Haaretz: Zion Square’s West Side Story

By Daphna Berman

In Jerusalem, troubled English-speaking teens hang out in groups of their own, separated from native Israelis. The Crossroads NPO helps get them off the streets.

‘Zoe’ was three when his parents moved from Manchester to Israel, 13 when he first smoked Marijuana, 14 by the time he moved out of his parent’s home in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof, and 16 by the time he started using “hard drugs” – a sprinkling of mushrooms, Ecstasy, Acid, and Cocaine. “I tried Crack too, but that was just once on the streets of New York,” says the 22 year-old, smiling. Zoe says he’s been clean for a year, aside from smoking Marijuana occasionally on weekends. “I don’t deal or buy anymore,” he says casually, between drags of his Marlboro.

Zoe, a nickname he no longer goes by, is a poster child of sorts for Crossroads, the non-profit organization that got him off the streets. At sixteen, he had been sleeping in parks, at friends’ houses and occasionally in public squares, but then Crossroads’ Caryn Green found him. “If I hadn’t met Caryn, I don’t know what would have happened. Most of my friends are either dead or in jail,” Zoe says.

Green, a social worker by training, is the founder and director of Crossroads, a Jerusalem-based outreach organization for English-speaking troubled teens, many of whom are from religious backgrounds. The organization employs four social workers, two of whom work part time, and tries to connect with teenagers who are “having issues,” but don’t have an outlet for dealing with them. “We help them solve problems ranging from drug abuse, homelessness, a difficult family life, and problems at school,” Green says.

Crossroads, which is funded exclusively by private donations, has an outreach service that locates “at risk” teens on the streets of Jerusalem, as well as a center with drop-in hours, where teenagers looking for a job or a place to live can speak with social workers ready to point them in the right direction.

“There is a misconception that there is no such thing as a homeless Orthodox child,” says Green, who immigrated to Israel from Texas in 1997. “Today, the Orthodox communities in the Diaspora and in Israel are starting to deal with kids who don’t fit in.” Still, she says, a social pressure to “look good on the outside” often exacerbates problems in religious English-speaking communities.

Crossroads caters exclusively to an English-speaking population; an overwhelming majority of its users are North American teenagers sent to study in yeshivas for a year or two following high school. “A lot of these kids come here to slow down and straighten up, but they just end up speeding up,” Green says. Many of the Americans who end up at Crossroads come have been neglected by their families, and most have rebelled against their ultra-Orthodox communities.

Other teenagers whom Crossroads helps are immigrants from English-speaking countries who moved to Israel with their families. These teenagers, explains Green, are isolated in English-speaking communities, but are nonetheless expected to be fully Israeli; their Hebrew is not at the level that it should be and their English “isn’t great either,” she says. The constant transition between Israeli and American societies, she says, has led to confusion: “They just don’t fit in.”

Sarah, a tall, 18-year-old stick-thin blond, who’s known as Barbie to her friends at Crossroads, agrees. Although she was born in Israel and grew up in and around Jerusalem, she spoke English at home and says she was never accepted in the Israeli crowd at her ultra-Orthodox Beis Ya’akov high school. She stopped attending high school at the age of sixteen after the rabbis in her religious school discovered that she went to a water park in Tel Aviv with some friends. She’s been “bumming around” ever since, she says.

Sarah, like Zoe and many of their other English-speaking Israeli peers, began to hang out in downtown Jerusalem at an early age. “The streets of downtown Jerusalem are the only place where a lot of these kids feel comfortable. It’s the one place they can be without people demanding anything of them,” says Green.

According to Green, the English-speaking scene in and around Zion Square is “literally a West Side Story scene.” The new American yeshiva kids and the English-speaking Israelis clash over which group is most powerful; both, explains Green, are out to “rule the streets” of downtown Jerusalem. Competing for status, says Green, is often violent and aggressive: “There’s always a fight – a stabbing, breaking bottles over people’s heads, though there are usually no guns.”

A few hundred feet away from Zion Square, says Green, is an area Anglo kids have dubbed Crack Square, where drugs are bought and sold within the English-speaking teenage community. “They don’t branch out and sell to the general Israeli public,” she explains. “They’re not doing it for the drug dealing and they don’t want to be criminals. There’s some sort of rush that comes with drug dealing: they’re providing something that makes people feel good, and that makes them feel good.”

Green says that she’s seen a number of Anglo teens arrested and sent to jail. A lot of the younger kids at Crossroads, she adds, have probation officers. As part of Crossroads’ outreach program, social workers from the organization “work the streets” a few nights a week and try to locate at-risk-teens. “We monitor how drunk or high they are and try to make that initial connection,” Green says.

Betty Shor, a Canadian-born social worker who has been with Crossroads for two years, says that if a fight breaks out or an Anglo teen overdoses, she is often on the street, late at night, ready to bring the involved parties to the emergency room. “I see the kids in their own environment,” says the 27-year-old, who by her own admission looks closer to 18. “Kids are shocked when they hear that I’m a social worker – A lot of kids aren’t ready for traditional therapy, but when I am with them on the street, they are more ready. I’m on their turf.”

Shor and the other Crossroads social workers say they know between 600 and 700 English-speaking Israeli “problem” teens. Of that number, Crossroads is working, on some level, with about 150 of them. “We don’t expect them to come to us,” says Green. “But having a social worker to talk to in their environment makes kids more willing and comfortable to talk to us when they have a problem.”

The Crossroads headquarters, a 10-room office that also doubles as the center, is located only steps away from Zion Square, and opens its doors every Sunday to Thursday at three o’clock for drop-in hours. Social workers are available for teenagers who want to talk, or need help finding a job, but most of the kids, explains Green, come to the Center to listen to music, watch television, or check their e-mail.

“There is a stigma about asking for help,” she says. “But someone can come here and use the Internet, no questions asked; if a kid comes for a long time, then we sit with them and take down their information.” The center, says Green, gives kids something to do on any given afternoon. “They’re used to being here and so they feel more comfortable asking for help when they need it.”

Any teen that uses Crossroads’ services and asks for help finding shelter, a place to eat, or a job, is required to have a session with a Crossroads social worker. “Our goal is to be a place,” says Green, who doesn’t advertise the center’s services, leaving that exclusively to word of mouth. “Kids bring their friends here all the time,” she says.

The hours of six to 10 P.M. are the most structured time at the center: The television is turned off, and three nights a week Crossroads hosts group activities like cooking, photography, or movie night. “We offer life skills, like cooking, but also recreational activities so that the kids realize that it’s not just drugs or alcohol that are fun,” Green says.

A lot of the Crossroads regulars, like Sarah, have weekly meetings with the staff social workers, and on any given night, between 30 and 50 teens pass through the center. Crossroads also offers a preparation course for the GED, which is recognized in the U.S. as a high school equivalency degree. The course is popular with Crossroads’ North American clientele, many of whom are high school dropouts. Sarah is Israeli-born, but she too is enrolled in the course.

Zoe says that the center “is a better place than the streets,” but he’s not sure it’s the right place for him anymore. “A lot of the kids here are still in the scene and it’s the scene I don’t want to be in anymore. When I walk down the street, I still know everyone – the bar owners, the club owners. People still stop me and ask me if I can get them weed [Marijuana]. The only thing I can do is turn my back and walk away.”

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Categories Uncategorized | Tags: | Posted on November 21, 2003

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