Many of us that decide to make aliyah, to pick up our lives, turn them on their heads and move to this wonderful, intense, challenging place, do so because we fall completely head over heels in love with her. The tours, the lessons, the views, the beauty, the people, the food. In short, the love affair. Many of us left behind some measure of comfort of even (dare I say it) “privilege” in order to live here, or, brought it with us.
At some point, in our absorption, if we are lucky, we successfully move past the honeymoon. We start to see bumps and cracks in our beloved. Eventually, we truly get a glimpse at Israel’s uglier side; the institutional failures, the problems that our government doesn’t fix — even those it creates (!), the social ills and woes and evil people and hate and sickness and poverty and sadness. It isn’t pretty, but it is real.
And because we love, because we love her passionately and completely, we respond to the full-on ugliness with love. We stay. We hurt along with her. We get angry, we get sad, but we stick around and get involved. We help fix what is broken. That’s the true, lasting, long-term, relationship-building love of any relationship.
It isn’t fun to think about the ugliness in this country, in the Israeli society with so much good and light and love. It isn’t uplifting to know that the Jewish State fails people. That there are women and children who don’t have their basic needs met, even here. Some of Israel’s children — our children — who are neglected, impoverished, scared, abused, hurt, isolated (and all of the above) — do get help. Israel has a foster care system with boarding schools and social benefits.
What not everyone knows, however, is that at 18, one “ages out” of the system. With your schooling done, often without successfully passing one’s matriculation exams (bagruyot), you no longer have a place to stay or a framework.
For young women, particularly for those from a religious background; without a place to stay, matriculation exams from high school or a framework, they cannot enlist in the army nor work in National Service (Sherut Leumi). So we essentially create a situation where the State helps young, helpless, vulnerable, suffering young religious women UNTIL they turn 18, and then dump them on the streets to become the most needy, least streetsmart, most vulnerable population who will then have a cascade of new problems with new needs from the State! This treacherous combination can lead to homelessness, addiction, rape and pregnancies that start the cycle of neediness and relying on the system all over again.
One couple, Yifat and Kory Bardash, looked the ugly problem in the eye and stared it down. They started by bringing a young women into their home for a weekend that lasted five years until they married her off two years ago. Then others; I struggle to comprehend the love and patience and generosity by the whole family that was required in making that choice.
Over many years, they successfully created ATARA. ATARA operates homes in Jerusalem for young women who have had to flee their families for a variety of reasons and have now “aged out” of assistance from the State. ATARA empowers and gives them a place to live, support, structure, life skills, help to pass their exams and graduate high school, and sets them up with jobs in Sherut Leumi. ATARA doesn’t just continue where government aid ends, they change their trajectory , break the cycle and give these young women the tools to learn, work, thrive, grow, succeed and contribute. Not only do they stop needing, they do so by starting to give. Work gives them responsibility, confidence and experience.
It takes a whole new level of deep, abiding love to go past all the many things that are handsome and charming about Israel, to face her ugly truths and the beautiful souls that we are failing. To find the beauty in the ugly and help it transform.
Kory Bardash, Yifat’s husband, explains that “ATARA means a crown and we are figuratively dusting off the dirt and putting a shiny crown on all of them. They are all so special and we are helping unleash their inner potential – often after they have buried it away.”
Last week I had the privilege to attend an intimate benefit concert by “Yonina” in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem to raise money for ATARA to continue and grow its important work to fill the needs for many more.
Yifat Bardash, ATARA’s founder and director, explained that there are several other cities in Israel interested in creating ATARA homes. Terribly sad, yet not surprising.
I asked Yonina, the singing sensation that has taken Israel (and the internet) by storm this year, why they agreed to perform for this private gathering for charity. Nina, the female half of the band, spoke with me in this beautiful private and gated backyard in the affluent neighborhood of comfort in which she grew up, (and in which we spent many a Shabbat or holiday meal together over the years). She explained that there is something so real and genuine in the organization and in its founders. That the money is clearly going straight to help these girls and not to lots of complicated bureaucracy. She can just tell that they are doing good, important work.
I wondered if t was conscious that it is davka this, davka here, taking time, talent and energy to help young women that did not have the opportunities that she did. Perhaps for Nina it is an expression of this special love of Israel that is so ingrained that it is just part of her soul.
One ATARA participant, Yael, bravely got up to speak to us. She spoke of the reality she fled, and I will spare you, but believe me that it is our beloved Israel’s ugliest side. She spoke of finishing her exams and wanting to study for University. About not only her Sherut Leumi, but her part time job as well that is “just waiting to give her full time work.” I saw a face of happiness, real joy, and I listened to her explain that ATARA gives her and the others “the ability to have dreams. To want things for myself and feel that I deserve to work hard and achieve them.”
The benefit was held now in part because of a matching offer. Any donations made now will be matched by an anonymous (and generous) donor. You can learn more about ATARA and how to donate, at www.atara.org and their Facebook page, (including photos from the event.)
Isn’t the ability to dream about a future a basic need? It should be.
For those like me that fell so deeply and madly in love with this place that we had to make it our home, we are blessed to have opportunities to love by fixing what is broken.