Ethiopian Youths Ousted From Center in Favor of Newly Religious

Kiryat Gat municipality to close only youth center in the city serving at-risk Ethiopian youth.

The Kiryat Gat municipality will close the only youth center in the city serving Ethiopian adolescents in the afternoons, and intends to convert its home into a center for Torah study for the newly religious.

Ephraim Awaka, the director of the Fidel Youth Crisis Intervention Center, as the facility for Ethiopians is known, said following the decision, "We've been able to largely reduce the problems of loitering and vandalism. Now all these achievements are in danger. There is no justification or logic in harming our educational system."

Deputy Mayor Shulamit Sahalo said in response that the decision was aimed at "widening the activity at the facility to other communities, without harming the center itself."

Some 140 students in grades 7-12 participate in a variety of enrichment and leisure programs at the center, which is operated by the organization Ethiopian Youth Outreach in Israel. Most of them are considered to be at risk of exposure to criminal activity, and a large portion of them arrive directly after classes at one of the nearby high schools, remaining at the center until evening.

Strewn about the facility's entrance are signs and posters highlighting the youths' struggle against the closure. "Our second home is not for sale," reads one. Inside are posted letters and photographs of U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration day - "A model of success for us, too," Awaka said. Several weeks ago, he said, the municipality ordered the center to "begin operating a framework for 'returning' members of the Ethiopian community to the religious fold."

Religion classes are scheduled to be held three times a week, during the same hours that the center has been operating its youth programs, and Awaka says a request has been made that "girls not be in the area, so that there is no contact, as they do not dress sufficiently modestly."

The center's director added that "the order was that either we let the religious activities enter, or we get out. Serving the newly religious is not part of our operating plan. We have nothing against religion, but this decision comes at the expense of the needs of our youth."

Staff at the center said they received a letter from Sahalo a week ago stating that they were "operating without authorization. You are asked to immediately leave the structure, and to hand the keys to the municipality's director of properties." Thus far the Fidel center has refused to accede to the municipality's order.

Sahalo vigorously refuted this version of events. "We want to expand the programs available to the Ethiopian community. We contacted the center's director and asked him to provide services to other communities, which also have rights," she said, adding that since he refused to operate joint activities during afternoons, he was asked to operate the youth programs only in the morning. Fidel center staff said the only communication they had received from the municipality was the evacuation order.