That precious moment, when from beneath the stereotype of the "addict," the "junkie," the face of a youth - almost a child - emerges and something in his gaze beseeches: Look at me, notice me.
Lights out was declared at the Magal rehabilitation center in the Lifta neighborhood of west Jerusalem at 11 P.M. The patients - 12 boys and three girls - lay quietly in their beds, listening to their MP3 players and winding down from the day's tumultuous events.
"They are exhausted," Moshe Kron, 61, the center's founder and its director for the past 17 years, told me. "There are people here who've never been in an intimate relationship with a partner, a friend, or anyone, without being high or drunk. Suddenly they're without their crutches and protective armor. Suddenly their emotions surface and they feel exposed. It overcomes and exhausts them; they can't deal with it by themselves."
At Magal they learn to be themselves again, though who they are is no longer clear.
"I lost the cute kid I used to be, the kid that applied himself and crammed for school," Sasha, a slim youth born in Russia, said. (To protect their identities, all the names of the patients in this article are aliases.) "I lost my faith in my family and myself," he says.
And what are his hopes for the future? "The future?" the 18-year-old replied. "I can't see it. My dreams have vanished; all I see is the past, that's all."
Despite his delicate features he projects rigidity and danger, as though he were warning me not to feel empathy or compassion toward him. "It's my second time here. First time I stopped on the 44th day. I left Magal. I was high on LSD and the police caught me walking naked in the street and took me to a mad house."
Yesterday morning he was involved in a bitter confrontation with Avner, a youth of Ethiopian origin, during a group discussion. "The blacks fled the war in Africa and came to our country to ruin it," he lashed out.
"To this day I don't have an answer why I started with it," Neta, a sharp and opinionated 18-year-old girl, said. "I've done everything except for crack and heroin. I'm pretty kind-of in love with self-destruction and knew that using it was bad for me, made the storm rage within. But I loved it. I always wanted to get to that complete point zero, complete oblivion, to be there. Why? Because it reinforces my sense that 'I deserve it,' I deserve oblivion."
Ya'ela sat beside us and listened to Neta. "We all go through crises in life, and not everybody wants to be living dead," she told her. "That's our situation here. We're living dead."
Ya'ela is a 19-year-old girl from Tel Aviv. Her face is pretty and pure. She has large eyes and a look of strength and maturity. "I've been an addict from the age of 14 and I'm happy it happened to me, the drugs, because it let me reach many good and difficult places within. It gave me a different awareness, a deeper one. There's a stage in life when the most legitimate thing to do is to act the way you feel. If you feel like shit then you better reach out for that point, be the shittiest you can be. Broaden your spectrum of emotions."
So why did you come here for rehab?
"Because it didn't suit me anymore. I'd been there, got it and made the most of it. Now I want to be well."
Will you succeed?
"Certainly, this is my first and last time in rehab and I'll make it."
At Magal they know some of the patients will return to the streets and some will be back. I met a patient for whom it was his sixth time in rehab. The center is funded mostly by the Ministry of Health with some participation by the patients' families. It is short of funds, yet still well-maintained and provides a real sense of home.
Kron, the center's director, is a friend of mine. We have been friends for almost 30 years. He is a very practical idealist. His presence and touch are felt everywhere around the center. "There's something about reaching out to these girls and boys that's dear to me," he says. "Teenagers have a charm, the charm of people in transition, in a process, changing. They are like buds and soon they will open up - if they are given a chance."
He adds: "There are girls and boys here who have done shocking things. They stole, robbed, stabbed and were sexually exploited in every possible way."
According to Israel Anti-Drug Authority data, 84,000 teenagers between the age of 12 and 18 used drugs over the past year. Only seven drug rehabilitation centers operate in Israel, and Magal is the only one licensed by the Ministry of Health to treat youths.
At 10 P.M. the group meets for their last group discussion before bedtime. They sit quietly, lost in thought. They look like they could be kids in any other classroom in Israel. Then Sasha unexpectedly turned to Avner and apologized about the racial slur he made against him earlier in the day. "I made a big mistake when I said those things to you, and I'm sorry if I hurt you," he said.
I could not fall asleep during the night I spent at Magal. I was overwhelmed by the troubled life stories. I was moved by the young people I met, by the delicate and tender way in which, for the large part, they treated each other. Only they understood the personal hell each was going through. Every one of them carried a history of mistakes, of misery, ruthlessness and loss. But the atmosphere at Magal - the respect that every boy and girl receives there - fills it with a sense of charity.
I lay in bed and thought wondrously how, amid the alienation and indifference of the harsh Israeli reality, such islands - stubborn little bubbles of care, tenderness and humanity - still exist.
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