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Beit Esther ‘Warm Houses’ Serve Israel’s 400,000 At-Risk Youth

December 16, 2015

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  (Isaiah 58:6)

An Argentinian Catholic priest and an Israeli psychoanalyst have joined forces to help at-risk youth.

Early this month, Father Pedro Opeka (a Nobel Prize nominee) took a tour of Israeli psychoanalyst Henri Cohen Solal’s 50 Beit Esther “warm houses,” built to serve some of Israel’s 400,000 at-risk youth.

Solal began building up this vulnerable population in the 1980s with the construction of “warm houses,” which are generally open from 5 pm to 11 pm each night.

A 16-year-old girl tells the Times of Israel the home she frequents feels warm and welcoming.

“You feel at home.  You have a living room, a kitchen and a play area … you can pass the time without getting into trouble, and there’s a great atmosphere,” she said.  “There are people to talk to, people who care, you’re not in the street wandering around.”

Orthodox teen-Kotel-Western (Wailing) Wall

An observant Jewish youth prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Those registered as at-risk youth in Israel could be suffering from neglect or emotional and physical abuse, alcohol or drug abuse, mental-health issues, or poor development in school.

Within the at-risk population, 6.4% of all Israel’s children, or 150,000, are high-risk — “meaning they are exposed to violence, criminal activity, serious drug abuse and even sexual abuse in their own home,” writes Simona Weinglass for the Times of Israel, reporting that 39% of high-risk kids do not get the services they need.


Israeli psychoanalyst Henri Cohen Solal and Father Pedro Opeka

“Warm houses” translates to “Batim Hamim” in Hebrew and “Les Maisons Chaleureuses” in French — the latter the name of a charity launched by Solal and Opeka in Israel and France to raise money for at-risk youth.

Solal’s work building warm houses in Israel for struggling young people parallels with Opeka’s work in Madagascar to build up an extensive, almost entirely self-sustaining community for the down-and-out.

The road to restoration for these at risk youth is paved with a simple philosophy — never reject anyone.  “We don’t kick any kid out,” said Solal, “even if they’re violent or difficult.”

In Madagascar, Opeka’s vision to help marginalized people has resulted in building 18 “kibbutz”-style villages (communal farming communities) that now house 30,000 people.  Opeka’s villages operate under his non-government organization based in Madagascar called Akamasoa (which means Reliable and Sincere Friends).  They are 75% self-sufficient and supplemented by donations.

To help restore dignity to a destitute people, the 13,000 children who live in these villages are required to go to school in one of the 37 schools Akamasoa founded, while their parents must work — and might receive training in a crafts trade or in housing construction, stone manufacturing or road paving.

Ultra-Orthodox teens walk together at the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza in Jerusalem.

Ultra-Orthodox teens walk together at the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza in Jerusalem.

Opeka said the highlight of his trip to Israel this December was visiting Solal’s Intercultural Mediation Center in Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, which connects at-risk Jewish and Arab youth.  Notably, 43% of Israel’s at-risk youth (those under 18) are Arab, while Arabs only constitute 20.7 percent of the population overall.  (Jewish Virtual Library)

Inroads into Jewish-Arab dialogue aim to bridge the divides of culture, religion and politics between the groups.  A June 2015 survey conducted on 400 Israeli teens revealed that 35% of Jewish Israeli youth had never spoken to an Arab youth while 27% of Arab Israeli youth had never spoken to a Jewish youth.  (JPost)

Another pair of youth-focused philanthropists, Avital Goel and Ayal Kaplansky, launched Susan’s House 13 years ago to help youth who have been abused.

“What we are trying to do here is to teach them that it’s not their fault and to give them the skills to stand on their own two feet, not in the streets, but where we want them to be — in universities, in national service, in places like that,” Goel said.  (CBN)

“A lot of the skills we get from home — say, for example, from our parents — these kids did not get and this is what we can teach them through work,” Goel added.

“It’s not talking about things, it’s doing it,” he said. “I’ll give you money as a salary, so then I can talk with you about how you spend your money wisely.”

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