In Focus

A Lifeline for Israeli Teens

Israeli youth have a lot of time on their hands. The national school day ends early and youth, particularly in economically-disadvantaged areas, are left to fend for themselves. This often leads to unfortunate results. There also are significant pockets of time on Fridays, weekends and vacations. Some teens fill the time by joining youth movements. Unfortunately, 83 percent of Israeli youth do not.

This is the primary reason we at OU Israel established Makom Balev, housed in OU Israel Teen Centers in some of the nation’s toughest areas in the north and south. Modeled after the OU’s highly successful NCSY youth movement, Makom Balev provides programming for boys and girls, where they gain leadership skills and are empowered to believe in themselves and take charge of their lives. We also initiated the Jack E. Gindi Oraita Program, which aims to take at-risk teens off the street, guide them through their life challenges and help them prepare for a successful future. 

We currently serve more than 2,000 youth, and operate neighborhood Teen Centers in twenty communities, from Kiryat Shemona to Dimona. A significant number of our teens are native Israelis who thrive when given a lifeline out of poverty. Others are immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Ethiopia; still others are Anglos who struggle with adjusting to Israeli culture. We also have members from the Bnei Menashe community. 

Equipped with pool tables, games and even a beit midrash, our centers offer teens a warm, safe refuge. We build young people’s self-esteem by providing opportunities for success. We want these kids to become independent, to learn how to create, how to give and, eventually, how to lead. 

Even something as simple as meal preparation is an exercise to learn skills and responsibility. Instead of getting Bissli or Bamba at our Teen Centers, a hungry teen will find plenty of ingredients in the kitchen to make soup, shakshouka or grilled cheese. 

Serving in the IDF is one of the most important ways for our teens to break the cycle of poverty and become contributing members of Israeli society. On average, 94 percent of our alumni enlist in the IDF and National Service, where they gain self-esteem and skills that help them succeed as well as acquire social connections that can propel them forward professionally. 

Whenever possible, we encourage teens to attend yeshivot hesder, or pre-army preparatory religious mechinot rather than go straight into army service. Graduates of these programs are more likely to stay religious in the army. Since these programs can be costly, we help teens secure financial aid so they can build a stronger connection to Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. 

Our programs’ success is based on our exceptional cadre of madrichim, the dedicated religious men and women who serve as role models and mentors. Many are themselves alumni of our programs, who want to give back to help the next generation. They form deep and meaningful relationships with the teens and become an integral part of their lives. 

When we first started our youth programs in the 1990s, we tried to recruit students by working within the schools; however, not every school would let us in. About ten years ago, a secular high school accused us of hadata (religious indoctrination), and the principal asked us to leave. Then, one of the students, who had attended our programs, lost his father. He had a difficult time coping with the loss and ended up in jail. Sadly, when he was released from prison, he simply couldn’t adjust to society and took his own life. 

During the shivah, our madrichim organized prayers and meals for the family and brought the young boy’s friends to be menachem avel. The principal who had previously forced us to leave was so overtaken by the warmth and devotion she saw that she let us back into the school. Now she says she won’t do anything without OU Israel.  

She’s not alone. Because of our caring and commitment to each child, we have a waiting list of schools and communities asking for our programs. 

Communities resonate with another aspect of OU Israel’s approach. We encourage our teens to have knowledge of and pride in their unique cultures and heritage. For example, in Kiryat Gat, we are based in an Ethiopian neighborhood, so we encouraged the teens to build a Beit Gujo, the traditional mud huts where Ethiopian Jews lived to avoid assimilation. Teens, residents and guests from Israel and abroad now come to meet the teens and learn about the Ethiopian culture.

The events of October 7 and the resulting war turned the lives of Israelis upside down, particularly our vulnerable at-risk teens. The war has only intensified their challenges, and they are struggling. They want to know where G-d was on October 7. They want to know why the IDF didn’t protect them. Some have lost family and friends in the war, and they are grieving their losses. Many of their fathers and siblings have been called up to the reserves. Many teens from border towns in the south and north have been evacuated to hotels scattered throughout the country, with no certain date of return.

Despite one-third of the OU Israel staff being called up to the IDF, our madrichim have been showing up for our teens from the start. They are keeping in regular contact with each of their students, and organizing events, meetings and get togethers in evacuee hotels and our centers when possible.  Ten of our centers were located in bomb shelters—so we can’t use them. In some towns, we’ve relocated to private homes, synagogues or schools.

We also offer teens age-appropriate therapy, such as photo therapy, where they explore and express their emotions through photography; and dog therapy, which involves interactions with trained animals, providing comfort and support. 

The logistics of running programs for evacuees are extremely challenging. Our teens are scattered in over 100 locations. We recently ran two Shabbatons, one for boys and one for girls, for 150 displaced youth and fifty staff members that required picking up teens from dozens of locations. On Purim, the head of our Kiryat Shemona center traveled to twenty hotels to distribute mishloach manot. 

Contrary to what many think, extended living in evacuee hotels is not fun. The disruption of regular family life is detrimental to everyone, particularly to parents and teens. They often live on different floors and have limited common spaces to be together, which contributes to a communication and relationship breakdown. In fact, a fifteen-year-old evacuee living in a hotel just told us that she hasn’t seen her mother for a week. There is very little for teens to do, and often no friends nearby. That’s why we added an extra layer of teen support with the opening of a hotline where teens have a caring, trained adult ready to speak with them about their many challenges including loneliness, sadness and even suicidal thoughts. 


I’ve been with the OU since 1999 and I don’t remember a time as challenging as this. We are inspired and unceasing in our work because we believe each and every teen deserves a strong future. I’m proud to be part of the OU family doing this work now. Am Yisrael Chai. 

Chaim Pelzner is director of programs for OU Israel’s Makom Balev and the Oraita Program for youth.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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