For young English-speakers gone astray in Israel, a helping hand

A Texan has set out to assist some of the hundreds of Jews who come to Israel every year and find trouble instead of religious awakening.

Cortesy of Caryn Green/Crossroads
CARYN GREEN: The Crossroads program started seven years ago as a one-woman outreach effort to help troubled young English-speakers in Israel, many with drug problems.

At 14 he had dropped out of school and was spending his days dealing and doing drugs on London's streets. A year later, packed off to Israel by his newly religious and worried parents to join his brother and sister, he was at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, being taught right from wrong by the rabbis.

It looked like progress – but in fact nothing had changed. He was still addicted and lost.

"The plan was to come to Israel, get away from my debts and drug mates, and then kick the habit. But that doesn't happen easily," he says today, a sober 22-year-old with a dark velvet kippa pinned to his slicked back hair and a world of experience behind him.

What saved him was getting arrested and sent to jail, he says, and what helped him start fresh was Caryn Green and Crossroads.

"I knew Caryn for years. She would hang out in town, separate me from fights, and ask if I needed some help or wanted to come by the center," recalls Josh, who asked that his last name not be used. "And I would always wink and say, 'OK, I will." But he never did.

Then Josh was thrown in jail. Green heard about it. "She said, 'OK, now you need my help,' " he recounts. "And I did."

From Tyler to Jerusalem

A social worker from a Zionist family in Tyler, Texas, who moved to Israel 11 years ago, Ms. Green started the Crossroads program to cater to a previously underserved niche group here – English-speaking teenagers in trouble. There are hundreds of such kids in need.

Some of these youngsters moved here as children, but never fitted in. Others, like Josh, came alone to try and turn their lives around and failed. A few are tourists passing through.

Many come from religious backgrounds, where the stigmas against drug and behavior problems can be especially strong. "The religious community is a rigid system with rules that are clear and don't have much flexibility," explains Green. "You are supposed to look, dress, and act a certain way. And if you don't – if you stray from the path – it's like they don't know what to do with you."

Add into this mix the linguistic and cultural divide English-speakers encounter in a Hebrew-speaking country, and you get a whole population that has a hard time even knowing how to ask for help. "But when they walk in here, it's different," says Green. "I say, 'Hey, what's up?' I speak their language."

What started seven years ago as a one-woman outreach project, has become a respected clinical intervention program. Crossroads today, led by Green, has five social workers, two dozen volunteers, a cozy drop-in center, a budget of $235,000 a year – all from private donations – and a small but growing list of success stories.

Between 700 and 1,000 teenagers pass through its doors every year. They hang out in the evenings watching TV or using the Internet; they get matched up with case workers; and get help with everything from finding a job, getting back to school, back in touch with their families, and staying sober.

"My philosophy is, if you see a spark in a kid you can make it into a fire – and I see it in each and every kid," says Green. "So we do whatever we can to build those sparks into fires, and help the kids onto healthier, more normative paths."

Lost in Israel

Every year, according to the Jewish Agency, thousands of Jewish kids come to study in Israel – often during a gap year between high school and college. For many, it's the experience of a lifetime.

But amongst these kids are those who are attracted by programs heavily subsidized by either the state or private Jewish institutions, both eager to bring young Jews to Israel. And for this group, being far away from their families can often aggravate existing problems.

Some kids end up gravitating toward downtown Jerusalem, to a central area dubbed "crack square," where they mix with a crowd of drop-out Israeli English-speakers, get high, and get into trouble with the police.

And so it was in Josh's case. Within a few months he had left the yeshiva and was dealing drugs, making, he says, thousands of shekels a week. He spoke to his parents on a regular basis, he says, but they had no idea what was going on. "I would make myself respectable for as long as it took to talk them," he explains. "I didn't want to burden them."

After three years, he was caught selling drugs to an undercover agent. He was facing four years in jail. The next day, Green showed up at the detention center.

With the help of a Crossroads case worker and a sympathetic judge, Josh's sentence was reduced, and he was released to an intensive eight-month rehab program.

These days, Josh lives in a rented apartment, has a dog, a few new friends, and a more honest relationship with his family. He goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and has a steady job working nights as a debt collector.

"Sure, I sometimes miss my old life," he admits. "I used to make in half an evening what I now make in a month. And I have no social life now." But, he adds, "I am alive. So, clearly it could be worse." Even thought he officially "graduated" from Crossroads, he still stops by the center. "I needed company on this journey," he says.

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