Home is Where our Story Begins
Things aren’t always what they seem…
Tucked away at the end of a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood stands a sturdy looking private home built from the ubiquitous desert-colored stone which faces nearly all capital city architecture.
From outside, it is certainly possible to imagine a happy family living within.
Upon entering, one encounters a tastefully decorated salon with comfortable couches and a flat screen television; a large dining room table ready for action; a tidy kitchen on whose counters sit baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables; and even an expansive terrace with an unobstructed and envious view of Israel’s Knesset in the distance.
Dotting the walls are pastel-painted inspirational wooden signs reminding all that ‘home is where the heart is,’ ‘do small things with great love,’ “enter,’ ‘gather,’ and ‘celebrate.’ The vetrina displays a number of special pieces, seemingly family heirlooms, including Shabbat candle sticks. There is a definite woman’s touch throughout.
In actuality, the residents are all young men, some still in their late teens, and the woman who oversees their wellbeing is not their mother but Emuna, the long-time manager of Hut HaMeshulash’s residential home for young men.
What’s in a name?
More than a hostel which only provides temporary shelter, this is a true home and the only one in Israel providing long-term residential and rehabilitative care for high-risk young men (18-25) who age-out of other treatment programs. Included are the secular and religious as well as new immigrants and those born in Israel. Regardless of their backgrounds, all residents have one thing in common – their troubled pasts. Many are victims of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse; most have problems with addiction; and some have spent portions of their adolescence and early adulthood in and out of the justice system for both petty and more serious crimes.
Says Dana Goldstein, Hut HaMeshulash Co-Founder, “You must remember that many of these young people, some rejected by their families, have been living on the streets, a number for extended periods. Some come to us directly from jail. By the time they reach us, they have seen, done, and been through it all. None understand what it means to live in a functioning household.
Without judgment, it is simply our job to bear witness to their histories, guide, support, and provide them with the life skills they never got in childhood and offer critical vocational tools to reroute them toward a better life as they envision it. By creating a physically and emotionally safe environment, with both rules and love, we are helping to heal their wounds, impart the understanding that they are good, deserving of a better fate, capable of standing tall in the world. For that though they need a home.”
Let’s get practical
The home, established in 2006, can accommodate 12 young men at any time (there is always a waiting list) and offers a highly structured program, typically for a full year, and occasionally two, during which the focus is on the individual’s emotional, practical and vocational wellbeing. All residents must have a job, be enrolled in an employability training program, or participate in national/military service. “Hanging out” is not a career option.
Residents are identified through Hut HaMeshulash professionals, municipal social workers from around the country, or the court system. After the initial orientation and absorption stage, which lasts around two weeks, staff, and, if relevant, the parole officer, sit together with the new resident, not to provide a treatment plan but to listen.
Listening to young people and finding out what is important to them is key. Says Emuna, “Somewhere along the line, someone took away their ability to choose, to recognize the consequences of their actions. For the first time, they are asked what they want to achieve in the home, what their passions are, and how they plan to support themselves. Once they can articulate this, we help in the task of securing employment or beginning/continuing their education and otherwise preparing to enter society as autonomous, self-reliant, and responsible citizens.”
The household is staffed 24/7 by trained professionals – during the day with the house mother, youth counselors, and a social worker, and at night with another team. Hut HaMeshulash starts from the beginning by imparting basic life skills, such as how to follow a schedule, do laundry, cook, clean, set up a bank account, prepare a cv, interview for a job, deal with conflict, etc.
What’s faith got to do with it?
“In the world at large, faith is considered to be a small matter. But, by me, faith is a very great thing.” (Rebbe Nachman’s Wisdom, #33)
Emuna, ‘faith’ in Hebrew, believes in the potential of the individual to rise above his past and that no matter the depth of the wound the possibility for healing is ever present. “These are guys who come to us without any structure. Many have spent months or even years sleeping all day and roaming the streets at night, drinking, drugging, stealing and generally feeling bad about themselves. In reality, they are hungry for structure. We help to build this structure and approach it from two seemingly opposite directions: first, by delving into the individual’s past in order to discover the source of his pain and second by moving forward. No one resident has the same game plan and time frame. Some need empathy; for others, the soft touch takes them to a bad place. We learn with and from them. The bottom line – we have faith that they can change.”
Getting with the program
Treatment takes place in weekly private meetings with the house social worker. Additionally, each evening, after dinner, there is a review of the day during which residents share their struggles and look to others for help and feedback. This is central to building a positive family dynamic, the polar opposite of what many experienced in their so-called homes.
Says Emuna: “One of the most important approaches is to ask them to express their own vision of the future. Few have ever been asked what they think, want, or choose for themselves. It’s mostly been adults telling them what to do, and how to feel. It doesn’t mean rules are important, they are. We have a zero tolerance policy for violence and drug/alcohol use in the home. If you break these rules, you must leave immediately and figure out if you really want to be part of the home. Invariably, the young person returns. Choice is a huge thing as is trust, something which we must gain with them and them with us. It can be really hard. Though hungry for boundaries, when they arrive they don’t know anything about how to conduct their lives according to an actual schedule. Accountability is not in their vocabulary when they move in. It need be when they leave.”
By living in a caring, family-style environment with their peers, sharing household chores and preparing food together, residents gain much needed support, guidance and encouragement as they develop a disciplined routine of responsible, working and communal life. Many have turned their experience at the home into opportunities to reconcile their troubled pasts and transform their futures. To date, 140 young men have graduated the program.
Tell me what you dream about?
R, a likeable 22-year-old with a winning smile, came to the home directly from a multi-year drug rehab facility after previous failed attempts to get clean. When asked what he dreams his life can look like one day, he momentarily pauses, takes a deep breath, and thoughtfully answers, “What I want is simple…to live a quiet life as an independent man and to make other people happy…I have done some really bad things in my life but here in the home I have worked very hard to shift my way of thinking and acting.”
Though R has made great strides having learned to tackle an anger problem, he still struggles to find balance and is frustrated by his inability to hold down a job for long periods of time. Despite his continuing challenges, both R and the home’s staff feel his time to create his own home, with government assistance and their continuing guidance, is approaching.
When he does leave, R will take with him the essence of the wooden sign that hangs in Emuna’s warm and inviting office. It reads, “Home is where our story begins”. Shouldn’t that be true for everyone?