In London I sit down with Israeli-born Efrat Dadoun, the founder of the charity Merkaz Libi, as she explains the depressing predicament of many young Jewish women in Israel. Despite the alienation that World Jewry may feel from social issues affecting Israeli society-at a time when existentialist threats seem much more prevalent- the work of Merkaz Libi in Israel is something that all should take notice of.
In Israel 25% of young girls are at risk. These risks include falling into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse, but extend to their vulnerability in being forced into marriages and conversions to Islam by Muslim Arabs seeking to groom them. Merkaz Libi works in Jerusalem organising programs through the government and schools to aid young, vulnerable girls, giving them much-needed support and leading them to a brighter future.
Deeply rooted in the biblical significance of the strength of the Jewish woman, the ideology of Merkaz Libi is one that will nevertheless move the most secular of people. They strive to build up a robust sense of inner-strength and self-confidence among young girls- an integral feat as they face the challenges of growing up and searching for their identity. The universality of the concept behind their organisation enables them to connect and work with at-risk girls across the socio-economic and religious spectrum to prevent them from harm. Some girls may be from the Charedi community, feeling repressed by strict parents and seeking rebellion, while some may be secular girls neglected by low income parents in full-time employment. There is no straightforwardness when looking at in which sections of society these issues are most prevalent, or in which ways they can be detected.
As Efrat explains, outwardly high-society, wealthy families may be the picture of contentment- yet inner turmoil can linger underneath a veneer of happiness, undetectable to the human eye. She tells me the story of Chana*, a girl from a prominent and seemingly happy Charedi family, whom Merkaz Libi found in a dangerous state. Having been abused by a neighbour since she was a young child and feeling neglected by a large family, she had always suffered from emotional problems. As she grew into her teens she began to seek distractions by meeting with a young Arab taxi driver. The emotional deficit of her home-life was filled with the affection given to her by this man, with their relationship growing ever-more serious as she began to meet with him on a daily basis. Her fragility increased as she embarked on wild nights out, becoming intoxicated and allowing herself to be sexually abused. Merkaz Libi managed to intervene in time to convince Chana of the danger of her situation. She was sent away to a secret center to ensure her safety from the revenge often taken by Arab men who are ‘betrayed’- sometimes involving deaths. Her recovery has been successful to an extent, as she is back to some sense of normality, currently studying a BA in Art in Jerusalem. However, the scars of her experiences are eternal, as states of extreme guilt and emotional disturbance dominate the themes of her artwork.
Despite the success of Merkaz Libi in saving girls at the last minute, Efrat strongly emphasises the need for more to be done at the outset to prevent young girls from entering into these eternally harmful situations in the first place. Their organisation describes their methods as ‘prevention treatment’, aiming to give young girls the strength at the start of their lives that will allow them to strive for a more positive future. They run sessions after school in which young women are taught principles of self-worth and valuation, the integral parts of the strength of a Jewish woman, and the activities they co-ordinate are fun and engaging, yet with strong underlying educative themes. Holding these activities after school in itself is extremely beneficial, as it provides girls with an alternative to hanging about on the street or growing bored and alone at home.
The work of organisations like Merkaz Libi are essential, as the government is still relatively unaware of or unwilling to intervene in social problems affecting school-age teens. Efrat also stresses the issues in communication, which is an essential in forging positive relationships between teachers, pupils and parents. She feels that issues facing teens are still taboo subjects in many places within Israeli society, from within the insular Charedi community, to throughout Israeli governmental bodies. She chastises the government for its failure to have open discussions about educational problems which affect so many, and which, if left not dealt with, can cause long-term alienation from studies and issues with self esteem.
However, one of the many impressionable things about Efrat is her sense of unrelenting optimism for a brighter future. She feels that must-needed changes within the Charedi community are beginning to occur, as it grapples with integration in an ever-evolving, modern Israeli society. Awareness among government officials is also beginning to increase, she estimates. No doubt this is due to the work of Merkaz Libi, and as long as the incredible work of this organisation continues to be further celebrated and publicised, this progression will only continue.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy