Importing warmth from Israel

Importing warmth from Israel

Bergen County psychologist brings ideas from Nahariya to new model for adolescence in Hackensack

Dr. Nicholas Montello in Jerusalem
Dr. Nicholas Montello in Jerusalem

Dr. Nicholas Montello had never thought about going to Israel. It just wasn’t on his wish list.

After all, he’s not Jewish, and the country just doesn’t loom as hugely in his consciousness as it does in most Jews’ hearts and souls.

But a cold call resulted not only in a trip to Israel, and a planned exchange of information, but also a new initiative that Dr. Montello, who lives in Haworth and is the director of Bergen County’s Division of Family Guidance, is about to open, based on a program he saw in Nahariya, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s sister city in Israel.

It all started with that call, an out-of-the-blue invitation to an all-expenses-paid working trip. “I heard from Bernie Hammer and Susan Greenbaum about a year ago,” Dr. Montello said. (Dr. Bernard Hammer of Teaneck, a retired psychologist, is active in leadership positions in a host of Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, a federation beneficiary agency; Susan Greenbaum, also of Teaneck, is a social worker and that organization’s executive director.)

“The federation always has sent professional delegations to Israel — police, EMS volunteers, attorneys, physicians, and this year it happens to be mental health workers,” Dr. Montello said, by now familiar with the workings of the agency to which he’d been introduced only a year ago. “They were looking for someone who could speak about working with youth and adolescents. That’s how they found me.”

At first, Dr. Montello took some persuading. He is 46, married to Kelly, and the doting father of two daughters, Kaitlyn, 8, and Gillian, 6; he oversees a large organization whose mission is to provide the kind of structure, education, and hope that might help the troubled, neglected, and abused adolescents and young adults who fall into its purview to transcend their beginnings and move toward a better life. He is no Pollyanna — his empire includes a juvenile detention center and homeless shelters, and he and his staff see a great deal of heartbreak — but his warmth and obvious passion for his work make it difficult for him to break away for an unexpected trip to the other end of the world.

“I met with Susan and Bernie, though, and we chatted for a couple of hours,” Dr. Montello said. He discussed some of the department’s programs, and “I talked about family guidance in general, and they said it sounds terrific, and I decided that I would like to go there to hear about the social services they provide.

“So I went there in June — this year — and it was a phenomenal trip. I learned so much! About the place, the culture. The people were wonderful. And so is the hummus!” In fact, he loved the country so much that he extended his five-day trip there by another three days, which he spent exploring on his own.

He also was greatly impressed by the social services that he saw in Nahariya. “I learned so much,” he said. “I expected to learn a lot about trauma — they know it well — and there was a great wilderness program. But at some point we went to see what they called the Warm House” — that’s a literal translation of its name, Bayit Cham. “It was a house for females and another one for males, young women and young men from mid-adolescence up to 25.

“We spent time with the girls during the day and the boys in the evening, and their stories were striking. One of the young women said, ‘This program saved my life.’”(Everyone spoke English, so language was not a barrier and Dr. Montello was able to experience Bayit Cham directly.)

Bayit Cham is a home — either a house or an apartment, not a space in an office building or other institution — that provides a homelike atmosphere and people who genuinely care about the participants, at that place where a job meets real emotions and real emotions win.

The adolescents and young adults it serves do not sleep at Bayit Cham. The house is open most of the day, but when it closes, late at night, they go back home. That might be a place where they are abused or neglected, or where they simply — but devastatingly — are left entirely alone, or it might be a communal setting, a refuge from the hell or the hole at home. Bayit Cham, though, is where their emotional and physical needs are met, where a houseparent will ask them such simple but important questions as “How was that exam?” or “How was work?” or “What did you have for lunch today?” It is a place where social workers meet regularly with their clients in a setting that encourages trust. It is a place where people can check in and be seen and understood.

“Both the males and the females shared a little bit of their struggles with me, and there was a point at which I kind of thought that this is something we should be doing,” Dr. Montello said. “We were having a meal together at one point; I was just there, watching, noticing how the young women were interacting with each other. It was like they were sisters. It was like they were a family.

“I was just sitting there, and thinking that I want to make this happen. And then the program ended, and I came back.

“I spoke to my team about my experiences, and I told them that I’d like to try it. I knew we had a lot of the structure — we have 25 programs, the shelter, the juvenile detention center, a transitional living program, and a host of mental health and substance abuse programs, multi-systemic therapy, case management programs, a 24-hour crisis unit. We run the gamut. We have a youth resource center, a drop-in center, art, music, dance, tai chi programs. These programs are mainly drop-in; it’s not court-ordered but for people who can’t afford or don’t have access to other services.

“So I have consultants who do all these programs, and I had a space, a little apartment on the first floor of a three-story building, with a kitchen and a living room. I have the space. I have the structure. We had been planning on doing something with the space, so I said that I want to do a Warm House. It’s therapeutic, but it also creates a home.

“It’s terrific.”

About that name — Warm House does not work that well in English, Dr. Martello acknowledged; right now it is being used more or less as a placeholder. He hopes to find a better name. It’s likely that the word “home” will be part of it.

Focus groups he held with young men and women in the detention center and the shelter came up with some surprising findings. Even some of the most apparently hardened among them said that it was a good idea. “They want someone to care about them,” Dr. Montello reported. “They want people to see past how they might be acting. They said ‘Regardless of what I’m doing, on the inside I’m a good person.’ And that’s exactly what we are trying to do.”

The plan is to open the Warm House in mid-January, although, as Dr. Montello acknowledges, that is the sort of schedule that generally does not hold. February’s a distinct possibility. The apartment will be only for girls — usually programs tend to be for boys, Dr. Montello said, and the need for something for girls is great. If the program works, a boys’ house will open next.

Participants will be asked to sign up for one day a week, when they will be part of a group discussion and meet with a social worker. They will be welcome to drop in on any other day they choose, and to stay for as long as they want. They can do homework, surf the internet, watch television, eat, or just generally hang out. It’s going to be just like home; you might not spend a long time talking to your family, “but they know who you are,” Dr. Montello said.

The trip to Israel was arranged through the federation’s Partnership 2000, and Dr. Montello was the only non-Jew in the group. Ms. Greenbaum was moved by Dr. Montello’s reaction to Israel. “It was just amazing to see Israel through his lens,” she said. “With all of the different layers of intricacy. Nahariya is about five seconds from the Lebanese border, and his discovery of that and what that meant, and his being able to see the understanding of the fabric of the Jewish people from a completely other perspective — you could see him understand that things are completely different from they way they look from 6,000 miles away, particularly when the press coverage is not clear.

“And he is so amazing! Being there with him made the whole mission more valuable.”

Beyond that general fact — and the additional fact that Dr. Montello’s warmth, openness, curiosity, and compassion made him an invaluable traveling companion, Ms. Greenbaum said — his adoption of Bayit Cham is an unexpected gift.

When they invited Dr. Montello to go to Israel, the idea was to have him teach the staff at Bayit Cham about the techniques he uses in Bergen County, Dr. Hammer said. Dr. Hammer’s involvement with the house is longstanding; adolescents at risk always have been one of the populations that have concerned him most. Bayit Cham opened about five years ago, and he has watched it grow “into something that is very meaningful in terms of dealing with the girls’ needs, and now the boys’ as well,” he said. Among Dr. Hammer’s long resume as a volunteer is his stint on the federation’s board, and his connections there are deep. “I was able to help Bayit Cham get an allocation of about $42,000 from the federation’s general allocation fund,” he said.

Still, Bayit Cham was not where it could be and one day will be, he said. “To use a baseball analogy, it was a farm team, and to get to the big leagues maybe they needed some better models for professionals and programs. So I talked to the director, and I tried to identity what were the actual main underlying issues. We came up with three — sexual abuse, addiction, and domestic violence. I started looking around, and said, ‘Who do I know?’”

Dr. Hammer had the good idea of asking one of his nephews, Dr. Daniel Bialik, a school psychologist in Fort Lee, to help him find the right psychologist, and Dr. Bialik pointed him toward Bergen County’s family guidance program. That’s how he discovered Dr. Montello, Dr. Hammer said; because they both grew up in the Bronx, where the entire world was either Jewish or Italian, they immediately felt comfortable with each other. Soon, Dr. Montello was talked into the trip to Israel.

“It so much wasn’t on his radar that when we first met him, he was still spelling it wrong,” Dr. Hammer said. “He was spelling it Isreal.”

“But the group really jelled, and the Israelis loved him. I have been there with many groups, and the social workers are the warmest. They like each other and they like what they’re doing. It’s not true of some of the other professions. Teachers are political, and doctors have a pecking order.”

The idea was to have him teach, and have the staff at Bayit Cham learn from him.

That did happen — but the learning went in both directions.

In February, a group of Israelis from Bayit Cham will visit northern New Jersey, and they will pay a visit to Bergen County’s Warm House.

And, Dr. Hammer said, people know that Israelis are great with technology — after all, it is Start-Up Nation — and with such grim but essential medical specialties as trauma. “But this is a positive addition to dealing with teenagers at risk, and it will be wonderful for non-Jews to be able to say that as amazing as Waze” — the Israeli GPS system that has revolutionized that field — “is, that’s not all we get from Israel.”

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