A teenage girl walks around Jerusalem before Rosh Hashanah, looking to taste apple dipped in honey. The taste of the holiday.
The State of Israel is rebuilt. Jerusalem is its capital. A Jewish girl knocks on doors of the rebuilt city, looking to taste the sweetness of the New Year. She hopes it will bring goodness, safety, calm.
No one is opening the door. She has nowhere else to go. What is her story?
Perhaps she was abused at home. Maybe her parents could not take care of her. Her family might have turned away from her when she stopped being religious in the only way they accepted.
We do not know. But we welcome her when she knocks on our door. We invite her to join us at the festival table, we talk to her and celebrate with her. For one evening at least, she is home. She is at Hut HaMeshulash.
My wife Dana and I started a non-profit called Hut HaMeshulash in 1999 because of girls and boys like the girl in this story. We were newly religious, and saw that Jerusalem was overflowing with children, teenagers and young adults who had nowhere to go. Some of them lived on the streets, spending nights in abandoned buildings. They fit the definition of “homeless”. Others had homes to come back to, but these were homes in name only: dysfunctional parents and history of abuse made it impossible for the kids to come back. Yet others were far beyond the brink, using and selling drugs or engaging in prostitution. All of them were crying out for help.
These were precious Jewish children, a divine spark in the soul of each and every one of them. Our hearts went out to them, and we reached out first to a few, then a dozen. Dana and I cooked meals for them, played music and talked about the goodness inherent in each one of them. We tried to heal their wounds, impart the understanding that they are good, deserving of a better fate, capable of standing tall in the world. The group of teenagers who would come to our gatherings kept growing.
Today, we look back in awe.
By the end of 2015, Hut HaMeshulash will have served close to 800 teenagers and young adults a year. We run a one of a kind Drop-In Center in downtown Jerusalem, open 10 am to 10 pm daily. It offers hot meals, laundry facilities, showers and a host of enrichment opportunities to kids who come in from the street. Of course it is free, and as long as there is no violence and no drugs, everyone is welcome. Beyond these basic services, we work with each and every one of the kids who come in: a social worker gathers their history, reaches out to relevant municipal and national frameworks, helps the kid navigate the bureaucracy and, where needed, get medical help. We also offer a program that teaches the kids how to find and hold down a job. Being able to make a living is the best insurance policy for them.
We also run two long-term shelters for young men and women between the ages of 18 to 25. Our Young Men’s Home often offers the last chance for young men on parole. Rather than sending someone to prison, usually for petty crime, the judge often decides to grant them parole and have them spend some time at the Young Men’s Home. In overwhelming numbers, the Home graduates quickly learn how to function in a normative environment, look for and find a job, and leave the Home as capable, well-adjusted individuals.
The Women’s Home is the only institution in Israel that accepts pregnant young women in the 18 to 25 age group. We work with them throughout their pregnancy, ensuring their mental and physical wellbeing, teaching them to take care of themselves and of their babies, and explaining their options from giving the baby away for adoption to raising him/her themselves. Over the past 6 years, 26 babies were born to mothers who were residents of the Women’s Home. All the mothers are either studying or working, and are perfectly able to provide for themselves and their babies.
Today, when Dana and I look at our seven children, we know that they were blessed to have been born in a normative home. This is not the case for too many other children in Jerusalem.
We are grateful to be able to reach out to them through our life’s work with HaHut HaMeshulash. May we merit to touch the lives of many, many more in the coming year. May we all merit to see goodness in ourselves and each other, and may we see the day when Jewish children no longer have to wander around our cities looking for a taste of holiday.