I don’t recall as a kid ever having an existential crisis. Perhaps I was brought up well, perhaps it was a slower time (the 80’s?), perhaps I was just lucky, but I never considered the state of my intellectual mindset, or my emotional well being during those years. I think in the last 20 or so years, a lot has changed. It seems to me that more kids are falling into crisis; more kids are questioning their state of being, and more influences are leading kids astray. The dichotomy between the ideals of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and the reality of so many kids who rejected those ideals running in the opposite direction, is frightening. As in many other places, this situation is reflected in the Holy land, in Eretz Yisrael. And in Jerusalem, no less!
Walk the streets of the holiest city in the world on a Saturday night at midnight and a different world emerges; one of darkness, gloom, and frivolity. I did just that for the past few weeks and was astounded by what I saw. I am not naive to think that there wasn’t a segment of the Israeli youth who have strayed and are lost. But I was certainly not ready for what I experienced those nights.
The Underbelly of Kedusha (holiness)
All along Kikar Tzion I saw scores of lost souls. Some drunk, others high, others were neither inebriated nor on drugs but nevertheless dazed and walking aimlessly. The girls were dressed with attitude in a statement of personal freedom and self-expression. The guys had girls on their minds and were shamelessly searching for meaningless pleasure. The police were visibly patrolling, preparing for the next outbreak, a bar brawl, a disturbance or worse. It’s not like I didn’t know of the concept of party towns, drunken teenagers, or frivolity among youth, it’s just that I hadn’t expected to see so much of it in Jerusalem.
Is this the city towards which we fervently face during prayers? Is this the city which is invested in spirituality, about which the Talmud states it received 9/10ths of the holiness measure? Is nothing sacred in this town after midnight?
Then I walked up to the Harold and Pearl Jacobs OU Zula Outreach Center (or, just the Zula) doorstep. Outside it looked no different than any other bar in town, replete with the bouncer and the stream of scantily (and scarily) clad teens walking through. Externally one could not detect anything different about this place, anything special. But herein lies its success.
Zula is not a baal teshuva program in disguise; nor is it a haven for religious kids gone astray. In fact it is vehemently against such agendas. Instead Zula opens its doors to high risk Israeli youth and attempts to create an atmosphere of safety and comfort in an otherwise difficult world in which they live. They encourage kids to get in touch with more of their spiritual side, to reconnect with their Jewish roots, and their Jewish pride. The main purpose of this place is simply to give these kids a feeling of home, a feeling which for many of them is sadly missing.
The Zula was the brainchild of Harel Chetzroni–as unique a personality as you will find. His mission of saving Jewish souls one by one is the slogan upon which the Zula concept was conceived. He chose this Turkish name which in Israeli slang refers to a time when people can just relax together in an unthreatening atmosphere. A time for chilling, hanging out with friends, and socializing. Chetzroni saw the Hebrew word a little differently: ZULA==ZU La’Hashem (this, to God). In the midst of camaraderie and serenity, we connect to God and raise our souls.
Starting out in the Orthodox Union Israel Center’s basement and slowly finding its home in the center of town, the Zula acts as crisis center, hangout, spiritual counseling base, social gathering, and safe haven for thousands of high risk Israeli youth every Saturday night in Jerusalem. In that building there are thousands of stories, no two the same but all evoking sad feelings of solitude, abandonment, broken families, addictions and more. Instead of finding depression I found great joy and relaxation on the part of these kids, it was as if they were able to remove their guards and simply enjoy themselves in a controlled environment for a few short hours in their week.
A Holy Basement
I walked down the stairs of Zula and I was immediately struck by the waft of smoke which emanated from the mounds of cigarettes smoked by each kid. The environment was one of monitored freedom with few but steadfast rules. No alcohol, no drugs, no illicit sexual behavior. Everything else was permitted and encouraged in order to convey a sense of ownership over a place, something they wanted dearly.
There are several rooms (an art room, a no smoking room, a creative workshop room) which surround one great room. As you enter the room you sense movement and conversation but the eyes need time to adjust to the darkness which intentionally sets the mood of anonymity and serenity. All along the walls of this darkness are mattresses where teens are sitting, reclining, sleeping, smoking, and talking with each other, men and women. In the center there is a table with tens of candles burning away their wax until the wee hours in the morning. Around this table sit five, six, sometimes ten musicians who with their guitars, flutes, and bongos create art, or noise, depending on your preferences.
Gal’s Story* (name changed)
I looked around at the forty or so kids, one whose name was Gal was sitting alone with her dog safely tucked under her arm. She had the saddest eyes I had ever seen. I questioned going over to talk to her, after all, youth at risk, the last thing they would want is to talk about their lives to an old Rabbi. I decided maybe I would just say a few words anyway. I was way off.
Gal had plenty to say, and indeed wanted someone to talk to; she yearned for friendship, for a sympathetic ear. Any question I asked, she responded. And then she started asking me questions, about my life, my family etc. Contrary to my preconceived assumptions, we were bonding.
Gal was 16, living away from home, not on speaking terms with her parents, having gone through a difficult childhood. She was alone, living in a halfway house in the Jordan valley, and working instead of going to school. Gal had a few friends but seemed like a loner, seemed fed up with the hand God had dealt her.
I asked Gal why she came to the Zula, and she said, so matter-of-factly, it is my home, it keeps me sane. The other night I went in to Zula to find Gal engaged in a creative writing course provided for the teens by professionals with the aim to tap into their creative energies and show them something nobler and more powerful than what they had seen—it showed them the potential to have something better in their lives.
All through the night different figures emerge, some jumping with joy, others mellow and tranquil. Kids come down the stairs, hang out for a bit, leave and return. But many just stay and get involved in the different educational or spiritual events that are taking place at any given moment. One such event is a chance to shmooze with Rav Pinchas or Chetrzroni.
Rav Pinchas—a Man of Love, Respect, and Meaning.
Sitting in the room with transparent glass is Rav Pinchas Rubenstein. He is a holy man. I say this because he believes in an ideal and practices it as well. His message is respect people, and see the beauty inside them; speak to them with gentleness and purpose, and they will respect you back and love you. This soothing character is in constant meetings with these kids, he is their counselor, their father figure, their rabbi, and their friend. It is no wonder that there is always a line of kids waiting all night to speak with him.
Pinchas does not hide his desire for each individual to get closer to God, to find greater religious meaning in their lives. In fact, many of the kids expect to hear it, perhaps yearn to hear it from a person like Pinchas. Of the Torah the psalmist sings that it is pure enough to restore the soul, straight enough to gladden the heart, beautiful enough to illuminate the eyes, and sweeter than honey. It is this sweetness that one finds in the personality of Pinchas.
Harel Chetzroni is a tzadik, a term thrown around way too liberally these days but indulge me and you will end up in concurrence. A product of the streets of Jerusalem, Chetzroni lost his way during his teenage years and ended up living on the streets, involved in some of the ugliness the teen is capable of experiencing. One day in the army he encountered a friend who said to him, ‘what are you doing? Look at yourself!’. It was enough for some serious soul searching which upon exiting the army set his mind on one goal (which has occupied his time for the last 20 years)—to help out the youth of our country.
He started with a small group of high risk teens who were living on the streets and he struck up relationships, not built on fleeting moments of happiness, rather on the long road to freedom of body, mind, and soul. The kids became Chetzroni kids, and swore by him as he swore his devotion to them day in day out. Chetzroni is married with five children but he has sacrificed much to devote his life to saving these teens. He speaks of his mission in creating Zula as one of ‘lifting these kids off the streets and raising them up to the heavens.’ It is all about neshama, about spirit, and devotion.
Sometimes it was a boy on drugs who needed a way out, other times it was a girl who got involved in a bad crowd and engaged in unmentionable activity; sometimes it was another Jewish teen threatening, other times he would physically go into an Arab neighborhood to pull out a girl who was trapped there. This was mamash haztzalat nefashot (precisely saving a life)!
Let me illustrate Chetzroni’s power with one story, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands.
I met a girl named Chaya Batya whose story sent shivers down my spine, but in the end left me warm and comforted. She came from an ultra-orthodox background but at 18 she rebelled. Alcohol, drugs, dealing, boys, ultimately living on the streets, this was the frighteningly quick path which Chaya Batya slid down. During that time she was in a very dark place, contemplating self-destruction at every turn– how would she emerge? Where could she turn? There was one place to go—the Zula!
That was then, a lot has since changed. I met her last night as a bright eyed, smiley, intelligent young lady, six years on the mend and clean from all negative influences. She was not only sober but slowly returning to Jewish observance, and looking for a ‘shidduch’ to settle down and start a family.
As I heard her story and her candor I was struck at how normal she was and how she described herself in such historically abnormal terms. Yet this was her story, and I had one question to complete it: What, I asked, changed your attitude, your perspective, your observance? She responded not what, who!—Chetzroni.
Olam Chesed Yibane (upon acts of kindness the world will be rebuilt)
It is not upon righteousness that the world will be rebuilt to its ideal form, nor upon truth and spirituality; rather it is acts of unbridled kindness to each other which will restore us to a path of redemption. Helping out those truly in need is up there with the highest form of chesed, and it is an experience I get to be a part of every day when I go to work.
Story after story, year after year, the OU Israel Center has been there. They have supported Chetzroni, Pinchas, and all of the staff, with the many ideas they had in order to show the teens out there, that after midnight, in the midst of depravity and despair, the Zula provides comfort, sanctuary, a respite from the nightmare they encounter during the rest of the week, and ultimately it provides the one thing which every teen in that predicament so sorely desires–a home.
Rabbi Avi Baumol is the Director of OU Israel Communities
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.