Mean Streets, Lost Kids

Once The Triangle String in Jerusalem begins to empty, it is a sign that the night is about to begin. The hostel, run by the Chabad Hasidic movement, is just the first station on the nightly itinerary of loitering youth who have dropped out of schools.

Dozens of teenagers, who have fallen through the cracks in the education system and abandoned their homes, flock to the spacious apartment, located on a side street in the center of town. They come to lounge on the sofas, bide their time, or make themselves a cup of coffee.

Here, seated around an enormous table, some of them fantasize for a brief hour that they are all part of one big loving family. But after "dessert" - an easily digestable serving of Yiddishkeit (i.e. a Chabad course in "Judaism 101") or a game of backgammon - they are once again expelled to the streets. Small gangs of emaciated boys and girls - slightly hunched over, as if they were carrying the world's burdens on their shoulders - make their way to the next hostel.

Education Ministry statistics reveal that Jerusalem has the highest school drop-out rate among Israel's major cities. Nearly 10 percent of youth aged 14-18 drop out of schools in the capital. For years, the city center has been a magnet for young refugees of the education system. Many of them are homeless and, in recent years, the influx of those from settlements in the northern West Bank, Gush Etzion and ultra-Orthodox suburbs has increased.

The Jerusalem Municipality is cautious in its estimates of the precise number of disenfranchised youth wandering the city's streets, but some of their caretakers say about 2,000 are registered. The city says the Education Ministry statistics are misleading because a significant number of those registered as dropouts are in fact ultra-Orthodox youth who have transferred from one unrecognized educational institution to another. But that only explains a small percentage of the total.

Until about a year ago, The Triangle String was located in one of the alleys adjoining Zion Square, in an apartment too small to accommodate all the visitors. But this lowly dig has swelled to dormitory proportions, and now includes a 10-room residential shelter. (The shelter serves only boys, in keeping with religious laws that prohibit co-ed residential facilities.) The development of The Triangle String and similar facilities for dropouts bears witness to the magnitude of the problem.

As the night continues, the youth gangs make their way en masse from The Triangle String to Koreh Becafe, a youth club established by the municipality. They stop here to chat or smoke a cigarette before sitting down to watch a movie at Hatzrif, another club operated by two members of the Mahanot Haolim youth movement currently serving in the Sherut Leumi national service. When the sun begins to rise, the youth will finally rest their heads in "Hatzroni's Hangout" or "The Shelter," makeshift dorms that were established to meet the needs of teenagers who have dropped out of alternative frameworks. Over the years, such makeshift solutions have turned into veritable institutions. Some of them are even funded by the Social Affairs Ministry.

During my nighttime tour of some of these clubs on Sunday, staff unanimously maintained that most of the youth were expelled from ultra-Orthodox homes. Baruch Mashkovsky, director of the Jerusalem Municipality's Keshet Haredi program to advance ultra-Orthodox youth, says that 600-700 adolescents are registered in one of his department's therapeutic facilities. He estimates that they constitute a third of the city's recognized dropouts. Yet, Mashkovsky believes the number of dropouts in Jerusalem is much larger, since the caretakers do not know of all of them.

Mashkovky's department operates two evening clubs for ultra-Orthodox dropouts - in Pisgat Ze'ev and Ramat Eshkol - as well as a day facility, Meitar, where 25 adolescents study for their bagrut matriculation exams or attend occupational training courses, like first-aid or entrepreneurship. Mashkovsky, who is a member of the Belz Hasidic movement, believes the large numbers of ultra-Orthodox dropouts stem from the low socioeconomic class of some ultra-Orthodox Jews and a lack of appropriate educational institutions in Jerusalem. He also warns that the average age of ultra-Orthodox dropouts has decreased in recent years. "We increasingly see 12- or 13-year-olds at our facilities. We are only now beginning to make arrangements to handle this problem and build them appropriate facilities."

R. was 12 years old when she first came to Jerusalem, three years ago. Now she is 15. She's a pretty girl, with heavily made-up gray eyes and fair hair. I met her next to the piano at The Triangle String. She speaks quietly, nervously puffing her cigarette. "Ever since I can remember, I didn't get along at school and I always wanted to come to Jerusalem," she says. "I remember the day I arrived. It was a cold, winter day, and I told my mother I was going to a friend's house. My friend also didn't get along at school and we decided to go to the city. We wanted to meet new people. We haven't gone back since."

R.'s parents are national-religious Jews, who live in a settlement near Jerusalem. She impassively divulges that she experimented with drugs before she was 12. She explains that she was expelled from the boarding school she attended after elementary school. "I was there for only two months. I convinced them that I didn't fit in," she recalls. "They always tried to talk to me - social workers, truant officers. They want to help, but they usually only make it worse because they don't know how a kid feels."

Very few of these youth are rehabilitated. During the last two months, R. returned home to live. She reluctantly declares that she has left street life, but says she has no regrets and would do it all over again. "It's like the school of life," she says, shrugging. She now hopes to start work at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.

Baruch, 16, the son of an ultra-Orthodox American family, says he has a diagnosed attention deficit disorder. He has adopted a lifestyle beyond ultra-Orthodox frameworks and is now studying on his own for the matriculation exams. He does not think there is something to be gained from staying in school. He has attended a number of institutions, including religious yeshivas and schools. "Some of them were not bad," he says. He sits with 30 other youngsters in the Mahanot Haolim movement's Hatzrif, quietly watching "The Godfather." Baruch is somewhat annoyed when Hatzrif director Ya'arit Atraktzi invites him to attend dusk-to-dawn activities and watch films screened nightly during the week. "How do you expect me to wake up in the morning to study? I have matriculation exams coming up," he tells her. But he appears for activities because "I'm commited now."

Itzik, 18, sits in the front row as an interpreter. When Marlon Brando appears in the first scene, he explains that he is "The Godfather." "How do you know?" a boy in the back row asks. "I read the book," he responds, surprising the others. Itzik, who has lived on the streets since he was 13, explained that he "consumed" every book in the library until he was 10. Until he was 13, he read every historical book he could "get his hands on." He maintains that his historical knowledge is equivalent to that of someone with a master's degree.

Atraktzi is certain that Itzik is a genius. Then how come the system missed him? Itzik explains that he "doesn't like teachers. They're failures. They're people who didn't succeed anywhere else. I prefer to learn alone."

But he emphasizes that teachers are not the real problem. "If a kid wants to leave school - that's his right. But he can't go around blaming the world all day. I don't blame my teachers and certainly not my parents or the ultra-Orthodox system in which I studied. The responsibility is our own."

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