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In a region too often associated with conflict, one initiative is doing its best to provide unconditional love and support.  Makom Balev, the OU’s youth movement for disadvantaged youth in Israel, recently celebrated its new center in Kiryat Malachi with a chanukat bayit (“dedication”) that those in attendance will not soon forget.

Translated as “a place in (our) heart”, Makom Balev strives to provide a positive and nurturing environment for its youth to enable them to become future leaders of Israel.  This is done through weekly group meetings, one-on-one encounters with madrichot (staff members), Shabbatons, summer camps, and more.  In Kiryat Malachi, the center caters specifically to girls from the Ethiopian community, a subset of Israeli society with their own unique challenges.  Because of the difficulties adapting to Israeli society, some of their parents are not only out of work, but unable to provide the typical parenting and support that their children need, be it instilling values or even helping with homework.  Their children may in turn spend a significant amount of time on the street where alcohol and drug use is rampant.

Enter Makom Balev.  By welcoming these girls into its home, the center strives to provide the unconditional love and acceptance that may be missing in their homes, schools, or other areas of life.  The moment they enter the center, according to Yisrael Goren, the director of Makom Balev throughout Israel, labels disappear as they are looked at not as Ethiopians, but as Israelis.  “We send the message of ‘come home, you belong.’  Here, you are a person, not a statistic.”  The majority of this belonging and loving is provided by the girls’ madrichot who are either doing their national service (Sheirut Leumi) or are graduates of the army.  The madrichot not only lead group activities and facilitate workshops and trips, but also help with homework and help resolve social conflicts between friends.  By being a positive dugma ishit (personal example), they aim to be a positive and constant presence in these girls’ lives.

And “constant” is no exaggeration.  The girls typically begin participation in the center on a weekly basis around sixth grade and continue on some level beyond high school.  While the frequency of the interactions may dissipate, the center continues to assist its girls through the army or national volunteer service.  Ideally, the girls would even return to Kiryat Malachi to be madrichot themselves.  One madricha named Atara had positive things to say at the dedication.  “I don’t feel like a Sheirut Leumi volunteer.  I feel like part of a family.”  She hopes to stay in Kiryat Malachi to begin her university studies after her service ends.

To see where this love and acceptance comes from, one need not look any further than the top of the organization.  Yisrael Goren grew up in the inner city of Beit Shemesh and understands the challenges that his girls are going through.  “Survival is the first priority of the parents; values and education go on the backburner.  Makom Balev is built on personal relationships.”  Goren spoke effusively of center director Aviad Gabbai, without whom they could not have succeeded.  “Aviad doesn’t stand in place.  He wants to move things forward and improve things.  He is always connecting to people.”

Spending a few minutes with Aviad reveals this very character.  Having grown up in Kiryat Malachi from birth, he sees the difficulties that Ethiopian youth experience, both socially and socio-economically.  Aviad told one story about a girl who was kicked out of school for misbehavior.  After wandering the streets for half a year, the center took her in and worked with the school for her to re-enter class.  Years later, she is preparing to enter the army and to serve as a teacher for soldiers.  “We were the only ones who believed in her.”

As for the girls themselves, they couldn’t have been happier at the dedication with smiles on every face.  According to seventeen year old Yaffa, Makom Balev is “fun with lots of activities.”  She regularly calls her madricha for help with homework and her biggest challenge these days, the bagrut (matriculation exam).  She enjoys her time in the center and is inspired to give back to the community.  After finishing high school, Yaffa hopes to be a fighter in the army and to remain in touch with her friends.  Makom Balev in one word?  “Makseem (wonderful)”.

As for the future?  In its new building, the staff continues to have high expectations for what they can give their girls.  Until recently, the center was based in a bomb shelter.  During the recent Gaza War, the girls turned the shelter into a community center to entertain young children and keep them busy.  Their activities were so successful that the community kept the center, leading to Makom Balev’s move into the new building.  With the much larger facilities, the sky is the limit on the change the center can effect.  And that is a good thing for all of Israel.