An Angel in the Russian Ghetto'

Dropping out of school is a `one-way ticket' in Ashdod. talking to a woman who works against the odds

For Ena Finkelstein, it's hot in Ashdod. Not hot, she says, wiping the perspiration from her flushed face: it's boiling. Where she came from, summer was never like this.

Finkelstein immigrated to Israel just five years ago from Siberia, passing through a kibbutz on her way to Ashdod. The scalding heat doesn't seem to stop her from having her hands in a few pots at once. Finkelstein, 35, an energetic and smiling woman, has earned a reputation in town as being the best bet for Russian youth who are at risk.

Her beat is helping young immigrants who drop out of all existing educational and social welfare frameworks - in the local jargon, they are called "Youth Advance" cases (the name derives from the Ashdod municipality department which is formally entrusted with responsibility for these youths). By training a teacher (she is currently earning social work qualifications at Bar-Ilan University), Finkelstein was active with the Jewish Agency and worked with Jewish youths in Siberia before starting her work in Ashdod.

"T" is one teenager whom Finkelstein saved - the word "saved" is no exaggeration. A 16-year-old, T immigrated, also from Siberia, five years ago, landing on a kibbutz. In contrast to Finkelstein's experience, the teenager's absorption in Israel was a rocky process. T says that she suffered in school from bullying, and that the kibbutz badly mistreated her. For a spell, T regained her balance after she left the kibbutz and settled in Ashdod. Up to the eighth grade, she did well in her Ashdod school. Then, the tailspin started after her parents were divorced.

She started to skip classes. Most mornings, she'd roam the local beaches. The school counselor and its psychologist spoke with her, but were unable to get to the bottom of the problem. "I laughed straight in their faces, and they got fed up with me," T recalls.

T started to hang out with a 19-year-old drug addict. He physically abused her. She became anorexic, and, at one stage, attempted suicide. Several months after her condition took this drastic turn for the worse, a local social worker referred T to Finkelstein.

Finkelstein made the rounds with T, visiting each of Ashdod's secondary schools. None was willing to give her a second chance. Today, T works in the morning, and completes her education in the afternoon, at a local community center. She is one of the dozens of young people who profit from Finkelstein's initiative, which is based at the community center in Ashdod's southern section. Ashdod's southern Yud - Yud Gimmel neighborhoods are known to many as Israel's "Russian ghetto."

A visitor to the area cannot miss its distinctive features. The neighborhoods are a different country - Russian is the language spoken on the streets, Cyrillic lettering adorns signs on local shops. Over 75 percent of the 26,000 residents in this Ashdod area are new immigrants, mostly from White Russia. Up to a few years ago, as much as 90 percent of the area's population was comprised of new immigrants. The minority of native-born Israelis who purchased apartments for absurdly low prices in the early 1990s fled the area, mostly going back to previous places of residence in Ashdod's northern sections, Rishon Letzion and Holon.

Clashes between veteran residents and the new immigrants were covered by local newspapers. The veterans complained to the local press that they felt like foreigners in their own country. In recent years, as the influx of new immigrants abated, a trickle of veteran returnees to the southern Ashdod area started to flow.

The neighborhoods are scarcely a decade old - they were built on the southern fringe of town in 1989-1990, just before the mass Russian immigration began. Perhaps due to their recent establishment, they don't resemble low-income areas of other cities. The laundry-draped residential eyesores which scar the skyline in Ramle or Bat Yam aren't to be found in Ashdod's "Russian ghetto." The buildings are adequate; streets are relatively spacious. In another city, upscale-sounding names might be given to the Ashdod neighborhoods - as it is, the area's prosaic name (the Yud-Yud Gimmel quarter) conveys a hint of its problematic reality. This is an area where juvenile delinquents roam the streets, where there is an unusually high percentage of indigent, single-parent families, and where drugs and prostitution abound.

The Ashdod neighborhoods have been a first stop for highly educated new immigrants. But residents who manage to improve their economic situation flee this southern enclave, and move on to Ashdod's "City" neighborhood, an area closer to the center of town where the new immigrant population isn't as concentrated.

Same background, same jokes

The southern Ashdod community center accommodates young people who represent both poles of the local social spectrum, new immigrants who have managed to integrate in Israel, and those who remain at risk, at society's margins. A summer camp started this week at the community center. About 350 children enrolled in the camp, half the number of those who took part in it last year; many of this year's participants are non-Russians. Community center officials blame recent terror attacks for this year's low turn-out - the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium attack, they say, was especially damaging, leaving Russian families afraid to send children to public places.

Camp counselors, about 40 teenagers aged 16-18, have trained in youth leadership frameworks at the community center. Most immigrated to Israel when they were young children, aged five or six; toward the end of primary school, they started to take part in community center programs, once a week. Now, as teenagers, they work as tutors and counselors for children throughout the year, and during the summer camp. Though they have kept their Russian-sounding names, along with their Russian-inflected Hebrew, these teenage leaders say that they feel Israeli in every respect.

Despite this sense of identity, suspicious, non-Russian residents of Ashdod often view them as immigrants. Occasionally, a veteran Israeli mother drops by the community center, observes the teenage counselors, and wonders aloud whether they are in charge of groups which are "too Russian" in complexion. The teenage leaders at the community center say that their friends are a mix of Russian-Israelis and veteran Israelis. But two representative community center camp counselors - Michael Portnoy and Mariana Blinstein, both 16 - admit that they feel more at ease with immigrants who have pasts comparable to their own. "It's a question of background, there's nothing you can do about it," Mariana says. "We understand the same jokes. We have the same mind-set."

The changing status of a social club located next to the community center symbolizes southern Ashdod's evolving society. The club was built two years ago, relates community center head Tzvika Lotan, and soon after it was established youth groups started asking that it operate on a 50-50 basis - for half the week, they demanded, the club should serve native-born teenagers, and for the other half it should be a hang-out for the Russians. But such segregation demands belong to the past, Lotan says.

Using the community center as an absorption locus for new immigrant youths was partly Lotan's idea. The center's director since it opened five years ago, Lotan identified the cultural consumption needs and tastes of the local population; he shaped the facility so that it would cater to these preferences. He turned the facility into a cultural center where Russian artists appear, along with Israeli musicians and theater groups. The community center entrance exhibits works contributed by new immigrant artists. A Russian theater troupe performs in the center. Many of the center's recreational activities are specially tailored to "Russian" sensibilities: these include chess, Russian-language trivia games, and more.

Immigrants have recently become more disposed to discovering Jewish roots and heritage, Lotan claims. Two conversion groups meet at the community center. During holiday periods, the center functions as a synagogue; wondrously, its use is divided harmoniously between Chabad and non-orthodox Jewish streams. Two different Passover seders are conducted at the center. "Had I tried to promote a monolithic, melting pot policy here, as was expected of me, the center would be empty today," Lotan reflects. In fact, the facility buzzes and brims with activity. This week, as the summer camp counselors infused the center with adrenaline and positive energy, "T" sat by a desk with Finkelstein. T is the same age as the camp counselors. Yet despite the fact that they studied at the same high school, and come once a week to the community center, they are invisible to one another. T and her peers don't even exchange simple greetings.

Help only at the bitter end

T's story encapsulates the other, less heartening, side of the saga of Ashdod's teenage immigrants. Four years ago, an alarming trend of prostitution among high school-age teenagers in the southern Ashdod neighborhoods came to light. After the local press exposed the problem, Finkelstein was appointed to work in the municipality's "Youth Advance" department. She headed straight to the heart of the problem. Wandering around public parks and city streets, Finkelstein talked with any young person who was willing to listen. Slowly, some teenagers started to join groups she organized. Today, she's a familiar figure in town. "I can't get anywhere in the local shopping mall, because so many young people stop me," she says, laughing.

Finkelstein estimates that some 600-700 teenagers (mostly males) between the ages of 15-18 have dropped out of school in Ashdod. The number could be larger, since some teenagers remain formally enrolled in secondary schools, yet rarely turn up for classes. The Ashdod drop-out syndrome follows a pattern. After leaving regular secondary schools, the teenagers stay at a study-work youth village outside of town for a spell; after dropping out of the village, they roam the streets.

Finkelstein works both with teenage drop-outs who are referred by local social welfare authorities, and also with young people who have bypassed the formal channels, and come via the "friend brings a friend" route. In the morning, the youths work; and they study at the community center in the afternoon, hoping to receive certificates attesting to 10 years of formal study. They have no hope of doing high school matriculation exams.

Finkelstein's success is measured partly in terms of the teenagers' integration in the Israel Defense Forces. Some 40 percent of the young people with whom she has worked have been inducted into the army.

Originally, the community center made attempts to integrate participants in these two immigrant youth programs, the "Youth Advance" project for youth at risk, and the young leaders program. There were some outings and meetings; but the initiative quickly died.

As T sees it, participants in the youth leader program are simply dull. The counselors-leaders counter that their troubled peers aren't making a sufficient effort to become integrated in the new society, that they seclude themselves in a ghetto.

Some youth leaders complain that they are stigmatized by the rebels. "They look at us with jaded eyes, as though we aren't cool because we don't smoke and stir things up" says one such leader, speaking about members of the "Youth Advance" group. Others in the leader group furnish a sociological analysis to account for the differences between themselves and the rebels. "We came to the country when we were young," says Irena Berdichevsky, 18. "For example, I was put in an elementary school class in which all the other students were from native-born families. So I didn't have any choice; I learned Hebrew in six months. I had Israeli friends. It's different for immigrants who come now, when they are teenagers."

Finkelstein concurs that immigrants who come when they are teenagers have a tougher time. "Most of the young people I work with," she says, "arrived during the past few years. This was a time when the aliyah [immigration] waves subsided, and funds provided by the Absorption Ministry and other agencies which handled immigration issues began to dwindle."

She continues: "Mostly, these teenagers come from families which weren't conscious of their Jewish roots. For them, aliyah came as a shock. T was informed a week before her departure that she was about to immigrate to Israel. She didn't even know that she was Jewish."

"What really bothers me," Finkelstein explains, "is that in cases such as T's, these are young people who really could integrate in schools. But dropping-out in Ashdod is a one-way ticket."

Last Monday evening, teenagers in the Youth Advance project took part in a ceremony to mark the opening of a youth club in central Ashdod. They waited for this facility for four years - promised funds were late in arriving. At the ceremony, T stood on stage, and sang verses written by another teenager in the group. Then the youths performed a play which they had written, depicting their lives. The play depicts a lost teenager drifting from one authority figure to another - an absorption center director, a social worker, a teacher. In the end, still lost and confused, he picks a note from the floor and reads, "If I am not for myself, then who is for me?"

Unfortunately, the point might have been lost on the various official representatives who attended the ceremony.