The view from the car window as we approached Kiryat Malachi was flat and straight for miles. It was very different from the familiar Judean hills surrounding Jerusalem. The lines of the hills and mountains around Jerusalem draw the eye ever upward towards the heavens. It always seemed to me as if the area’s topography was enlisted in a larger scheme to instill hope in those who live and visit there.
But in Kiryat Malachi, the land is flat and people must create their own hope. We drove down the streets, no longer in Jerusalem territory, and I soon discovered that in this town, it takes a mountain of human strength to create a small mound of hope just big enough to get by.
During my few hours in Kiryat Malachi, I spoke with a number of the town’s young residents. Aviva, now 17, immigrated to Israel when she was two years old. Her parents speak no Hebrew. They sit in their apartment day after day, remembering, perhaps, what things were like a lifetime ago in Ethiopia. They do not get up to go to work or buy groceries. They do not go to meet their daughter’s teachers on parent-teacher night. In fact, they can no longer walk as their feet were burnt during their trek across the hot sands of the Sudan desert . Aviva, the eldest, is an old hand at running the home. She cleans and shops and helps her younger sister with her homework. There is very little laughter in Aviva’s home, and even less hope.
I met Aviva at the opening of the new Makom Balev Center in Kiryat Malachi, an OU Israel program which works with youth at risk throughout the Israel. We were introduced and I encountered a smiling, modestly dressed teenager. Her plans for next year include National Service and then she is on to university. But, her smile, her poise, and her ambitions should not be taken for granted. Aviva gains a lot of strength and support from Makom Balev. She and her group of friends are regulars here since seventh grade. Over the past six years, Makom Balev helped Aviva to discover that she has a place in someone’s heart, that she can dream, and that she can follow her dreams.
Today, the Makom Balev banner stretches across a newly refurbished clubhouse. Beneath the Hebrew name, the initials NCSY are spelled out in English. Modeled after the American NCSY youth groups, with chapter meetings, advisors and Shabbatonim, OU Israel created Makom Balev to meet the needs of teenagers throughout Israel who lack direction, support and someone to talk to.
Makom Balev began its work in Kiryat Malachi in order to reach out to the town’s teenagers and to respond to the aliyah crisis it has faced over the past decade. A quiet, unassuming town, Kiryat Malachi became one of the largest absorption centers in the country following the Ethiopian aliyah. Unequipped to deal with large numbers of immigrants, the town was unable to offer the services and support needed by the immigrant community. It is now home to a large population of Ethiopian children coming of age with few options and little guidance for the future.
According to Aviad, director of the Kiryat Malachi Makom Balev center, the problems facing the town’s Ethiopian youth are two-fold. The first is economic. Most of their parents are unemployed and the families survive on welfare payments. The second is an almost insurmountable divide between the parents and the children. They speak different languages, literally and figuratively. The parents cling to their Ethiopian customs while the children desperately want to embrace modern Israeli culture. As a result, the teenagers spend as little time as possible in their homes. With nowhere else to go, they take to the streets, exposed to the dangers of drugs, violence and sex.
Both inside the home and out, the teenagers lack a place to be themselves, to feel ordinary. Native Israeli parents in Kiryat Malachi will not send their children to schools with Ethiopian children so the schools there are segregated. One girl explained why she comes to Makom Balev. “Here, they give me the right to be a person, to be a regular Israeli kid. They don’t accept me based on what makes me different, they accept me for who I am.” Each girl receives a membership card inscribed with the words, “There is no such thing as despair.” “In the rest of the country, the word Tikva is the national anthem,” says Yisrael Goren, Makom Balev Program Director. “Here it has a very high price.”
Kiryat Malachi is blessed with individuals who are willing to pay that price, and the story of Makom Balev in the little town is all about rooting out despair. At the opening of the new center, furnished with trendy couches, wall hangings, and beaded ceiling mobiles, I discovered that this structure is the fifth new center in seven years. The director, Aviad, initiated the program seven years ago. He was granted a building, renovated, painted and furnished it. After a few months, the building was allocated to another youth group. Four more times, Aviad tirelessly garnered the strength of dedicated Kiryat Malachi residents to prepare a new center, and four times, they were forced to move. The hope, and Makom Balev is all about hope, is that this new center, granted by the local municipality will be the last and permanent home for Makom Balev in Kiryat Malachi.
The key to success at Makom Balev is that they don’t let go, they don’t give up. Whether for a building or for an individual child, Makom Balev is about hope and the belief that anything is possible. “I’ll tell you a story,” says Aviad. “It’s about one of our strongest girls. Now she’s a senior, but when she was in ninth grade she was expelled from school for violence. At that point she had nowhere to be but on the streets, she got involved in drugs, in relationships with Bedouin men downtown. We went to speak to the principal. It was January. ‘Give us six months to work with her,’ we said. We worked with her for six months, and when she returned to school, we arranged for a shadow to help her stay on track. The school could not believe the change when she returned. Now she is graduating high school. She still comes to Makom Balev, but she also spends a lot of time on the street, talking to girls who are in trouble, giving them hope, bringing them here for help. She will be a teacher in the army next year – no one thought she’d pass the tests, but she did, with flying colors. Her people skills are really something.” Aviad paused for a moment, then added, “We decided to believe in her when everyone else gave up hope.”
The staff at Makom Balev will continue to believe in this army hopeful, and in Aviva and her friends in the years to come. With no support system outside of Makom Balev, Aviad is not ready to let his young flock fly free just yet. The senior group’s advisor works tirelessly throughout this last year of high school to help the girls choose an appropriate option for next year. She helps them through the acceptance process in the army or in National Service. Throughout the year next year, she will be in touch with each girl. They will meet for programs every few weeks. And when they finish their year, she will encourage them to apply to university or to choose a vocation. “We stay with them and support them until their chuppah,” says Aviad. “We see what’s pure and true in these girls; we are their only bridge.”