As an intern with Hut HaMeshulash, a Jerusalem-based NGO that serves at-risk youth, I took the opportunity to go and learn about one of their main projects, the Residential Home for Young Women. This project is a temporary home for women aged 18-25 who are at-risk as a result of experiencing abuse, neglect in the family, and often homelessness. Women above the age of 18 tend to fall through the cracks of the welfare system; since they are no longer considered minors, those who turn 18, and have not yet learned how to take care of themselves, are at risk for turning to drugs, prostitution, and other damaging situations. This program is the only program in Israel that accepts pregnant and single young women. Since 2009, 60 women have gone through the Home, and 23 babies have been born to residents.
Naturally, I was curious to find out how one works with young women whose experiences are so different from anything you or I have experienced. Imagine a girl who was neglected by her parents, abused, and has grown up with a sense that the world is against her. This reflects life experiences of most Home residents.
I was not sure what to expect, but upon arriving to the Home, my expectations were instantaneously surpassed. The outside of the building was breathtaking; beyond the walk-through gate, gorgeous plants inhabiting most of the front yard made it seem like an oasis, and green vines hugged a majority of the exterior of the home.
I entered the home and was greeted by Ariella, the social worker in charge of the Residential Home. Almost immediately, all of my senses were overwhelmed with a feeling of warmth and security. There were several colored couches in the living room, art on the walls, and the adjacent kitchen looked like it came straight out of a magazine. It certainly felt like real home. We began with a tour, and Ariella subsequently guided me through the second, third, fourth, and fifth floors, all of which contained the women’s bedrooms. Only one out of 11 girls was home at the time, and the rest were out and about performing their daily routine, whether that be attending school or going to work.
Sivan Etz Hadar, the Director of the Home, was not present during my time there, however, I was interested to hear about how she came to run the place. As a theatre studies major, she moved with her husband to an ultra-orthodox town of Beitar Illit. Once there, she realized that there was a population of young women who seemed to have been ostracized due to any differences they may have expressed, contradicting the strict values of the ultra-orthodox community. Sivan knew these young women needed help, and started treating them through impromptu drama therapy workshops in her own home. Her workshop became so successful that the Beitar Illit municipality eventually took over the program. After Hut HaMeshulash became aware of Sivan and her unique service to at-risk women, the organization asked her to become the director of the Young Women’s Home. To this day, she continues to incorporate drama into her group therapy workshops at the Young Women’s Home, helping young women become more self-aware, learn to set boundaries, and become more assertive.
Back to my tour with Ariella, we retreated into her office, and after an hour long interview, I learned a lot. For example, in order to be eligible to live and participate in this home/program, each woman must demonstrate a need, a potential to change, and the desire to change. Women who enter the Home must be willing to accept the rules, and they have to be willing to learn how to live a normative lifestyle. Those who are accepted into the home participate in an 18 month program designed to give them the tools to live normative lifestyles, to become self-sufficient, and to develop self-confidence and self-worth.
I learned that a typical week in the home consists of a daily routine for each woman, accompanied by weekly individual counseling and group discussions. The residents take full responsibility to upkeep the home. They take turns buying groceries, cooking, and doing laundry. The many enrichment activities and group discussions allow the women to learn how to communicate effectively, to respect themselves and each other, and to promote a healthy setting of boundaries – especially important for girls who grew up with abusive, dominant parents.
Shabbat meals are organized three weekends a month, with the Home closing down one Shabbat a month. I asked Ariella why the residents were required to spend one weekend a month away, and she explained that the goal of the program is to encourage these women to become independent. By spending one weekend a month with a host family, the women get a taste of what life outside of the Home framework might be like. The residential staff helps find host families for residents for those Shabbatot on which the Home is closed.
During our conversation, I was moved to hear some of the damaging things that most of these women have been through. Some arrive to the home and were never taught how to perform basic tasks, such as brushing their teeth. These women enter the home carrying so much pain, and they are taught not to erase the pain, which cannot realistically be done, but instead how to live with it, contain it, and minimize it. The program is designed to primarily inspire self-worth and self-confidence, thus planting the seeds of personal growth. After program completion, most of the girls build successful lives, working, pursuing higher education, and living on their own. It was an amazing experience to be able to see first-hand the service and inspiration that Hut HaMeshulash provides for these women.