Cruising the Country in a 'Fellowship Van,' Elem Volunteers Give At-risk Youths Somewhere to Turn

The non-profit organization offers late-night advice, support, and practical help to teens who would otherwise be on the streets.

The staff of the Elem non-profit organization for youth-at-risk does some of its best work after midnight. Recently three teenagers were sitting at a bus stop in the Jesse Cohen neighborhood of Holon at 1:30 in the morning when Aharon Ben Schimmel, patrolling the area in one of Elem's 15 "fellowship vans," invited them to attend an evening meeting for teens. The meetings are held once a week, in a public park in the neighborhood.

Maor, one of the youths (their names have been changed to protect their identities), seemed receptive to the idea. He told Ben Schimmel that he spends most of his time on the streets. Ben Schimmel suggested that Maor and his parents meet with a municipal social worker. Maor then asked Ben Schimmel for help. "We have a crazy neighbor who yelled at me. His mother says that I hit him with a stick. I'm afraid to stay home and I sleep at my grandmother's." Maor was not satisfied with an Elem business card noting meeting times. He asked Ben Schimmel for his phone number so that "I'll know that it's you calling me." His request was granted.

Members of the Elem team meeting with youths in Ofakim.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Elem's "fellowship vans", operating in cooperation with The International Felloship of Christians and Jews, visit 20 Israeli cities weekly. Its staff includes 49 employees and 230 volunteers who meet young people in the street at night and sit down with them over hot tea, cookies and games of shesh-besh (backgammon). They listen to the youths' problems and do what they can to help them.

Lior, a 16-year-old from Holon, regularly participates in the weekly meetings in Holon. He works mornings painting roads, and plays shesh-besh in the park at night. "I come here because there's nothing for me to do at home," he says, "a friend of mine came once to meet [the Elem workers] but in the end he was sent to a reformatory because of some nonsense. It's too bad. They could have helped him."

In its 2011 annual report, Elem recorded a 50 percent increase in the number of kids under 14 who turned to the organization for help, for a total of 2,400. Of the 4,739 young men and women who received help from Elem's fellowship vans, half were between the ages of 16 to 18.

'I don't want to end up working in some factory'

Dozens of young men are waiting in a public park in Ofakim for the Elem van to arrive. Motti, an 18-year-old resident of the city, was recently arrested with two friends, both of whom are minors, on suspicion of property theft and drug possession. He was quickly released but the others are under house arrest. "It's crowded here on Wednesdays when the van arrives," he said. "There's nothing to do in Ofakim. The only place where we could go out closed because people were smoking there, and so we sit outside and sometimes do stupid things."

Next to Motti is Shlomi, who is telling Adir, an ultra-Orthodox volunteer, that in July he will realize his dream of enlisting in the Golani combat brigade in the army. At first the army exempted him from service, after he was involved in several violent incidents, but the Elem staff helped him to achieve his goal of becoming a soldier. "I wanted to serve in Golani like my big brother," he said, "but I did stupid things and the exemption upset me. I told the people here [at the Elem van] and Michal Feldman, the director, offered to help and speak to the army. After a second meeting, I received my enlistment orders. It's funny, because people go to the [army entrance] exams and get around them on purpose. I really wanted [to enlist]. I don't want to end up working in some factory in Ofakim."

Despite their concern and desire to assist, Elem staff members can't always help young men and women in distress. Feldman tells of a pregnant 15-year-old who chose to keep the baby only because she thought it would help her boyfriend in criminal legal proceedings being conducted against him. Feldman could not change the teen's mind. "I accompanied her to a gynecologist, but all I could do was explain that [pregnancy] would change her life completely. I referred her to welfare authorities and my role ended there."

Encounters that lead to violence

The young people who attend Elem meetings in Tel Aviv's Gan Meir, a park in the center of the city, are different than those in other places. Most of them come from outside of Tel Aviv, but come to Tel Aviv because they feel freer in the big city. "Sometimes kids come here when they're drunk, but they know they may not bring alcohol with them," says Rona Eliazar, a member of the Elem team.

"Some boys have short fuses," says Eliazar. "And so this place, which attracts all different types of people - and sometimes incompatible types - is often witness to the easiest and most familiar solution, a fistfight." But the volunteers try to make sure issues are resolved. After a fight broke out at a recent meeting, volunteer Moran Cohen followed up with Alon, one of those involved in the fight, at the next meeting. Alon told Cohen that he apologized to Hannan, the boy with whom he fought. Alon studies at a boarding school in the north of the country and says that he finds various excuses to leave and attend Elem meetings in Tel Aviv.

One of the Elem volunteers who receives the most hugs from the youths is 60-year-old Roni Zilha. "I have been volunteering the longest, and apparently the young people sense this," Zilha says. "Maybe they connect to me as a father figure, which some don't have at home. Sometimes, they do have father figures, but only intermittently, and so they don't trust him. These doubts don't exist here."

16-year-old Itai was attacked a few months ago because of his sexual orientation. He usually attends Elem meetings at the Bar Noar center for gay youths, close to Gan Meir. He says the meetings offer "a place with someone to talk to and to think things over with, without the barriers I encounter at home."