By Sara Bedein
Twelve years ago, Harel Hetzroni, 33, went through what many datlashim (formerly religious youth) are going through today. A yeshivah graduate, Hetzroni entered the Israeli army; by the end of his service, he was no longer wearing a kippah.
“I had no problem with religion itself,” says Hetzroni, who today sports tzitzit over his clothes and a black beard. “I knew I was doing bad things, but the streets were very tempting. I was unable to resist the temptation. I worked as a D.J. at a disco and I got as low as you can get.”
Hetzroni’s turning point occurred at the disco one night when the patrons were particularly wild. “It’s like I suddenly woke up from a bad dream…. I said to myself, ‘What has become of us?’ ‘Have we become like animals?’ Have we no shame?’”
Hetzroni slowly began returning to Torah life. But he maintained his connections with the disco and street youth in an attempt to influence them.
In May 2000, in response to the death by overdose of an 18-year-old formerly religious teenager–a popular member of Jerusalem’s Kikar Tzion crowd–the Seymour J. Abrams OU World Jerusalem Center in Israel joined with Hetzroni to create Zula, a den in downtown Jerusalem. There Kikaristim socialize after the pubs and discos close for the night. (A zula, which originated in Turkey, is a tent with colorful rugs and Turkish coffee, a place where people come relax after work.)
“Hetzroni’s Zula,” as it is known, is open a few nights a week and Motzei Shabbat all night long. Every Motzei Shabbat more than 100 youth arrive.They settle down on cushions that line the floor and play drums and guitars until dawn. Often, storytelling is interspersed with the music. Occasionally, Zula invites special guests including musicians, inspiring Chassidic storytellers, lecturers and lately even some rabbis.
Not too long ago, many of the datlashim who frequent Zula would shudder at the mere mention of the word “rabbi.” Hetzroni remembers how rabidly anti-religious they were. But after spending a few months in the Zula atmosphere the youth often arrive at the conclusion that the problem is not as much with religion as it is in the way it was presented to them
Hetzroni, who was dubbed by one Israeli newspaper “the Israel Center’s Pied Piper,” genuinely accepts and befriends the teens who hang out at Zula. “If you want to change these kids,” says Hetzroni, “You must accept them as they are. This does not mean that I agree with their lifestyles–and they know this, but the first step in influencing them is accepting and loving them.”
Menachem Persoff, director of the Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center, assisted with this article.