In a narrow Jerusalem alley a few blocks away from the souvenir shops of Ben Yehuda Street, a former drug addict who wants to be called Shimon is telling me the story of his horrific childhood.
Born into a large Chasidic family in Eilat, Shimon and his 11 siblings were repeatedly raped by their father. The father was eventually arrested and sent to prison, where he is serving a 10-year term.
At 12, Shimon turned to the streets -- and drugs. He sniffed glue, drank, smoked. He tried to commit suicide twice. After two years, a friend pushed him toward a program called Susan's House.
Now 17, Shimon sleeps at a psychiatric institution at night. But during the day he reports for work at Susan's House, an on-the-job training center for Jerusalem's most troubled teens. Shimon works under the guidance of caring adults, including some of Israel's most acclaimed artists who create beautiful crafts for sale worldwide.
"The place really helps me," he says of Susan's House. "It gives me self-confidence."
I thought of my visit to Susan's House this week because so much of the news from Israel was of a particularly nasty sort. Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, vandalized an art installation by Israeli-born Dror Feiler, setting a sorry example for the rest of the world; Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, is set to wed in a prison ceremony ("I want a grandchild already," his mother told Israel's daily Ma'ariv); and outside Israel's soccer stadiums, Jewish fans have been regularly shouting slogans such as "Death to Arabs" at Israeli Arab players and flinging rocks at them, apparently without fear of repercussion from Israeli authorities.
There is no doubt that the combined effects of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and the collapse of the Israeli economy have contributed to a social coarsening. Homelessness, hunger, drug abuse, alcoholism and school violence are growing problems; academic scores are plummeting to what one analyst called "pathetic" levels; and the ruling Likud Party is in the midst of a scandal that parades tales of bribes, underworld thugs and payoffs across the front pages. The Israeli press is full of eulogies for a kinder, gentler nation. Two weeks ago, Education Minister Limor Livnat warned of "marginal groups with economic interests, including criminal interests, who are trying to take over the ruling party."
And she's a member of the ruling party.
The American Jewish dream of Israel has always been rosier than the reality. But these problems, along with the ongoing political crisis in the Middle East, threaten to enlarge a cultural gulf between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.
That's why visiting Susan's House, as I did last November, felt so reassuring. Eyal Kaplansky is a successful diamond merchant whose counterculture beard and clothes hide a savvy business mind. He dreamed with his wife, Susan, of memorializing a young friend by starting a home to help troubled teens. A year after planning began, Susan died of cancer, and Kaplansky continued the project in her memory. Now in business two years, the home provides a last chance for the increasing number of wayward Israeli youth in Jerusalem.
"I thought that the Jewish people don't rape, abuse or kick their kids," Kaplansky told me, "and I found out the Jewish people do all these things. We're getting the toughest kids off the street."
Susan's House rents a series of small rooms in an old stone building. About 20 teens sit at work stations creating extraordinarily beautiful crafts of glass beads and homemade paper. Renowned papermaker Zvi Tolkovsky and glassmaker Louis Sakolovsky of the Bezalel Academy helped Susan's House establish the training program. Kaplansky combines the artistic endeavors with lessons in business.
"These kids are scared of the grown-up world," he says. "But we teach them if you know the game and play by the rules you can make it."
Kaplansky knows because he was one of the kids. Rebellious and heavily involved with drugs, he turned his own life around. "I knew that if these kids could survive the streets they could accomplish a lot," he says.
The organization has a $250,000 annual budget. There are five paid staff, 22 kids and a huge waiting list. Susan's House doesn't look to the government for help, because, Kaplansky says, the government is cutting budgets anyway and the red tape would suffocate the endeavor. Instead, Kaplansky tries to expand his project through individual donors and the sale of items in bulk to businesses and institutions around the world (the next time your organization needs items for charity banquets, think of buying them through Susan's House, www.kys.org.il/susanhome.html).
It is a model Israeli-created charity, and it is not alone. Amid adversity, Israelis are taking it upon themselves to soften their society's edges. The number of nonprofit associations has swelled to 35,000, according to a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev study, and 77 percent of all Israelis contribute to charity (compare that to 50 percent of Europeans).
"After the streets," Shimon told me of Susan's House, "it is a place I can come and feel like family."
Treating one another like family -- wasn't that the ideal of the Jewish State from the start?
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