The Trumpeldor neighborhood of Naharia is home to the poorest of the city’s poor, despite its tree-lined, well lit streets. With teenagers in those streets, and little to occupy their time, the neighborhood environment breeds lethargy, boredom and violence. Arik, a long time resident, and a broad shouldered, kippah donning, makolet owner, describes the neighborhood and the changes it has seen over the past few years. Three years ago, he explains, “the teenagers were… teenagers.” In reality, they vandalized his store, stole his merchandise and taunted him on a daily basis. Now, as a T-shirt clad teen greets Arik, the makolet owner thumps him warmly on the back. “This boy is the best of the best,” he says, “he helps me unload deliveries, he prays three times a day.”
Dressed in an orange T-shirt and black kippah, the young man is an alumnus of OU Israel’s Jack Gindi Oraita Club. He was one of the first to arrive when Oraita opened shop in Naharia in 2006. With the goal of taking kids off the street and inspiring them to dream higher, the program is designed to teach the teens about values, to care about themselves and others. With a director who instills respect and admiration as a kickboxing champion, the Naharia center is furnished with pool tables, air hockey and video games on one side, and an inviting Beit Midrash on the other.
“We don’t just teach them Torah for an hour,” says Chaim Pellsner, Oraita program director. “We hold them for four – they hang out, play pool. But they do it with us, not on the streets. ” When a teen plays pool at Oraita, Pellsner explains, he has to wait his turn, even if he’s a foot taller than the next guy. He learns to care about his environment, to give back to his community.
The Orthodox Union is known internationally as a kosher symbol. But the organization, commonly known as the OU, is more than kosher certification. From its inception, it has been dedicated to teaching and reaching out to the Jewish people. In Israel specifically, the OU’s mission is to connect “the Jew, his people and his land.”
At the Oraita Club, Jewish music plays in the background, pictures of Torah scholars hang on the wall. A teenager leans over the pool table, his stick strategically moving in and out. Another relaxes on the couch, playing video games. Yet a third is in deep conversation with an Oraita mentor. The teens come at first for the free cola and bourekas, and of course, for the pool. “In the end, they stay for the support, here they find someone who cares,” explains Elie, of the Acco Oraita club. “We teach them about giving, we teach them to give back.”
“We seek to educate,” says Pellsner. “That means that the kids care about what we teach them. It becomes part of them.” In the three years since Oraita opened its doors in Trumpeldor, it’s become apparent that Oraita has become not only part of the teens, but part of the now calm, quiet neighborhood as well.
According to Rabbi Tzvi Rosner, educational supervisor for the Ministry of Education, the OU programs reach kids who fall through the cracks of the mainstream educational system. “These kids either don’t go to school or don’t care,” he explains, “so a school-based program won’t help them. The OU programs are unique because they function outside of the school system, and they work with youth who would otherwise be on the street.”