aviv branch to the Desert Shanti House facility in the Negev.
(photo credit: AMIR GAI)
Ifyou ever feel in need of a heartwarming experience, you might want to toddle over to Shanti House in Tel Aviv. The impressive three-story building on the fringes of Neveh Tzedek is home to several dozen youngsters ages 14 to 21 who have no other place they can call home.
Since Shanti House was founded in 1984, it has provided desperately needed emotional and physical help for a huge number of young people.
“Over 35,000 youth have passed through this place,” says Shanti House director Michael Ben-Yossef.
“We do not differentiate between youth of any race, creed or religion. Anyone who comes knocking on our door – Jew, Arab, Beduin, Ethiopian or Russian, for us they are all the children of God – is welcome. The idea is that this is a family. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, we try to provide a solution for anyone who comes to us.”
That sounds like a highly commendable goal, but it doesn’t come cheap. The running costs of keeping a home for several dozen at-risk youth, all of whom are traumatized to a lesser or greater degree, are enormous.
The financial side of the venture has been significantly boosted for the last four years by the annual Shanti House cycle ride, which generates income of some NIS 500,000. This year’s ride, from the main Tel Aviv branch to the Desert Shanti House facility in the Negev, which opened in 2009, takes place on Saturday. The majority of the 1,500 cyclists will do the full route of 180 km., with around 250 joining in for the last 90 km.
It is clearly a popular event, and there were about 400 people who didn’t register in time and missed out.
I was one of the luckier ones and will be in the Bloomfield parking lot in Jaffa tomorrow at the crack of dawn for the grand start-off.
It will be surely be a great experience for all of us riders and will provide a rare opportunity to whiz along the highways of Israel in the company of hundreds of other cyclists. But we will also be aware of the reason that we got up well before dawn to mount our two-wheelers. The ride is designed to draw attention to the need to keep cyclists safe on our roads and, principally, to support the efforts of Shanti House to help unfortunate youngsters to extricate themselves from difficult circumstances and to heal some of their emotional wounds on the way to taking their place in society.
By the looks of things, Ben-Yossef and his wife, Shanti House founder and CEO Mariuma, and their devoted staff have their work cut out for them. The statistics make for worrying reading. The organization’s stated mission is to “return runaway and homeless youth to an optimal way of life by creating a supporting and guiding environment suited to their needs.”
According to the Shanti House website, there are 350,000 at-risk teenagers in this country who “are likely to descend into a state of immediate danger” and 14,000 teens who are living on the streets, and are all in immediate danger.
“Around 2,500 youth pass through this place every year,” says Ben-Yossef, adding that the preferred course of action is to try to get the youngsters back to their biological families. “We are not a substitute for the children’s real family.”
However, sometimes that just isn’t possible.
“When I hear a parent saying about their child something like ‘I sat [the] shiva [mourning period] for him’ or ‘Fix him and then send him back to me’, like their child was a malfunctioning fridge, clearly the parent is not fulfilling his or her parental role, and then we become the right alternative for the youth at that stage of his or her life. We are only a transitional stage in the youth’s life,” he says.
Ultimately, Shanti House is there to provide a safe haven for homeless youth and to help them to get their life back on track.
“We have two ultimate goals,” continues Ben-Yossef.
“We explain to them that they are the same as everyone else and are not, God forbid, some kind of second-class kid – which is often what they have been told [by their parents] to justify why the parents did not take care of them. These kids have a very poor self-image, and then they get into all kinds of drug and alcohol abuse.”
However difficult a youngster’s circumstances, Ben– Yossef says that there are boundaries in terms of how they conduct themselves at Shanti House.
“We have values here, and the main one is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ You have to behave like a decent human being here.”
Those two goals, says Ben- Yossef, help to point youngsters in the desired direction.
“As soon as you give them those two things, it is only a matter of time before they achieve success. We have a success rate of over 78 percent. ‘Success’ means that a kid resumes a normative lifestyle. They take their bagrut [‘matriculation’] examinations, go to the army, university and settle down,” he says.
That is heartwarming stuff, something that the founder of Shanti House experienced herself.
“Mariuma was just like some of these kids,” Ben- Yossef recounts. “She was raped three times, and she went through everything these kids have been through. She opened Shanti House when she was 19 and had no idea what she was starting.”
At the time, Mariuma had a partner, and they lived in another part of Neveh Tzedek in a house with a yard.
“It started from Friday night Kiddush, and she saw there were all these kids who had nowhere to go,” he continues. “After a few months, she had all these kids sleeping over in her yard, and she set out the basic rules for Shanti House back then: She would take in kids aged 14 to 21, and boys and girls would be kept separate. There would be no drugs and no violence, and the kids would have to clean and take care of the house, which was their home.”
Those rules were clearly in place when I dropped by Shanti House on Shlush Street. It was the eve of Succot, and the place was abuzz with kids washing floors, dusting shelves and cooking.
“They are all especially busy right now because it’s erev chag,” said Ben-Yossef, “but they clean the house four times a day, every day. We relate to this place as a womb for the around 50 kids who live here. We give them the opportunity to be reborn.”
It should be an emotional experience tomorrow to be sent off from Bloomfield Stadium on our way down south and to be welcomed by the residents of the Negev branch of the organization. Several of the latter will join us for the last seven kilometers of the ride.
“Kids who come here don’t really feel that they are wanted,” adds Ben-Yossef. “They go through a tough first month or so. When you have parents who should take care of you but you get up every morning and see they don’t do that, it hurts you and scars you for life.
We try to provide the kids with a healing experience.
Any kid who comes here has to want to be here, and we will give them a roof over their head and love.”
For more information about Shanti House: www.shanti.org.il