January 27, 2000
Lost in Jerusalem
The lean young man feels his way with a folding white stick between the tables of a yuppie Jerusalem cafe. His red-brown hair is trimmed short. His narrow chin bristles with adolescent stubble. He wears blue jeans, a gray tricot shirt and designer shades. The gunshot wound in his temple has scarred over.
A year ago, he almost died. In a classless British accent, he talks enigmatically about "the accident" that cost him his sight. According to one version, he tried to commit suicide. According to another, a friend shot him during a junkies' quarrel. It's best, I'm advised, not to ask. He orders a large mug of milky coffee.
He's been off the drugs and off the street for three months now. He's started to learn Braille, lives in a welfare apartment. He's getting help from his 70-year-old father, who lives in a predominantly American commuter settlement outside Jerusalem. Like a child who still counts his age in fractions of a year, he says he's 19 and a half.
The blind boy, who agrees to talk so long as I don't identify him, is one of a floating population of 100-150 homeless, English-speaking teenagers living rough around Zion Square in the center of town: the unsung failures of aliyah and Jewish studies tours.
One night last fall, the police picked him up in nearby Independence Park and charged him with selling pot. He'd been in jail before. But this time he was lucky. The police let him call Raquel Sanchez, the 36-year-old director of the Rose Institute, which bills itself as a "sanctuary for Anglo youth." Raquel, on tap 24-hours-a-day via her mobile phone, brought a volunteer lawyer. Between them, they persuaded a magistrate to release him to their care.
The blind boy, knowing and suspicious, had been on Raquel's books for six weeks before his arrest. "He checked me out," she smiles. "He called people in prison, he talked to people on the street, asked for a police report. He chose me."
It was probably the best choice he ever made. Raquel, the slender, Yeshiva University-educated daughter of a Venezuelan poet-diplomat and a New York Jewish mother, speaks the street kids' language. She cut her social-work teeth with Puerto Rican gangs on Coney Island. With her long black hair and dark, blue-shadowed eyes, she could audition for a part in West Side Story.
Raquel listens and consoles. She arranges counseling and rehabilitation, guides her charges through the labyrinths of an unsympathetic bureaucracy.
Some, like the blind boy, are the children of immigrants, who had a hard time adapting to their new country. "You live in a certain culture," he explains, "you go out to another culture." The schools are geared to absorb the mass influx of Russian speakers, but not the Anglo-American trickle.
Raquel estimates that 97 percent of her clients have dropped out of religious homes, or came to Israel in search of spirituality and didn't like what they found. "They're not necessarily anti-religious," she says, "just anti-everything."
The blind boy was one of them. "The big reason I left home," he says, "was that I didn't want religion forced on me. And in a religious community, if you don't conform you're pushed right out."
Another young rebel Raquel's been helping for three years was sent to a Jerusalem yeshiva by his Orthodox American parents in the hope that it would bring him back to the faith and to society. He wasn't interested in Talmud, he just wanted to get away.
"He dropped out of the yeshiva," she recounts. "He moved in with friends. They were all into drugs. He'd been involved in drugs back home since he was 12. Sometimes he lived in the park. I met him in jail. He was almost 18 and suicidal.
"We made a contract. If he wanted me to help him get out of jail, he would have to work hard to quit drugs, he would have to think hard about getting an education. If not, maybe he'd be better off in jail."
Other parents, she reports, send their problem children on Jewish Agency or study programs with fudged medical or mental health reports. They hope Israel will provide a wonder cure. It seldom does.
"By the time we meet them, they're in trouble, they're in crisis, they need to talk to somebody," she says. "We call the parents to bring them home. Sometimes the kids don't make it to the airport. Sometimes the parents send them straight back."
In Zion Square, Raquel expects no miracles. Nor do her clients. "You can always slip back," the blind Brit confides. "You're disconnected from your surroundings. It's a struggle every day with different moods." He rates his chances of rehabilitation at 70-80 percent. No less, but no more.
For more information about Raquel's project, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.