Stale cigarette smoke hangi ng in the air behind him, the sounds of weights clanging and billiard balls crashing in the background, Motti sits on a frayed couch in the heart of Flatbush one recent night and talks about what it is like — or was — to be an at-risk Jewish teenager.
Now 17, he came to Brooklyn seven months ago from the Midwest, where he was failing at school and fighting at home. Here, he says, he lived with a member of his family, but was still lost, “chilling on the streets, doing drugs.”
That changed a few months ago, Motti (not his real name) says, when “a friend,” someone he’d hang out with wasting time, told him about Our Place, a drop-in center for teens, many from Orthodox backgrounds.
He came one night, one of the more than 5,000 troubled teens helped by the center in the last dozen years. And he kept coming back.
“Every night,” Motti says. Shooting a little pool, watching some TV, talking with the adult volunteers and teenage peers who hang around the center, down a flight of stairs, through an unmarked door on Avenue M, a business center of Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox neighborhood.
The teens, mostly from Modern Orthodox and black-hat backgrounds, have the classic street look — garish T-shirts, jeans or cargo pants, suspicious eyes that give every visitor the once-over. Some of the boys are bareheaded; some wear stocking caps.
Were it not for Our Place, a 12-year-old independent institution under Orthodox auspices, “I’d be on the street,” Motti says.
Now, he says, he’s afraid he may end up back there. Our Place may have to close.
The center, which has depended on state aid and some private philanthropic support, has run up a $250,000 debt since the middle of this year, when government funding, the victim of budget cutbacks, stopped, says Chaim Glancz, executive director. Combined with a major decrease in donations from local philanthropists because of the ongoing recession, that leaves Our Place’s future in doubt, he says.
Glancz, 50, a “Brooklyn-born-and-bred” resident of nearby Borough Park who started befriending at-risk Jewish youth two decades ago and has served at Our Place since it was founded, called some of the center’s major supporters together earlier this month. “I wanted to pull the plug,” to close down Our Place before the debt grew larger, he says.
Give us a little time — we’ll try to raise the needed funds, the supporters said.
Now, Glancz says, Our Place is on life support, depending not on the kindness of strangers but on the chesed of people who believe in its mission. No one’s been paid since July, not vendors (they bring the kosher meals that keep a refrigerator stocked and provide nightly free meals for the kids) or the seven professional therapists on staff (they’re supplemented by a score of volunteers, mostly businessmen from the Orthodox community) or the landlord (“He hasn’t asked for the rent.”)
The center, which these days serves about 700 teens a year, is living on borrowed time, says Glancz, who says he has borrowed $40,000 to help keep the doors open. He is presently coordinating a raffle to bring in some funds, but he’s “still waiting” for the big money to come in.
Our Place’s final deadline is the end of January, he says. A barebones budget for 2010-11 will be about $400,000. “To do it right,” Glancz says, he would need some $600,000.
Three years ago, before the economy collapsed, the Our Place annual budget was $1.2 million, Glancz says.
Like the other professionals and volunteers there, Glancz has the typical haredi look: beard, white shirt, black pants. “Because I have a beard, they call me ‘rabbi,’” he says.
A yeshiva graduate, Glancz worked as “a regular worker in one of the camera stores,” then as a day school administrator before making at-risks teens his life’s work, “trying to help these kids.”
Self-taught, he calls himself “a paraprofessional.”
The boys — a separate Our Place for Jewish girls is located a few miles away in Flatbush — come up to Glancz, slapping him five or offering him a bite to eat, as he shows a visitor around the 4,000-square-foot converted karate studio.
In one wood-paneled room is a ping-pong table, along a row of pool tables. In the corner, a few boys are huddled around a large-screen TV, watching “N.C.I.S.” The TV gets cable, but with limitations. No HBO, no steamy stuff allowed, Glancz says. On the other side of a dividing wall are teens grunting on free weights and weight-lifting machines. There’s a jamming room with a complete set of drums, a small therapy room for personal counseling, and rows of prayer books and Jewish texts.
“We do no kiruv,” he says, using the Hebrew term for religious outreach — there are plenty of rabbis who do that.
Our Place, a response to the growing number of teens from Orthodox homes who have turned to street-life and substance abuse in recent decades, concentrates on the kids’ psychological and educational needs. Through its Yeshiva Simchas Chaim day school division, it helps students receive a GED high school diploma. A separate co-ed post-rehab recovery program, titled Living Room, is based in the girls’ Our Place site.
“Today’s troubled youth have a common denominator: they are searching, seeking and looking for that elusive answer to quell their inner turmoil,” an Our Place brochure states. “Naïve, frightened and alone, they are seduced and beguiled by drug dealers, molesters and criminals. Our Place offers troubled youth the opportunity of rediscovering themselves, their beliefs, aspirations … and ultimately, their future.”
“It’s a home away from home — my friends are here,” says Robert, 16. He says the therapists and volunteers have helped him tame his temper. “I used to be angry all the time.”
Our Place has made him “a better person.”
“Our mission is to get the kids back into the community,” to restore then to their families, Glancz says.
The center is open weeknights, 7-11 p.m. On Friday nights, the staffers invite the teens home for a Shabbat meal.
“We treat them like our family,” Glancz says.
Of the some 5,000 Jewish teens — mostly boys — who have passed through the Our Place doors, Glancz says, about 70 percent are considered successes. They’re off drugs, back in school, back at home, happily married.
“Some are still hanging around,” still drifting, still doing drugs. “Some we lost” to the streets, Glancz says. “Some we buried.”
Without Our Place, he says, “we would be burying more kids.”
“It makes a difference in their lives,” says Daniel, 24, who started coming to Our Place 10 years ago to get off the streets and who comes back today to serve as a volunteer.
“They do amazing work. There’s nothing else like it,” says Assembly Member Dov Hikind, who helped arrange the center’s original state funding. “There’s no substitute.”
While Our Place is likely the largest such drop-in center in the New York area for at-risk teens from Orthodox homes, and sponsors “the most extensive” array of daily services for members of both sexes, similar drop-in locations are available in several other Jewish neighborhoods, including the Five Towns area of Long Island, the Lubavitch Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, and Monsey in Rockland County, says a spokesman for Priority1, a 20-year-old, multi-service project for at-risk youth based in the Five Towns.
Besides Motti, from out of town, kids find their way here from the Orthodox communities of Long Island and upstate Monsey.
There’s no admission requirement, no drug testing; anyone who says he or she is Jewish is welcome, says Chaim Bennett, one of Our Place’s volunteers. The lure is “a hot meal, a smile, no judgment.”
The teens, he says, are concerned by reports that their place may close.
“I can’t believe it,” Motti says. “This is my home. I’ve been clean [off drugs] for a long time because of this place.”
What will he, and the other nightly drop-in visitors, do if Our Place closes?
“I have no clue,” he says. “[We’re] screwed. I have no clue.”
“They’re all going to be back on the street” if the center closes it doors, Daniel says. “They’re all going to be doing drugs.”
Joey, 15, who also comes every night to “chill” and play chess, says he’ll probably be “back on the streets” if Our Place closes; same for most of his friends.
Joey’s parents, who live in Brooklyn, encourage him to come here, he says. “They’re happy I’m not on the streets.”
On a typical night, about 70-80 boys come and go at the Avenue M site, like the tide.
When the boys walked down Avenue M after dark this week, they saw a familiar sight down the block — a group of teens, hoods over their heads to protect against the early winter cold, hanging out on the street.