Urban Kibbutz Youth Steer At-risk Teens Away From Life of Crime

It's early evening in the Hadar neighborhood of downtown Haifa, and a few members of the Noar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement were waiting for the rest of their group, when suddenly a woman screamed "Help! Stop, thief!" A tall young man in a black coat had grabbed the woman's purse but after being chased a short distance by a young man in the street, the thief threw it away and disappeared. In another case that same night, a couple was arrested for robbing an 82-year-old woman. Robberies, drugs and street gangs are not as common as they used to be these past few months. Not since the municipality of Haifa, together with the police and social action groups started a project to restore the center-city neighborhood to its former glory.

The city called on 70 young people from all over the country, members of the Noar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement, to establish an urban kibbutz to work with the neighborhood's at-risk youth.

"Instead of a kibbutz raising cows, we are cultivating education," the coordinator of the kibbutz, Yuval Becker, 27, of Kfar Sava, said. The goal of the group, known as Kibbutz Mehanchim (Hebrew for "educators") is to create an alternative to street crime for the neighborhood's youth. "Some of the children we work with have a police record for drugs and property crime," Keren Sagi, 26, from Mazkeret Batya, said, "and our goal is to prevent them from getting into even more serious crime when they get older."

The group's youth counselors keep on the lookout for kids who appear to be neglected and wandering around, and direct them to the welfare services, or accompany kids who have gotten into trouble with the law to the courts or the police. Some work in the schools or community centers, teaching in the classroom and informal educational frameworks. Others work to restore abandoned neighborhood parks. Last summer, before the war, they opened a coffee shop for the kids, operated by the kids.

The counselors, who receive a tiny salary, live in a number of apartments in the neighborhood, which the youth movement rents for them. They share a kitchen, a common area, and a petty cash fund.

Hadar, whose population is about 40,000 mostly new immigrants and Israeli Arabs, as well as Palestinian Arabs who collaborated with the Israeli security authorities and were brought here to live, was once one of the city's most central neighborhoods. With time, the original residents moved away to newer neighborhoods on Mount Carmel. Tulik, Gina and Hiba, 15, are members of the movement and the kibbutz. "Before, life was just passing me by," Gina says. "Now I'm not wasting my time. There are programs and activities and I feel like I'm doing something," she adds. Tulik says most of his friends are into drugs and alcohol and hanging out in the park. He, on the other hand, has found a way to work and develop.

Every Tuesday and Thursday the counselors and members hold what they have dubbed "the night birds" program. They troll Hadar looking for kids to help. "The goal is to reach as many kids as possible," says Sagi, who knows almost every teen in Nordau park, where the interview was held. "We start to talk to them, to talk and to listen. Some of them open up quickly and it takes others a long time," she added.

Becker and Sagi grew up in the Noar Haoved Vehalomed movement, completing a year's volunteer work in the community before their compulsory army service. Sagi says the movement's goal "is to move a kid ahead in community action," and that the movement is "a force that has been around for many years but the idea is to refresh it. The entry into Hadar is through the front door in cooperation with all the groups connected to the kids. This way we create a complex and efficient system of responsibility with the kids," Becker said.

Becker explains what brought him to Hadar: "You see the amount of violence and crime in society, children who are hungry who don't have proper education are in constant battle, and you say things should look different, you should build a society where people know they have the right to be happy without danger hanging over them, and the right to education and health services."