Supporting ultra-Orthodox youth at risk and their families

Nearly 70 years after its establishment, Israel is still very much a melting pot of Jews from almost 100 countries. 

As a nation continuing to absorb thousands of new immigrants annually from all corners of the world, our national identity is still in flux, as is our character and even our cuisine-as varied as falafel from Arab countries, gefilte fish from eastern Europe, a million sushi restaurants, and the world's only kosher McDonald's.

Our society is made up of many ethnic origins but also of a variety of religions including Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Baha'i, and others. As in every country, some sectors of our society are better off economically than others. Israel's start-up nation has helped created many millionaires-but it has also exacerbated the divide between haves and have-nots. As a nation and as a Jewish people, it is incumbent upon us to assist those less fortunate so that we may all flourish and thrive together.

It is in this context that JUF's Partnership Together (P2G) with the region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir in Israel's northern Negev plays an instrumental role (See article about P2G's 21st anniversary on p. 33.) Through an allocation process directed by lay leaders from Chicago and the region, JUF directly supports dozens of non-profit organizations that in turn provide much needed help to thousands of Israelis from different sectors: from youth at risk to the elderly, from Ethiopian immigrants to Holocaust survivors. The needs of different segments in society benefit from JUF's tailor-made support, designed to close gaps in Israeli society.

The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has traditionally been one of the sectors in Israeli society that has lagged behind in economic prosperity. A number of factors have created this situation, including a high birthrate, lower family income, and lower salary (because the Haredi school system does not adequately prepare students for the modern labor market). The result is that on average, the Haredi community (similar to the Arab-Israeli community) suffers from endemic socio-economic hardship, which creates a vicious cycle: poor families do not invest as much in the education and welfare of their children, who are raised in an insular community characterized by poverty and consequent social issues.

Last month, JUF's Partnership Steering Committee selected two projects to help alleviate some of these issues in the Haredi community, particularly in Kiryat Gat.

The first project is run by Elem, an organization that supports youth at risk throughout Israel, providing shelter, counseling, and emotional support to thousands of youth. Elem has saved countless lives of youth who have fallen into the traps of drugs, prostitution and crime. In Kiryat Gat, Elem has a special center for Haredi youth that focuses on particular challenges resulting from families disowning their children, whose behavior is perceived as a blemish on the family as a whole.

These youth present special needs: not only do they have to deal with sexual abuse, drugs and crime, they often also lack a family safety net that, were they in non-Haredi families, would directly address these challenges. Elem runs a network of professionals as well as volunteers from the local Haredi community-adults who not only are equipped to deal with issues that youth are facing but also have a deep understanding of the community where this takes place and are therefore perfectly suited to help resolve problems.

Be-Atzmi ("For Myself") runs the second project aimed specifically at Haredi youth that JUF's Partnership has selected for funding. This initiative provides employment counseling on an individual and group level to young Haredi men who wish to embark on a professional career as well as, for women, counseling in home economics and related issues in managing family life.

Workshops help participants identify their strengths and weaknesses and hone their skills for obtaining employment. Workshops  build self-confidence and life skills that are necessary for pursuing a successful career. Participants also receive assistance in seeking out, and successfully graduating from, vocational training programs. Finally, the workshop also provides individual and group counseling on how to balance a family budget, which together with higher income as a result of better professional placement and vocational training, may help as a means to escape the poverty cycle. This project recently also received a special grant from JUF's Breakthrough Fund for two years of operation elsewhere in Israel.

A society's strength and resilience is often measured by how well it addresses the needs of the least fortunate. Israel is a vibrant and modern economy that has gone through rapid growth in the past two decades. But economic growth and development are not universal and some sectors of society have been slower to grow and thrive. The non-profit sector, and JUF within it, is doing much to close the gaps for individuals and families, trying to pull the poorest parts of society forward.

Thanks to JUF and to the Partnership, we are making a difference for dozens of Haredis and their families in Kiryat Gat and in our Partnership region.  A true example of all Jews are responsible for one another.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.


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