August 25 (Tel Aviv)—The night started with dinner at Liliyot Restaurant in the center of Tel Aviv.
Since 1999, Liliyot restaurant has worked with ELEM to train at-risk youth in the culinary arts, one of five restaurants co-sponsored by ELEM. Our dinner was prepared by youth who are being trained as chefs, while being mentored by social workers and volunteers to successfully integrate into mainstream society.
When I dined with Roy, ELEM Youth In Distress In Israel’s street work field director, we spoke about many of the projects the group is undertaking throughout Israel.
We discussed projects for Charedi - Ultra-Orthodox youth - in the Old City in Jerusalem, Safed and elsewhere. Some of teens in this community don’t want to live the structured Orthodox lifestyle. Others have difficult time functioning in the yeshiva system due to learning disabilities or other reasons. In many instances, their families shun them because they don’t fit into the framework and expectations of their community.
They end up feeling alone and abandoned without the guidance to successfully live in the world outside of the one in which they were raised. Often turn to alcohol, drugs and violence.
ELEM has male and female teams with a deep understanding of the ultra-Orthodox culture who work to provide a supportive network, and who facilitate family relationships if appropriate.
After dinner, Roy took me to a nearby ELEM project in Tel Aviv, where I meet several people who volunteer, seeking out these youth on the streets each night. Roy and I took an Outreach Van, filled with games, food and information, and drove to sites where at-risk youth gather.
ELEM’s volunteers and staff work around-the-clock, not just on “Outreach Nights.”
With the youth at greatest risk, they exchange contact information and routinely call or text to check in after normal business hours. These exchanges save countless lives, giving the teens somewhere to turn.
The van took us to the Florintin neighborhood, the home of “Heart 24/7,” the world’s only help center for youth transgender prostitutes.
This was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.
I entered the building, an abandoned wedding catering hall refurbished by ELEM. A 16-year-old transgender girl was intently brushing her long hair before putting on a handmade blonde wig. A 14-year-old boy told me he considers himself “nothing but a whore.” This tragic statement truly opened my eyes to how rejection from family and community can destroy the lives of teens already struggling with self-identity.
For the next hour, several teens came in and out. They went to their lockers, washed up and rested on the hammocks in the outdoor garden that they tend.
Many suffered severe sexual abuse at home and turned to the streets to make money to support themselves as prostitutes.
Others “work the streets” to get fast money for hormones and implants to physically change their gender appearance.
Some of teens come from the secular communities, others from religious families including Jewish, Muslim and Christian homes. Many say they feel safer at ELEM’s facility than at home. There, they can sleep, bathe, eat and receive medical attention. ELEM’s social workers and other staff are there to listen and provide guidance. More importantly, they are not criticized or ostracized for the lifestyles they lead.
Listening to their stories of fear and pain and seeing how ELEM provides a safe, non-judgmental haven made me more passionate about the critical lifesaving work ELEM is doing in Israel.
Without ELEM’s help, many of them will die on the streets.
The night brought a new perspective into my life. I have a much better understanding of the challenges transgender teens face and I’m grateful to know ELEM is there to help them.