“The Streets are Crying Out”: The Zula Gives Israeli Teens at Risk a Fighting Chance

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13 May 2005

It’s Motzei Shabbat. Do you know where your teenager is? Hundreds of Israeli parents dare not entertain the question, for fear of what would quickly come to mind – drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and worse. Thanks to the advent of the Zula*, Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center’s program for teens at risk, a growing number of these parents sleep better at night – knowing their sons and daughters have found a safe haven far from Kikar Zion’s magnet to the easy fix and dark descent to the life of the streets.

In the summer of 2000, an 18-year-old boy from a frum (Torah observant) family in Jerusalem died of a drug overdose. The tragic death motivated Harel Hetzroni, a concerned Jew, to do something about the intensifying crisis of Israel’s disenchanted religious youth flirting with self-destruction. No stranger to the streets, Hetzroni had spent a chunk of his youth caught up in the deceptive lure of the dropout scene. “I was into drugs, pubs, and discos,” he says. “I got as low as you can get.”

A yeshiva graduate, Hetzroni grew up in a religious home, yet longed for something else. “I couldn’t see how I could enjoy myself,” he says. “I didn’t leave the Torah because I didn’t believe in Hashem. I didn’t deny the truth. I just needed more satisfaction and all the excitement was in the streets, so that’s where I went.” One night, all that changed. “While at the very bottom of the pit, I looked around and saw that all these people that were supposedly evil had very pure and good neshamot (Jewish souls),” he says. “No one ever told them that. People tend to look just at the surface, at the exterior, neglecting to look at the person inside.” Hetzroni says he returned to a Torah life when he realized how low he had descended. “People don’t see the beauty of the Torah. If one doesn’t have the limitations of the Torah life, he could become an animal.”

According to Hetzroni, who wears his tzitzit prominently over his clothing, the kids on the street don’t reject Judaism. “Even the ones who take off their kippot (yarmulkes) and consider themselves irreligious – they don’t really hate the Torah. He decided to set up a place where these troubled youth could connect with the treasures within Torah and within themselves.

With the ready assistance of friends, his winning personality and a heart full of love, Hetzroni began scouting the streets around downtown Jerusalem’s Kikar Zion, the (infamous) address to buy drugs and hang out, striking up conversations with the young boys and girls, and asking them to come with him to talk about their lives. He told them, “Instead of going to the pub, doing drugs, come with me and have a good time. We’ll sit, sing songs, share stories, and get into your problems.”

Israel Center Welcomes the Zula

Within a few months, their grassroots group had gathered more lost souls than they could handle and sought larger quarters. Someone directed them to the Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center. “We had just opened our new building and we adopted the project,” says Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Director General, OU Israel. “As it grew, we moved it to another location and then to another.”

Today, “Hetzroni’s Zula”, as it is known, opens its doors a few nights a week to hundreds of participants. Every Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) between 11:00 to the wee hours of the morning, each wayward visitor, some a little drunk or under the influence of drugs, joins the others on cushions that line the floor, playing drums and guitars or taking in the warm, tranquil atmosphere. They hear about it through the street work of Hetzroni, who, with the program’s madrichim (counselors), continues to scour the hangouts, schmoozing with the kids, reeling them in, and saving their lives.

“Over time, we’ve professionalized the group,” says Rabbi Cohen. “We have psychologists on staff and seasoned mechanchim (Torah educators) to direct the activities and keep track of the kids. Hetzroni and Rabbi Pinchas Rubinstein, a mechanech, together with Rafi Danan, head of the our youth department, choose personnel with the ability to reach troubled kids, and are willing to stay up all Saturday night and accept phone calls throughout the week.” Each advisor has his chevra (close-knit group), his five or ten teenagers, with whom he keeps in constant touch. One advisor is herself a former member of the Zula.

Rabbi Cohen reports that the majority of the Zula participants originally come from religious homes. “It didn’t work for them. Some are still in school, still unhappy. A lot are out of school or out of the house, on the street ‘crashing’ different places from night to night. Some come from broken homes, some from the families of well-known educators or business people.” He attributes their malaise to something lacking in their lives. “It could be school, parents, the stresses of living in Israel, and the fear we live with here, or a combination.”

Yitzhak Fund, President of the OU Israel Center, picks up on the theme and explores the possible reasons for the situation. He says the number of troubled youth from frum homes has increased significantly since the Intifada. “With the drop in the economy, parents are suffering, and in turn, so are the kids. We are a country under siege and it creates a tremendous amount of disruption in the community. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hareidi (right wing Orthodox), Dati Leumi, (National Religious) or not frum; teenagers now have access to internet, to a world at large, so many negative diversions. When you add financial strains, and the crisis of a community constantly going to funerals – it creates an atmosphere in which the parents can’t reach their children anymore.”

The staff calls the Zula ‘the emergency room’, the critical first stop, a pivotal chance to establish a relationship with the teenagers. The actual treatment goes on during the week, over the phone and through constant visits from the participants. “If we want to bring them back to Torah, the first precondition is to give them love, unconditionally,” stresses Hetzroni. “We are not going to judge them for taking drugs, how they look, whether their hair is dyed, or if they have rings in their noses.” Once they see that we genuinely care about them, they start opening up.” He says they don’t speak about struggling with emunah (faith); they speak about personal issues, their family lives, their suicidal thoughts, and experiences with drugs. “We have to work on the individual as an individual before we can work on his spiritual side,” he says.

Hetzroni sees much of their alienation from religious society stemming from a world that values intellect and academia, that places more value on test grades than emotions. “No one is looking at their souls, their feelings, who they really are. Twelve years in a school like that, how can they deal with negative feelings and drives? So they go out to the street for a quick fix, to feel better for a little while. In the school system, if a kid learns well, he gets praised, but if you go out on the street, you get a “high-five” simply for wearing a nice dress.”

The crowd at the Zula on Motzei Shabbat can reach 200, depending on the time on the time of year, the weather, and the program. Oftentimes Rabbi Daniel Stavsky, described by Rabbi Cohen as “the rabbi with a long beard and a lot of heart,” speaks to the captivated gathering about the boundless strength of the Jewish neshama. “They all relate,” says Rabbi Cohen. “They’re smart kids. They are just turned off. We are definitely having a positive effect.”

A Midnight Visit from OU’s Executive Vice President

During the Orthodox Union National Convention at the Renaissance Jerusalem Hotel this past November, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU’s Executive Vice President, welcomed the opportunity to observe Zula’s positive effect up close. “Rabbi Cohen and Menachem Persoff, Israel Center Programming Director, have consistently tried to get me to go,” says Rabbi Weinreb. “Because the action at the Zula doesn’t really start until after midnight, which are not my hours, I found it difficult making arrangements to go during my past visits to Israel. At the Convention, we were all running on adrenalin anyway, so a group of us decided to go.”

Rabbi Weinreb and the other OU guests joined the others on the floor, seated around a huge candle. “I sat between two kids,” says Rabbi Weinreb. “One really didn’t want to talk; I realized that quickly. The other, an American living in Israel for a while, loved to schmooze. At some point, Hetzroni told a beautiful Rebbe Nachman of Breslov story about a king who didn’t have children and was searching for someone to take over his realm. “The King announced that whoever was able to remove an enormous stone from the courtyard would become the next king. Hetzroni spoke of how everyone in the kingdom tried to figure out how to accomplish the difficult task, but failed. Then he described a certain character as ‘a little, very small Yiddel’ who came along. The group laughed and some yelled out ‘Like you, Harel’ (Hetzroni has a very small frame). He gently continued, describing how this Yiddel chipped away at the huge stone. He took all the pieces up to the king and the king made him the new heir to the throne because he understood that one has to do things increment by increment, step by step.

“The group resonated to the story and its powerful message. If one has the proper goals and works carefully and consistently towards those goals, he can achieve great things. We left at 2:30 in the morning. Harel and the other staff truly connect with these kids. The boy I sat next to said he comes every Saturday night. What we saw was just the bait. The connections are made; then the work begins. The counselors follow up and do what needs to be done.”

The Zula works directly with the parents of its participants too, providing them with the direction they need to communicate effectively with their children. The staff also conducts preventative workshops throughout Israel, alerting mothers and fathers to the signs that their child needs help. “These kids could have been spotted in the very early elementary grades,” says Rabbi Weinreb. Hetzroni and the Zula staff visit schools throughout Israel, running workshops for principals and teachers. “I urge them to come to the Underground discothèque to see how many of their students are there,” says Hetzroni. “Some agree to, some do not.”

The Zula currently offers a variety of additional Motzei Shabbat activities, including a creative writing class for boys and a learning workshop for girls that presents divrei Torah on a deep level. Hetzroni enjoys the paradox of Zula’s continued success. “We tell them you can’t have drugs here, no messing around between boys and girls, and all sorts of other restrictions. You’d think they’d run the other way!”

Yet, they keep coming – from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tzfat, and yishuvim (small communities) throughout the country. The Zula has a core of 200 members, with whom it maintains constant contact (within a wider circle of close to 600 teenagers). The program has celebrated weddings between participants, and many have returned to lives of Torah. It has reconciled parents and children and found appropriate educational frameworks for students. “If one doesn’t work, we find another,” says Hetzroni. The Zula recently initiated a crucial follow-up program. “With two or three times the resources, we could reach four or five times the number of youth, and do much more in-depth work with them. The street is crying out.”

Of the thousands of young people who have passed through the Zula since its inception, hundreds have returned to a more wholesome, observant Jewish life and have found a scholastic environment more suited to their individual needs – all because others who cared reached out to them and loved them for who they are. “We are giving these kids something nobody else is giving them,” says Menachem Persoff, Israel Center’s Programming Director. “We are giving them a fundamental belief in and acceptance of themselves; we are giving them back their neshamot.”

Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.

*A Turkish word used as Israeli slang for a place to hang out with friends

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.