Jerusalem — Alice, a 15-year-old with a blue kerchief around her head and a cigarette dangling from her fingers, was clearly upset to be living in a supervised home for troubled girls in Jerusalem.
She was displeased, too, about speaking with visitors on a UJA-Federation mission from New York.
“She has a real in-your-face attitude,” observed one of the visitors, Jane Grauer of White Plains.
Shlomo Shoham, director of Masilla-Magen, explained that Alice had been at the institution for eight months because she had been acting out in school in Netanya and needed a structured environment.
Alice and the 25 other teens were sent to the home by the courts in lieu of prison. The program enables them to gain self-esteem and learn the skills necessary to re-enter society.
Seated next to Alice was Tzipi, a 19-year-old dressed in an army uniform. She had been at the home two years until reaching 18.
“Being here was fun and I learned many things,” said Tzipi. “I was not a good girl. I used drugs and stole things.”
Masilla-Magen, which has an 80 percent success rate in turning around its troubled 13- to 18-year-olds, is funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and will soon become part of a new Israeli agency, Ashalim.
The agency, to be given as much as $40 million in the first three years, is designed to reduce the number of children and youth at risk in Israel. It is being created through a partnership of the JDC, the Israeli government and UJA-Federation of New York.
“For the first time, a diaspora community will be partnered with the government of Israel,” said Jodi Schwartz, UJA-Federation’s chair for overseas planning and allocations. “In the past, we have always worked through the Jewish Agency. Now we are being asked to sit at the table with the government not only for our money but for our experience and expertise.”
Of the 2 million children in Israel (newborn through 18), an estimated 300,000, or 15 percent, are considered at risk due to an inability to cope with cultural changes, as well as family dysfunction, neglect or abuse. In 1995, the last year for which figures were available, 22 percent of Israel’s children lived below the poverty line — the fifth worst among 18 of the world’s major industrialized nations. And about 30,000 children were not attending school.
“There are a plethora of organizations out there addressing the problem — the JDC, the Jewish Agency, many not-for-profit organizations, the government,” said UJA-Federation’s vice chair for overseas planning and allocations, Bobi Klotz.
“But there has been no centralized way to look at what has been successful and in a planned way move forward to address the problem. We are trying to assess existing programs and in some cases plan and participate in pilot projects to address these problems head on.”
Robert Lichtman, UJA-Federation’s executive director of overseas services, described Ashalim as a “national safety net for children.”
“Some children have been falling through the cracks but no one knows the whole picture,” he said. “It’s up to the government to take care of them; our role is to identify the needs and suggest how to fill them. We are not assuming the role of government, but our partnership role as Jews.”
The director of Ashalim, Arnon Mantver, who is also director general of JDC Israel, said that once Ashalim develops a program, it will implement it with the government, municipalities or nonprofit corporations that will run them.
Klotz said many of the youngsters at risk are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, so programs integrating them into the social fabric as well as helping them at school will be stressed.
A second group of immigrants having difficulty are those from Ethiopia. Klotz said that children and adults arrived with a “frame of reference totally foreign from the system that exists.”
“Parents are not putting their children into preschool institutions both because they can’t afford it and they don’t understand the necessity. So we’re looking to work with Ethiopian children from the time they have cognitive skills until the time they can be on an equal level with their Israeli peers,” she said. “This may mean helping them throughout the school system, as well as helping their parents with such things as nutrition.”
Mantver said he expects a push to exempt Ethiopian parents from having to pay for preschool programs.
The executive vice president of JDC, Michael Schneider, said the Ethiopians are a “major priority because unless we are careful, the specter of an inner-city black ghetto population disaffected from the mainstream” could materialize.
Helping to weigh the value of existing programs and formulating new ones will be the professional staff of four UJA-Federation agencies in New York: the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, FEGS-the Federation Employment and Guidance Service, Jewish Child Care Association, and the Educational Alliance.
Professionals from two Israeli ministries, education and labor and social affairs, and the National Insurance Institute will be in New York next week “to visit programs we may consider replicating in Israel,” according to Lichtman.
He noted that UJA-Federation will name two representatives to sit on the Ashalim board. There will also be professional working groups.
“The professionals dealing with domestic violence will work together here and there and float recommendations to the board,” said Lichtman. “The innovative work will be done by the professional working groups.”
UJA-Federation will commit $6 million to this project over the next three years, making it one of the organization’s “major investments” in Israel, according to the organization’s executive vice president, Stephen Solender.
“It’s one of the most important new initiatives UJA-Federation has taken in Israel in many years,” he said.
He pointed out that “once the validity of a new approach has been agreed upon, we will turn it over to the government [to fund] because it is strong enough economically to run these programs. This program will introduce new ideas, the government will take it from there.”
Schneider of the JDC said he is “not satisfied with the government response at the moment because it is not pulling its weight and only a sovereign state with its huge resources can do this. Advocacy groups have talked to government officials all way to the prime minister to impress this upon them.”
Mantver said the JDC will contribute $7.5 million over three to four years and that the Israeli government will contribute at least as much.
In addition to letting Israelis tap the creative ways UJA-Federation agencies work with children, Solender said “we will bring to New York the best creative work in Israel. That’s part of the beauty of this program.”
The JDC approached UJA-Federation about a year ago with the idea of working on Ashalim and the two have been planning it since then with the Israeli government.
“We were selected because the JDC recognized that we were willing to do innovative programming and to take risks,” said Lichtman. “They knew in terms of our relationship with them that if we were seriously engaged, we could provide the resources to make the partnership fly.”
Mantver said the JDC has been paying more attention to at-risk children in recent years because of the large immigration since 1990 (about 900,000 Jews), the concomitant tensions it created and the increasing number of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews who live below the poverty level.
Solender said the “project points to new ways for the American Jewish community and Israelis to work together. This model could have broader applicability in other social service areas.”