Ann Bialkin, Chair, Co-Founder of ELEM
Let’s think briefly about the history of ELEM. How did it happen? Only rarely a person, in Israel or America, knew or thought about ELEM’s cause of supporting neglected, delinquent, Israeli youth. ELEM started with very few people and started in America.
An Israeli Family Court Judge, Savionah Rotlevy, came to America on sabbatical with her husband, David Rotlevy, the then Israeli Economic Minister. At the same time, an Israeli social worker, Josepha Steiner, came to America to work at my social agency, The Jewish Board of Guardians now called the Jewish Board. I was working as a social worker, managing a liaison program to link volunteers with children in the court system. Savionah, Josepha and I met at the Board. They talked with me about Israeli youth from the Israeli court system with the same problems as in America. These young people had no one to advocate for them and did not get the proper help.
We started a small group of professional and lay people in America, a brain trust of clinicians working with this population. Among the earliest involved were Efrat Abrams, Bobbie Glass, Barbara Sassoon, and Becky Rozen. Others included Dina and Rafi Recanati; the Israel Discount Bank; May and Arnie Forster; Nuisia and Aron Chiliwich; Suzanne and Lionel Pincus; Atara and Yosi Ciechanover; Marian and Elie Wiesel; Blanche Bernstein; and Maureen and Marshall Cogan from Israel. This small group had two main interests that brought us together - Israel and its children.
We began to talk and compare experiences. That was the beginning of sharing professional expertise in both countries - a sharing that continued for many years where we would have international telephone calls each month to discuss in detail each professional issue. This sharing of experiences in both countries resulted in our most important projects.
In the beginning, the statistics in Israel were staggering. Over 25,000 Israeli youth neither worked nor went to school and over 10,000 youth went through the Juvenile Courts each year for delinquencies. These youth represented 10% of all Israeli youth between 14 to 18. Who thought that delinquencies like this could occur in Israel? These problems were unknown and ignored by large sectors of the Israeli population, and also unknown among the friends of Israel in America. What could be done? These youth had no advocates, few facilities or funds available to help them. So - ELEM was founded in America in 1981 and in Israel in 1982. In Israel, like America, ELEM started with very few leaders: Yochanan Wozner, Dean of Tel Aviv School of Social Work; Miriam Golan, a Social Worker and Administrative Director at Tel Aviv University; and Memi de Shalit. These and a few other founders brought the needs of delinquent youth to the consciousness of national and local government officials and brought fresh professional ideas and resources to the treatment of these youth.
We gathered the best professional ideas from both Israel and America - and these ideas remain equally important today. For example, there were hostels for delinquents that were isolated facilities scattered across Israel. In contrast, ELEM initiated the first community- based hostels, the first one in Kiryat Gat, that placed these children in facilities close to their own homes, in their own communities where the needs of the entire family could be addressed. We introduced family intervention throughout the Welfare Department and working with families became a common ingredient in rehabilitating these young people. We also brought in educational services, computer literacy programs, on-going seminars, and conferences where the Welfare Department began to share information. In time, we began professional missions back and forth between Israel and America, looking and comparing different projects in both countries.
As the needs changed and expanded, so did ELEM. At first, there was always denial. Homeless, runaway youth? Prostitutes, sex offenders? Teens from the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopian teenagers - having problems adjusting to Israel - increasing violence, family dysfunction, alcohol, drugs? Hard to believe, but little-by- little people acknowledged the problems and little-by-little we found resources, developed facilities, and provided the best professional treatment.
How do we handle all these problems? In my opinion, we are very fortunate in that Israel has the best, the most capable and the most willing volunteers helping our distressed youth of any country that I have ever seen. We have close to 2,000 volunteers, working 2-3 days a week, in all our projects. We could not exist without these unbelievably caring, willing volunteers who work generally for 2-3 years and consistently every week. We also have well-trained professionals working long, difficult hours each week, training volunteers and helping run our many complicated projects with diverse and needy teenagers.
Let me reflect why I have devoted over 30 years of my life, year after year, to ELEM. I think most volunteers and staff would have the same answer as I have. The satisfaction you get far outweighs the many problems which most of our children experience. Our ELEM youth have tremendous capabilities if they are properly treated and helped. And to see the results of our caring and our hard work - I can only thank ELEM. I have also learned that ELEM brings me "double pleasure" both in helping the children and, in some small way, helping Israel and its people which has become an essential part of my identity. My Israeli friendships have deepened, and my devotion to the country of Israel has become a large part of my existence. Thank you, ELEM, for all these pleasures and the privilege of making a difference in the lives of troubled teens and young adults.