|An ELEM outreach van brings volunteers to a neighborhood of at-risk teens in Israel.|
In 1982, a group of professionals and volunteers took note of the fact that Israel’s population of at-risk preteens and teens was not only growing but also sorely underserved.
In response, that group – Israelis and Americans – created ELEM/Youth in Distress.
Efrat Shafrut, the group’s executive director in Israel, said the organization now works with at least 20,000 kids each year. She estimates that there are more than 200,000 at-risk 12- to 18-year-olds in Israel.
“We work with immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia who moved here over the last 10 or 20 years, single-parent families, the poor, people with drug problems, prostitutes, Arabs, Bedouins, ultra-Orthodox religious kids, whoever needs help,” Ms. Shafrut said. The goal is to “extract them from their situation and help them find their place in society.”
|Chef Art Smith|
ELEM’s New York office raises funds to support the programs in Israel. Michele Carlin, the executive director of the U.S. initiative, said her group is planning a special event in Englewood on June 12 not only to raise funds but to “raise awareness in Bergen County.”
The program will feature celebrity chef and James Beard Award winner Art Smith, who will hold a book signing and cooking demonstration. Mr. Smith worked with ELEM teens in a restaurant in Tel Aviv as part of a program that teaches both vocational and life skills.
Ms. Shafrut said that what sets her group apart is the large number of kids it serves in 40 towns throughout Israel, the wide range of problems it addresses, and the proactive nature of its work.
“We’re not in offices waiting for the kids,” she said. “We’re going out to find them. Most of the kids don’t want to admit they have a problem, even to their parents. We go to meet them in parks, bars,” wherever they can be found.
Twenty outreach vans go out every night, especially to poor neighborhoods. “We go to the same neighborhoods,” she said. “They already know us and wave to us.”
The organization’s 1,700 volunteers are required to work for a minimum of one year.
“Continuity is very important for these kids, so the volunteer goes once a week on the same day to the same neighborhood, she said. “It establishes a connection.”
Ms. Carlin noted that “onboard professionals and volunteers offer immediate help to homeless and drifting youth by providing humanitarian aid, informal counseling, and referrals to other social services, where appropriate.”
The ELEM volunteers and the group’s 250 professionals – including lawyers, social workers, educators, and psychologists – “work with [the teens] to change their lives. It takes time to get trust from kids who have already had so many disappointments,” Ms. Shafrut said.
“We’re open every day for them. Even if they did something wrong, like drugs or prostitution, we are with them. We’re waiting for them to be ready to make a change. We give them the motivation. We have the patience to wait and take them step by step.”
ELEM is one of the biggest organizations in Israel for youth at risk, she added.
“No other NGO works all over the country and with all different kinds of problems,” she said. “They may work in particular areas, or on particular problems,” she said. Although the group has good relations with municipal governments, “we are not a part of them. We are still independent and say what we think.”
ELEM’s funding comes partly from public monies and partly from private donations, including money received from its New York office and from philanthropic foundations.
Ms. Shafrut said she is “very happy” to have opened four centers in ultra-Orthodox cities.
“For many years, they didn’t want to talk about their problems. But now they understand. Things were getting worse and they asked us to come.”
The centers in these towns use only ultra-Orthodox volunteers and employees.
“It’s a different way to work,” Ms. Shafrut said. “The rabbi of the city has to check the workers” before they’re allowed to staff the centers. “We are very happy and hope it will succeed. The needs are so great there.”
Ms. Shafrut explained that ELEM’s work is basically in six areas: extreme risk, dealing with prostitution and drug addiction, “with a different project for each town,” depending on its unique needs; outreach vans; treatment for sex offenders and their families; mentoring and employment; multicultural programs; and counseling, support, and information centers, where young people can come in to meet with volunteers.
“They can also be volunteers themselves,” she said. “We don’t believe they have to be just clients – the ones with the problem.”
Ms. Carlin noted that ELEM operates 13 multicultural social-therapeutic centers throughout Israel.
“The Migdalor Centers provide a solution for adolescents who find it difficult to integrate into formal institutions,” she said. “They can work on academic studies, practice athletics or music, and attend a variety of workshops on issues of particular interest to them.”
Success is not easy to measure, Ms. Shafrut said. “The parameters of success are different with the different projects.
“With extreme-risk groups, like prostitutes, it can be about saving a life.”
On the other hand, ELEM now has about 800 teens involved in its mentoring and employment program.
Her group, she said, has become increasingly recognized in Israel by its vans, its employment training program at Liliyot restaurant in Tel Aviv, and its outreach to prostitutes – “the only organization in Israel that works with them,” Ms. Shafrut said.
She pointed out as well that when kids helped by ELEM decide to go back to school or to get a job, the organization helps make the connection.
Two-time winner of the James Beard Award – including one award for humanitarian efforts – chef Art Smith, personal chef to Oprah Winfrey for more than 10 years – has restaurants throughout the country.
“The bigger restaurants feature southern cooking; the smaller are more health-based,” said Mr. Smith, who has also written several cookbooks, including “Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort,” “Back to the Table,” and “Real Food for Real Families.”
Mr. Smith also is a culinary diplomat for a program developed by Hillary Clinton, and in 2003 he co-founded the after-school healthy cooking program Common Threads. The group, which teaches children living in underserved communities how to cook wholesome meals, started with 15 students in Los Angeles, Mr. Smith said. Today, it serves 47,000 children across the United States.
Acting as an international food ambassador – working in cooperation with the State Department, but not being part of it – “we pay our own way around the world. Chefs travel frequently,” Mr. Smith said. “When we do, we notify the State Department of our travels and they set up programs.”
He has spent a good deal of time in South Africa, teaching cooking to students in Ms. Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, and is now planning a trip to the Dominican Republic.
“Food brings peace, and it’s an effective way to get your point across,” he said.
His trip to Israel was “amazing,” Mr. Smith added. “We started out in Jerusalem and then went to Tel Aviv. The embassy arranged for us to go to Liliyot, where we worked with 20 or so kids. The highlight was making kosher fried chicken, which they requested.”
“I was really impressed with the ELEM programming and the kids were delightful,” he said, adding that he is also impressed with Israeli cuisine. He was so taken with the youngsters’ spirit and motivation that he subsequently sponsored two of them on a trip to the United States.
“What makes America different is opportunity,” he said. “My hope is to give them the opportunity to improve their lives. It’s not about money but about interaction. I sincerely believe in ELEM’s way of teaching. These are all bright young kids. With the right opportunity, they could do great things.”
Mr. Smith said he grew up on a tobacco farm in a poor town. “People introduced me to people, and I have become successful,” he said. “It’s about love.”
He said his trip to Israel was “one of the greatest food trips I’ve taken in a long time. It’s one of the most amazing places in the world.”
All the youngsters he worked with on the ELEM program got along with each other,” he said. “Kids on the street are unaware of politics. They’re just eager to learn.”
During his time with them, he cooked “my grandmother’s corn cakes. We called them ‘hoe cakes’ since she cooked them on a hoe. I brought the cornmeal and grits from America. They loved it.”
Mr. Smith said that “whatever you do, you bring a little back with you.”
Among the things he has brought back from his experience with ELEM is the desire to go back to Israel.
“I said to the State Department that in order for the Chefs Corps to be successful, the chefs have to focus on [particular] regions,” to become familiar faces there,” he said. The kids are our future. The more we interact, the better it will be.”
|What: Celebrity chef Art Smith gives cooking demonstration and book signing to raise funds for ELEM/Youth in Distress programs throughout Israel for at-risk and homeless youth.
When: Thursday, June 12, 7- 10 p.m.
Where: Modiani Kitchen Showroom, 46 South Dean St., Englewood.
Cost: $100, fully tax deductible