N. is just 16 but he speaks and acts like someone who has founded a protest movement. On a Saturday two weeks ago, with the snow coming down in Jerusalem, he and about 20 other homeless youths who live near Zion Square downtown, took their sleeping bags to Safra Square, in front of City Hall, and announced they would remain there until Mayor Uri Lupolianski agreed to meet them.
This was preceded by a letter that N. sent the mayor, in which he demanded that the youths be involved in decisions that affected them. "As the representative of the youths in distress in Jerusalem, I am appealing to you," he wrote. "In the city center, there are now dozens if not hundreds of youth in distress, who urgently need the municipality's help."
The mayor did not reply. In the mayor's place, Lupolianski's deputy mayor Yigal Amedi went to the youths that Saturday night and offered that they move to a hostel intended for youth at risk. They refused. Only after receiving a written commitment that their claims would be looked into did N. and his comrades agree to evacuate the square, and were transported by municipal snow-clearing vehicles to the city's emergency headquarters.
A few of them later decided to go back on foot to the city center. The decision came at a high cost to some of them, N. included, who had to be hospitalized for frostbite. But the action caused a stir and the following day they received the contribution of a tent, which was immediately designated to be their official protest tent.
At first, city officials tried to play down the protest angle. "This is a bunch of youths who are not finding themselves," says Amedi. "They are rejecting services that already exist for them."
Last Tuesday, N. and his friends returned to Safra Square with their sleeping bags. Media exposure produced results. Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Knesset Committee for Advancement of the Status of the Child, turned up at the square and promised to help; members of the city council from the Meretz faction wrote to the mayor. "Even [United Torah Judaism's Moshe] Gafni called," says N. Apparently because most of the youths I know in the square are shababnikim (alienated ultra-Orthodox).
Amedi says he convened all of the welfare bodies in the municipality to look at the problem and to hear about ways to treat it. The problem of homeless youth in Jerusalem, he says, was eliminated several years ago. "At the time, we would go out at night, and check on all of their hangouts, but not a single teenager was left sleeping outside. Maybe we should be doing the same thing again." An appointment was made for them in the municipality on Sunday, but due to the No. 14 bus bombing that morning, the meeting was postponed, first to Wednesday and then to Monday.
N., a slender, serious-looking young man who looks younger than his age, feels that the municipality reveals its disparaging attitude. "The problem is that we don't wear rags or sleep in cardboard cartons in the street," he says. "At night, we vanish into our hideouts, and that way the municipality can ignore it and think that there are no homeless youths in the city."
The protest is real, says N., and dozens of young people subscribe to it. A few days before the snow, he succeeded in bringing dozens of them to a demonstration in front of City Hall, one that was well-planned and organized. Throughout the day, flyers were distributed to the teenage boys and girls, courtesy of a print shop, informing them of the time and place of the demonstration.
N. even went to the trouble of receiving a police permit, and invited the media. "Let educators deal with us, not social workers," read some of the signs. Others simply read: "Help."
The idea of banding homeless youths together began by chance, says N. It began with a conversation during which the fierce cold caused them to feel even more abandoned and despairing than usual. Nevertheless, when N. suggested sending a petition to the mayor, his best friends A. and M., erupted into laughter and could not stop laughing all day long. But the next day he started collecting signatures. Within hours, he gathered 346 signatures, appended them to a long handwritten letter to the mayor, and went to City Hall to submit the petition in person.
N. claims that the number of street kids is at least double the number of signatories - this includes the homeless and others currently living at home and studying in educational frameworks but who are at risk of dropping out.
"We asked ourselves how we might get better services from the officials that deal with us," he says. He then proposed an idea of his own - a study and social center for youths that would also serve as a residential hostel, and would be managed by young people who had graduated from "the street," in collaboration with the young people living there.
He wrote a detailed proposal that he intends to present at Monday's meeting. In general, N. believes in the power of the youths to contribute, and in this spirit phoned the hospitals after Sunday's terrorist attack, and offered volunteers from among his colleagues to provide support to wounded age-peers.
N. grew up in an American Haredi family living in Ramot, the mostly religious neighborhood in northwest Jerusalem. He is the fourth of nine siblings. His parents are born-again Jews who immigrated to Israel and found religion even before he was born. N. says he never fit into the yeshiva education he was given, but adds dryly, "when I wanted to learn, I learned. I had a good mind."
Eight months ago, his parents threw him out of the house after he renounced Orthodoxy. Since then, he has made the rounds of various frameworks. He spent two months in Etnachta, a hostel for homeless youth that he describes as a "rigid framework with prison rules." Then there was Manof, an institution in Acre where he began studying for a high-school matriculation. But after three months there, N. ran away, and returned to Jerusalem, joined an apartment rented by friends from his Etnachta days, and began working in a supermarket.
The idyll soon ended. First he was fired from his job because of cutbacks, and three weeks ago, the landlord grew weary of the masses of homeless youths who would crowd into the small apartment. He gave N. and his friends an hour to leave. They are aware that they paid a steep price for extending the hospitality, but they say these are the laws they live by.
"When you have an apartment, you don't have the heart to leave your friends outside. You know that one day they will have a place to sleep and then you will need them," say N. and A. Ever since then, they have had to sleep in stairwells and hiding places in buildings around the city.
N. is surrounded by a close knot of seven other young people who together function as a political kitchen. "We bound around and sift through every idea together," says A., 17, another ex-Haredi, who like his colleagues prefers to remain unnamed. Some of the young people feel that N. is being over-exposed, and that this exposure might cost him his freedom.
This is one reason for the appeal to the media, says N. "I know that nothing happens in this country without the media, but the other reason has to do with protection. This way I know they can't make me disappear into some closed institution."
N. and his friends expressed a skepticism bordering on hostility for the social workers, who to them represent the establishment. "We have a lot of good friends who from the moment they ran away from home were served with court injunctions, and were put away in an institution, even though their lives were not in danger," says N.
"Have you ever see a locked-down dormitory?" asks A., who is curled up on the steps of Beit Agron, a black winter hat on her head, piercings in her nose and lips. "It's a prison. When you're there, your life is simply in a state of suspension."
Simhat, 20 is sitting on the porch of Hut Meshulash - "three-fold cord," from a verse in Ecclesiastes, "A three-fold cord cannot easily be broken," in the downtown neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva. Hut Meshulash is a Chabad drop-in center that has become a hangout for the street youth.
Simhat is "five years out," as she puts it, and is waiting for the moment she can unroll her sleeping bag and go to sleep. She knows all of the rants and raves, and concurs with them.
But she is more sober about the facts of life than N. "Of course I would be happy if there would be a revolution here," she says, admitting that at first she laughed at him, until she saw him speaking with members of Knesset, "but I am afraid that what happened to Vicky Knafo will happen to him. After everyone swooped down on her, she was forgotten. She hasn't accomplished a thing."
N., too, is afraid that he will only get promises without anything to back them up, but in the meantime he wants to maintain the good atmosphere. He has not yet put up the protest tent, preferring to wait at least until after Monday's meeting. And then what?
City officials have tried to create the impression that the protest of N. and his band is not entirely authentic, and that it is a front for Chaya Batya Auerbach, a Haredi woman who wants to set up an independent Haredi center for youth in distress in Jerusalem.
These allegations were raised after N. asked to have Auerbach, a recently discharged municipality worker, attend a meeting set for him at the municipality. N. knows Auerbach from his old neighborhood, and says that she did a great deal to help him, mainly through good advice. He is incensed at the attempt to link her with his activity. "They're trying to play political games with us that I don't understand, and divert the subject from the distress of the young people," he says.
Auerbach says that she supports the activities of N. and his friends, and that she got involved mainly because she is concerned about them. "I warned him that if he wants them to hear what he has to say, he must make sure that there is no violence," she says.
"Their claims are justified. There are many frameworks in the city, but they offer partial solutions. One serves food, another gives you clothing. There is a lack of places that offer a comprehensive response, of work, study and place to live. You have to listen to them and to change things." She emphasizes that there is no connection between the activity of the youths and her own center, which she says would be for Haredim, whereas N. and his colleagues are speaking of a broad-spectrum center. (T.R.)
He'll try to push for the center he is dreaming of, and is hoping that the protest by the Jerusalem youths will encourage young people in Tel Aviv and elsewhere to go out and demonstrate, too.
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