Saved From the Government Ax, J'lem Youth Rehab Center Gets Back to Work

In the course of three days the staff and patients of the Magal Rehabilitation Center have swung from despair to elation, following the ministry's decision to grant the facility a second lease on life.

A young people's drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Jerusalem that was slated for closure will now remain open, following a U-turn by the Health Ministry on Tuesday.

In the course of three days the staff and patients of the Magal Rehabilitation Center have swung from despair to elation, following the ministry's decision to grant the facility a second lease on life. "Even people who never shed a tear started crying," says an 18-year-old patient. "The black cloud has moved on."

Magal Rehabilitation Center - Emil Salman - November 2011
Emil Salman

The center operates in an old stone building surrounded by green mountains in the abandoned village of Lifta, at Jerusalem's entrance. The site's beauty notwithstanding, the building is too old and small to comply with Health Ministry requirements and last week all 17 staff members were given notice. But the center's legal battle and a media campaign, conducted with the Jerusalem municipality and the assistance of author David Grossman, paid off.

On Tuesday morning Health Ministry director general Prof. Ronni Gamzu paid a surprise visit to the center.

"He [Gamzu] asked me what the best and worst thing in Lifta was," says one patient, who started using drugs when she was 14. "I had tears in my eyes because I knew I could be holding the center's fate in my hands. I said the best thing was that it was home, and the worst was the constant need for drugs. My life was focused on drugs, drinking more, smoking more, sniffing more, no matter how high I was," she says.

On her 17th birthday her mother even gave her drugs as a gift. Two months ago she entered the center. "Drugs are the love of my life. I didn't really want to stop but I said I'd go for six weeks, get cleaned up a bit and then go back. But with every passing day I changed... I know now I have friends here. I learned what living was about, what it's like to have a home," she says.

It was difficult when family members, themselves substance users, came to visit, "but after they left I sat in the dining room, looked around and saw I was still in Lifta. The walls surrounded and protected me. I cannot describe the confidence it gave me," she says.

Another patient, who used drugs since she was 12 and heroin since she was 16, says she couldn't understand Gamzu's questions about the crowded rooms. "I used to sleep in abandoned buildings, on benches. You say it's crowded here? I'm grateful to have a mattress and blanket and that I'm not cold," she says.

On Sunday Moshe Kron, founder and director of the facility, gathered the young patients and told them the center would be closing down in two weeks' time. The Health Ministry had decided to close Magal and treat all young drug and alcohol addicts at the Malkishua Drug Rehabilitation Center on Mount Gilboa in the north instead.

"At first they wanted to help, to petition the court, to demonstrate," says Kron, who has been running the center for 20 years. "As it gradually sank in that the place was closing down, the crying began."

"After our meeting, one girl asked if she could hug me," he adds. "It's not customary but I agreed and then they all came over and laid their heads on me, like little chicks seeking warmth."

After two days of weeping Kron gathered the youth again, this time to tell them the Health Ministry had changed its mind and wasn't going to close the center after all. The youngsters clapped their hands and again burst into tears, of joy this time.

Youth detoxification is thankless work. Most chances are the treatment will fail. Statistically most patients will abandon the detox center before the three-month treatment ends and return to drugs. Many will return for second, third and fourth sessions.

But Kron, "a very pragmatic idealist," as his friend, the author David Grossman called him, refuses to give up. His approach to substance use disorders is different than the usual methods.

"I don't see patients as failures or having a weak character. We understand that falling off the wagon is part of the process," he says.

Kron's therapeutic approach, known as motivational interviewing, is based on nurturing the patients' motivation to rehabilitate themselves. Unlike other detox centers, at Lifta there are no penalties or sanctions.

"In some places the system is to break you in order to build you into something new. Here they teach you to talk, they build you up slowly," says a patient who is here for the third time and has undergone nine detox sessions in total. "Nobody is out to humiliate you here," she says.