The ultra-Orthodox Teen Trying to Save Jerusalem's Homeless Youth Every Night

She’s only 18 herself, but for the past two years Tova Safranai has been devoting her life to helping youths living on the streets of Jerusalem

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Safranai.
Safranai. Credit: Emil Salman
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell me about yourself.

I’m 18, ultra-Orthodox, married and live in Ramat Raziel [a moshav in the Judean Hills]. Two years ago, I founded a nonprofit called Groundless Love – Giving for the Sake of Giving (Ahavat Hinam – Latet Bishvil Latet). Its goal is to provide warmth, love, attention, clothing and food to at-risk youth. Before I established it, I acquired the knowledge and tools to know what I would be dealing with. Through the Jerusalem Municipality I was trained in dealing with at-risk and dropout youth.

Weekend banner.

Interesting that you mentioned the psychological needs instead of the physical ones – the warmth and love – before the food.

Because what made these kids take to the streets and descend into drug use, crime, prostitution and violence, is lack of love. That’s what these street youths have in common – and they come from all population groups: religious and secular, right and left, Jews, Arabs, Christians, new immigrants and foreign nationals. Every group imaginable. We try to care for all, extend a hand to everyone. I give them space to say their piece, to tell and share. I don’t judge them, and they know that. I only want to give them love and support.

Jerusalem has a relatively high concentration of at-risk street youth.

They come to Jerusalem because everything is possible there, because it has such a diverse population, in the same way that folks from the central part of the country converge on Tel Aviv. Jerusalem attracts them because it has so many places where they can live.

Where can they be found?

Where can’t they be found? Jerusalem is full of alleys, basements, abandoned buildings, and they gravitate toward them. They organize hangouts on roofs, in stairwells, in garbage rooms, in rooms for strollers, in parks and gardens. Some kids live under children’s slides in playgrounds. You have to remember that there are also children on the streets, not just teens. There are children of 9 who wander the streets of Jerusalem. That’s a fact.

About a month ago, Elem, another nonprofit that works with at-risk youth, published a report about their situation during the coronavirus crisis. It turns out that from March to May of this year, Elem handled more cases than in the whole of 2019.

The coronavirus pandemic was and still is a very serious blow. I also received a huge wave of requests. The lockdown period was the only time when I was forced to stop my ongoing activity. I couldn’t go into the street, but the requests didn’t stop coming. The streets filled up with more and more children and teens who have been mistreated and experienced violence and sexual abuse at home. Familes were all shut in together, like in a pressure cooker, and the situation at home, which was grim to begin with, only grew worse. Where there had been poverty, now there was hunger too; where there had been occasional violence, now there was violence all the time. Everything became extreme, and many children and teenagers were pushed into the street.

What made these kids take to the streets is lack of love. They come from all population groups: religious and secular, right and left, Jews, Arabs, Christians, new immigrants and foreign nationals.

Safranai

What about those who were already on the street?

Just as terrible: They were exposed to extremely rough violence from the police. When all the gardens and parks, and all kinds of places they were used to being in, were closed because of the coronavirus regulations, the police tried to drive them away and told them to go home. But they had nowhere to go. There were clashes with the police. They were beaten up. They were shocked with tasers. These are street children: No one cares about them. Who’s going to look for them, who will ask what happened to them? I think the police sweep a lot of things under the rug. After the lockdown I saw the injuries, the fractures.

A world away

It’s all so far from the world of a 16-year-old Haredi girl.

I was always drawn to it. My parents say that from the time I was a little girl of 4 or 5, when I saw the boys and girls who lived in the street, cast off, drugged, I would say, “They are elevated souls.” I understood there was no way they had ended up on the street by choice, or because they were bad. I understood that I could not really change the world, but I could do something. Instead of sitting around and torturing myself with the thought that there were boys and girls who were wandering the streets and that people were exploiting them and hurting them – I could go out into the street myself and try to help them. That was the beginning.

And you started by distributing sandwiches.

Yes. I made a great many sandwiches, really, the best there are. I bought bottled water and good chocolate bars. I put “With Love” stickers on all of them and went to Zion Square [in downtown Jerusalem]. I wasn’t yet married then. I was just over 16. I would stand there, late at night – 2 or 3 A.M. I told myself, “At least you’ll know that you extended a hand, that 500 kids will finish the night on a full stomach.”

And you paid for it yourself.

Yes. I bought all the items with my money and I prepared everything. And you know something? Not a lot of kids came to take [the food]. That surprised me. I was sure they would grab it. It took me time to realize that these kids – these “alley cats,” so to speak – sleep with one eye open. So many people have promised them things and disappointed them, that for them to come and take something was not so obvious [to them]..

And from a young Haredi woman, too.

Young people in Jerusalem’s Zion Square.
Young people in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. Credit: Emil Salman

It wasn’t easy, because they have so many stereotypes. They told themselves, “Yallah, here’s another pious woman coming to bait us, trick us and brainwash us.” You see? That was another obstacle I had to get over. I realized that it wasn’t enough to hand out sandwiches, that I had to find a way to gain their trust.

How?

It took time. I think the change started in the winter and had to do with my persistence. This problem – of street children in Jerusalem – is a well-known issue. [Investigative journalist] Amnon Levy did a TV program about it a few years ago. There are all kinds of organizations and nonprofits and good people that are trying to help. But at the height of the winter , none of them were still in the streets. Only I kept coming. I didn’t give in. It was cold, the way only Jerusalem at night can be cold. I saw the kids putting garbage bags on their feet, wearing them instead of shirts. It’s the kind of cold you can die from. It was heartbreaking.

A week later, I brought sweat suits, throw blankets, gloves, scarves. They were all snapped up in seconds. I think the change started there. I think that’s where they grasped that I had no personal agenda, that I was coming from a “pure” place, that I was stubborn, sitting with them in the cold, hugging and talking to them. They knew that I would always be there for them, that they could call me at 2 A.M. and I would help them.

Does that happen? Do they call you in the middle of the night?

Sure. A lot. It could be a guy who got tangled up with criminals and is in the Russian Compound [a central Jerusalem police station] and needs bail, or it could be a girl who woke up after getting high and finds herself in an Arab village and has no way to get back. They call and my husband I immediately help, or we send one of our activists. The moment I finish this conversation with you I’ll go up to make sandwiches that we’ll hand out tonight. As soon as I show up they run to me with hugs and ask “What’s happening?” “What’s up?” What a difference from the first weeks. After these two years, even the most suspicious of them are convinced that we’re there for the right reasons. Our stall is now a permanent fixture. I’m there, my activists are there, and the boys and girls know that we’re there because we want to help and want to listen.

How many children and teenagers do you meet on a given night?

Hundreds.

And how many of them are you in regular contact with?

Dozens.

When all the gardens and parks were closed because of the coronavirus regulations, the police tried to drive them away and told them to go home. But they had nowhere to go.

Safranai

Let’s talk a little about what you hear from them.

You’ll be surprised, as I was, too, but besides the kids who come from broken homes, who have dropped out, fled from boarding schools – some of those wandering the streets of Jerusalem have parents who could buy them the whole city. Rich. Famous. They have everything, but the children are on the street, because the parents are busy with their own affairs. Adolescents need love and support from home, otherwise they will go into the street to look for those things.

Naturally, money can’t compensate for emotional neglect. But you are describing a situation in which a child, because of neglect, is ready to go live in the street in such harsh conditions.

Yes, because there they feel as though they connected to something. All the money in the world is worthless if no one really sees you. For those who didn’t get that at home, money won’t help. I speak to them and that’s what they tell me. That you can burn the money, for all they care. Well, they’re adolescents, and at that age everything is more extreme.

You yourself are an adolescent.

That’s true, and I also find myself feeling extreme sometimes. These kids couldn’t care if someone buys them a Ferrari, and it doesn’t interest them that their parents want to send them to the most expensive psychologists. They want someone who will believe in them.

‘Plenty of drugs’

What does the routine of street life look like?

There are drugs, and plenty of them. Some also get lured into crime – hanging out with criminals a little, threatening people a little, collecting money a little. They get their hands on drugs, each according to their financial wherewithal, and go sit with friends. They drink, smoke, do drugs. They go to look for a place to sleep, and then the next day, they start all over again. They don’t really succeed in working, so a lot of them choose the supposedly “natural” solutions – like drug dealing.

They are very vulnerable to exploitation.

Tova Safranai
Tova Safranai.Credit: Emil Salman

Obviously. The street is an ABC of exploitation. And of boys, too, not just girls. Many adult men wander the streets at night. The “predators,” I call them. They look for someplace to find release. They’re experts at finding youths like these, throwing them 500 shekels [around $150], and away we go. Some look for the young ones, the children. A man like that can meet a half-drunk girl in Cats Square [in downtown Jerusalem] and tell her, “Come with me, I’ll pamper you, I’ll buy you a phone.” He uses her body in return for something.

Or a girl like that goes into a bar and has no money, and the bartender will say to her, “I’ll give you a few chasers and french fries, but at the end you’re coming home with me.” A girl who hasn’t eaten for a few days, right? Who’s hungry – she’s not conscious. She will also sell her body for a pizza. There is also exploitation without anything in return. Many of these boys and girls use drugs like Nice Guy [a cannabis derivative sold at kiosks]. At the end of the night they don’t know what’s happening with them. Nice Guy causes all kinds of blackout phenomena, memory disconnects – and there are people who know how to take advantage of that, unfortunately.

Have you seen that happen or only heard about it?

I see it all the time. Forgive me, I don’t want to sound racist or anything, but I see it especially among people from Arab society. They show up in fancy cars, grab some girl who can barely walk and take her with them. I know quite a few girls whom that has happened to. They told me what was done to them. How they were abused. Not just sexually. Brutal violence.

Girls told you about things like that?

Yes, a lot of them. They showed me places where they were cut, they showed me burns. Many of the girls who wander the streets are in relationships of one kind or another with Arabs from East Jerusalem. Have you heard of Miriam Peretz?

The 19-year-old who was left to die in Beit Safafa [an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem] last year.

Exactly. He picked her up, gave her drugs, took her to his home and in the end let her die.

When we were told there is a hell and anyone who turns on the light on Shabbat will burn, I said it’s not so. Wake up. Turn on the light on Shabbat and see what happens. There is no hell, there is only love.

Safranai

Did you know her?

Yes. There are no few kids who are no longer with us. Quite a few kids I knew went to sleep at night and never got up in the morning.

Or they disappeared.

Definitely, there is a large number of missing girls. The police aren’t looking for them. The family isn’t looking for them. Who knows where they are and what happened to them. I think such girls arouse a great deal of cruelty in men. They’re castoffs, they don’t shower, they can be dirty and neglected, and then the man feels anger. It bothers him that he is even with a girl like that, so he beats her and abuses her, in order to get back at her.

One girl told me that when she was out of it, totally stoned, a few men loaded her into a car, drove her to Eilat, and there, on the beach, when she had woken up and was fully conscious, they abused her almost to death. She was hospitalized for three months. A girl of 13. She told me that the doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to have children.

Rough stories.

The roughest. At first those stories devastated me. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would come home and be unable to fall asleep. I can’t understand how it can be that this nightmare is actually reality.

Alienation and vocation

Let’s talk a little about the home you grew up in: a Haredi home in Bnei Brak – but it seems as though you received an unconventional education there.

The value of unconditional, nonjudgmental love was always present at home. Love for everyone, no matter whether the person was wearing a kippa or had a tattoo. Everyone is good, everyone is a human being, everyone deserves love and respect. That’s also the motto of our nonprofit – “We don’t have the sense to understand anyone, but we have a heart to love everyone.” I was taught at home to accept everyone, not to judge anyone, not to think that we are better. It’s something innate in me. To believe in every person, to see the good in every person, the little child within us, its soul.

That’s surprising, because you are part of a community that segregates itself strictly, whose survival depends on that segregation. And you are open not only to a different way of life, but to the backyard of that society. You even speak in its jargon.

That’s true, and it doesn’t deter me in the least. I grew up in Bnei Brak [a largely Haredi city], I attended a Hasidic educational institution. The worldview there, as in every community that wants to preserve itself, was very conservative, very codified. Even when I was still a girl I felt that my worldview clashed with the approach they wanted to implant in me. Let’s say, when we girls would go for an outing and see soldiers, I would look at them fondly, thinking to myself that they were sweet and how great it was that they’re guarding us. You know, with us, that is forbidden. I was taught from age zero that a soldier is less than a dog and that secular people are even less than that.

A clear hierarchy, and great efforts are invested to preserve it.

True, but I understood quite quickly that I can’t live with that lie. That I will not decide whether a person is good or bad by the way he looks or by what he wears. When the time came for high school, not one Hasidic institution in Bnei Brak would accept me, because of my opinions. People spat at me on the street. In Haredi society everyone knows everything about everyone, and I did not hide my views. When we were told in school that there is a hell and that anyone who turns on the light on Shabbat will burn in flames, I stood up and said it’s not so. Wake up. It doesn’t exist. Turn on the light on Shabbat and see what happens. There is no hell, there is only love.

I understood that there was good within me that I don’t have to hide, that perhaps this approach isn’t suitable for everyone, but that there’s no way it can be bad. I paid a price for it. I was boycotted. I also experienced violence from the pupils [in the girls seminary]. From the teachers. Some of the boys and girls I am taking care of now attended similar institutions: those who had the courage to doubt everything they had been told all their life, and in the end found themselves leaving home.

Did you also doubt the faith?

Not for a minute. I believe wholeheartedly. The Torah is not mistaken – the interpretation that was added to it over the years is mistaken. I believe that the Torah was given to us so that we would be better people, so we will possess virtues, so we will be good to one another. In the end I come back all the time to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Love every person as such, don’t cast them out, don’t distance people.

What did your parents say when they saw the price you were paying?

My parents only strengthened me. They had no trouble with my way of thinking, because they think the same. When no high school would accept me, my father said, “Well, then, what are you going to do now? Matriculation exams? What will they give you in life? Let’s do a real school of life. I will send you to study what you like to do, and that’s the only way you’ll get ahead. You don’t know English or mathematics well. All right, that’s important, but don’t give up, burst out into the world and prove to everyone that you can be a good person without mathematics and that you can succeed without English.”

I am happy that at the age of 18 I feel satisfaction, that I have managed to do things that people of 80 haven’t done. I know that when I’m 30 I won’t look back and regret not having done anything with myself.

You felt alienated in the society you grew up in, and you transformed that alienation into your vocation.

Look, I am a very sociable person and the loneliness was hard for me. It was painful. It hurt. I remember sitting at home and crying. Today I think that what I went through has helped me to understand more and to identify with the boys and girls I am looking after. I believe in that life; I believe in my path. I will not lose my belief because of what people think of me.

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