|Above, members of Nirim, a group for at-risk teenagers, take a break during a “wilderness therapy” trip. Inset, Shlomi Avni with Ava Silverstein.|
Shlomi Avni thanks his parents for keeping him on the straight and narrow.
He grew up in Or Akiva, a small city halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, just inland from Caesarea. His neighborhood was poor, with many of his peers tempted to drop out of school and turn to crime.
But his parents – his mother from Morocco, his father of Turkish descent – made sure he studied and took school seriously.
In high school in nearby Hadera, he was exposed to wider horizons and broader aspirations – in particular, the desire to be accepted into an elite combat unit in the army.
As someone who loved the sea, his choice was Flotilla 13 – the special forces unit of the Israeli navy – in other words, the Israeli version of the U.S. Navy SEALs.
With that goal in mind, he worked hard in school – and he was accepted into the program.
He served six years.
After his naval service, he returned to Or Akiva – where he still lives today, now with his wife and five children – and realized that he wanted to help his city.
He studied political science in college and earned a masters degree in public administration.
And he started an organization to help at-risk youth in Or Akiva and other cities. He named it Nirim, after a fellow SEAL named Nir, who was killed in combat in 2002. Today he is Nirim’s CEO.
Today, Nirim is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and has extended through a dozen towns in Israel. Among them is Nahariya, the sister city of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and the federation has been supporting Nirim there.
Last week, Mr. Avni appeared at a screening of the Israeli film “Zaytoun” at the YJCC in Washington Township, shown as part of the federation’s Israel Film and Culture Festival.
The film tells the story of an Israeli soldier being shot down over Lebanon and captured – and of the friendship he forms with a Palestinian child.
For Mr. Avni, the film reflected the sort of relationship that Nirim hopes to form between the Israeli veterans who run its programs and the young people they help.
The program hires educators and social workers who had served in combat and elite units during their Israeli army service.
“We put them inside the toughest neighborhoods,” Mr. Avni said.
“At the first stage, the instructors are wandering around the streets, meeting the kids. Then the kids realize they’re coming from the elite units to help them.”
And thus begins the bond between the adults and the at-risk teenagers. Niriam has found that the bond is strong enough to be able to take a cohort who uses drugs and runs afoul of the police and lead them along a path that includes army service, employment, and often higher education.
But the bond is cemented through “wilderness therapy,” Mr. Avni said. “We take the kids on experiences where you must overcome all kinds of obstacles. The moment you do it – with help from instructors and their guidance – a very strong bond is created. You can see the belief and the trust in the eyes of the kids.”
“At the end of the trip, they get a shirt with the logo of Nirim” – a variation of the bat-winged Navy SEALS logo – “and for them it’s a big deal. Everybody asks how they get it,” he said.
The trip is not simply a version of an army hike. “It’s really different,” he said. “In the army, you are following commands. Here, it’s a mission you are going on with the kids. You are mentoring them. Many of the kids have no discipline. You have to bring them to a place where they believe in you, where that is their motivation.”
The Nirim instructors keep an eye on the kids they work with. “They make sure they go to school in the morning, make sure they have a decent life at home,” Mr. Avni said. The Niriam employees include social workers, trained at intervention and in connecting families and kids with the right social service agencies. “At night the instructors will walk around the street making sure the kids are OK.”
The Nirim program has a clear end goal: Getting the kids to enlist in the Israeli army so they can become “constructive participants in Israeli society.” Of the first group of kids in Or Akiva, 90 percent ended up in the army.
Nirim stays involved with the youth after their army service, helping them find jobs and connecting them to university scholarships.
In Nahariya, where Nirim operates in the Trumpeldor neighborhood, a former combat fighter named Oren leads the group.
“Everyone knows him. The parents of the kids really know him and appreciate his work. If they need something, if there’s a problem, the first call will be to Oren,” Mr. Avni said.