For many women, getting their hair done is an activity that’s only partly related to hair at all. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about highlights and split ends. But discussions about the pros and cons of conditioning masks tend to quickly veer off into other realms. Work problems are aired, relationships analyzed, life’s frustrations admitted and secrets spilled.
This universal fact of life got Leora Kessel thinking. It was 2003 and she was just about to open – along with cofounder Mirit Sidi – the first Women’s Courtyard at the intersection of the three poorest neighborhoods in Jaffa (just south of Tel Aviv). The idea behind the nonprofit was to offer a safe space to any teenage or young woman, usually in some sort of distress, who needed somewhere to hang out and just be herself.
Coaching and therapy were offered. So was private tutoring, help in liaising with community agencies, legal aid, various training courses and emergency interventions when needed. But more exciting – to many in the neighborhood – was the free, professional hair salon that the founders added in a moment of inspiration.
With its door propped open, cozy couches, hot food cooking in the kitchen and smoking area out back, the Courtyard attracts a range of visitors today. Jews, Christians and Muslims show up. Gay, straight and transgender people check out the premises. Bedouin who have run away from home; Ethiopians who have quit school; pregnant single-mother immigrants from Russia... all are welcome, no questions asked and no unsolicited advice given.
Some are suffering from terrible abuse or other problems. Others just have no one to talk to at home. All, it seems, are happy about the free cuts and blow-drys.
What’s the catch?
“At first the girls were trying to figure out what ‘the catch’ was,” says Shani Werner, who runs the Haifa branch of the Women’s Courtyard in northern Israel. “These are not the kind of girls who feel they deserve much. But when they slowly realized that they weren’t being tricked, they relaxed.
“Our philosophy is that the girls know better than anyone else what they need,” she adds. “We’re here for them if they want to figure out how to dig their way out of debt, need to find a doctor, or are interested in finding a job that is not, say, working the front door at a strip club for under-the-table cash. But they could also come in for a whole year and just do their roots, have some lunch and say nothing.”
The success of the model allowed the nongovernmental organization to expand: There are now four Women’s Courtyard branches around the country, as well as a fashion store in Jaffa where some of the project’s members receive training and are employed.
With an annual budget of $4 million – including many gifts in kind – the network employs 37 full- and part-time staffers who work alongside dozens of volunteers.
About half of the funding comes from foundations and private donors, with the rest – in a nod to the organization’s effectiveness – coming from various government agencies and the municipalities in which the Courtyards are active.
Kessel says the different branches each welcome an average of 300 girls and women between the ages of 13 and 25 every year, with the majority returning regularly. And while the salons are intended to lure at-risk individuals to the centers, they are far more than a gimmick, Kessel stresses: They symbolize everything the Courtyards stand for – starting with respect for the women who come through their doors.
“Actually, most of the more important revelations and discussions take place outside of the salon – but here is where it starts,” says social worker Avigail Hatzor-Sivan – who runs the Netanya branch in central Israel. That branch is located in Hefziba, a neighborhood that is almost entirely populated by Israelis of Ethiopian origin and has over 50 percent unemployment.
“One’s defenses go down when sitting there in the salon, looking in the mirror. It’s a vulnerable moment,” adds Hatzor-Sivan. “We use that moment to wrap these girls in love and care. For them, sometimes it’s the first time they can trust someone to touch them. And that’s when things begin to happen.”
Lunch and sympathy
Haifa branch stylist Zhanna Vinokur has been a fixture at that Courtyard since it opened three years ago, in the low-income neighborhood of Hadar.
On a recent Monday, she was busy brushing a thick coat of bleach onto a 20-year-old’s black hair. The girl, a regular, had walked in earlier, crying, and announced her intention to make a “big change.” Disregarding some pushback from Vinokur, who suggested a less extreme color, the young woman settles in for the day.
With a towel wrapped around her head and an hour or more to wait, the young woman wanders into the common room to have a bite of lunch – hamburgers, chopped salad and baked cauliflower – watch some television and catch up with friends lounging around. Noticing a postcard falling off the bulletin board, she tacks it back up. “You were born because you are going to be important to someone,” it reads.
“I’m not the kind of person who usually opens up,” says the soon-to-be platinum blonde who goes by the name “Marvelous.” She’s not sure what her father is up to, or where he is, and her mother is in a psychiatric ward. A younger sister is living with a relative in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.
“I can’t say I have a home,” says Marvelous. “But I guess I would say that here I feel okay.”
She was crying earlier, she says, because a friend from the public housing project had convinced her to pluck her eyebrows – to arguably disastrous results. “That’s why,” Marvelous explains, her voice trailing off, “and [there are] other not-great things, too.”
Maybe later, she will discuss them with someone, she adds. Or maybe not. In any case, she will be back tomorrow.
This article first appeared in Haaretz.