Street Talk with ELEM: Youth in Distress

7 min read

Since 1982, ELEM/Youth in Distress in Israel has led the movement in treating and transforming the lives of troubled youth over 40 cities of Israel, touching the lives of more than 120,000 young adults each year both in person and online. ELEM’s powerhouse of 285 professionals and 2,000 volunteers take to the streets, proactively seeking, meeting and nurturing relationships with youths battling domestic violence, substance abuse, identity crisis, bullying, homelessness, prostitution as a method of survival, economic hardships, or a combination of the aforementioned.

In this interview, the Rimini Street Foundation team met with the leadership of ELEM, Lenore Ruben (President) and Lori Gosset (Vice President), facilitated by Vanessa Knutsen (Development Officer), to learn more about ELEM’s successful programs that sets them apart from many youth-serving organizations in a most-unique cultural melting pot that is Israel.

Rimini Street Foundation (RSF): I want to thank you all so much for sitting down with us today. Can you give us a brief history and introduction to ELEM and its many incredible services?

LENORE RUBEN (LR): Our founder, Ann Bialkin, was on a business trip in Israel where she had the opportunity to discuss the problems that were going largely unchecked in Israel with a group of people who were involved in social work. From this interchange of ideas, she said she would see what she could do. That single meeting birthed ELEM.

We of ELEM America work very closely with our counterparts in Israel. We now have over 80 programs in more than 40 cities and served 22,000 in face-to-face programs and another 100,000 with our online platforms and chatrooms pre-COVID. With COVID, these numbers have increased substantially.

RSF: How has COVID changed the type of need that’s out there? Is the increase in numbers due to mental stress or abusive situations?

LR: We try to focus on the ones in the most need – those who are living on the streets, prostituting, self-harming, or struggling with addiction. We have programs that range from dealing with more normative teen experiences, all the way to that end of the risk spectrum. Perhaps one might be in a very strict religious community or may be gay in a non-accepting community. These kids all take to the streets because life on the streets is a safer alternative than the life in their homes.

We have cases where the home situation is not great, but it’s bearable to various degrees. There may be domestic abuse or food insecurities. When kids were forced into lockdown in these environments, the stress and tension caused them to leave their homes. When you’re dealing with sexual and physical abuse, you don’t want to be locked up with your abuser, so they take to the streets where they can be fined for being outside.

COVID has exacerbated everyone’s stress level and ability to work, raised food insecurity levels across the board, and now we find more kids in need. This is why the government deemed ELEM essential workers, and why when the country shut down, they kept us open – because they needed our ability to reach out to the kids and find them a safe place where they could shelter and we could bring them food. We had to really step up and be very flexible with our budget to meet all these new challenges.

RSF: Could you please share more about the superhero staff and volunteers of ELEM?

LORI GOSSET (LG): We are the largest volunteer program in Israel. We have close to 2000 volunteers, many of whom were former ELEM youths who want to give back. They are all incredibly committed. They go through a training program and have to commit to at least a year, volunteering consistently on certain days and locations that they choose. We have volunteers from their late teens through their 80s. The whole tapestry of society is involved.

LR: If we have a volunteer that says they’re going to volunteer their time, they NEED to be there. Every single day that they’re there, they can inch a little closer with the people that they’re helping. When they form a real relationship, that’s when they can start getting the kids to higher levels of care. They need the stability.

LG: Especially when it comes to the youth who are at extreme risk on the spectrum, they don’t trust many adults. They are not interested in help from traditional social service agencies. These are not young people who are going to go to therapy in an office at 4 PM on a Tuesday. Developing trust with this type of youth is really an area of specialty in and of itself and ELEM excels at that.

RSF: What sets ELEM’s programs apart from other organizations that serve at-risk youths?

LR: We don’t wait for the kids to come to our offices for regularly scheduled meetings because they won’t do it. We meet them where they are. We will meet them on the streets. The police know us; we are out in the parks with these kids playing games. They’ll stand back if there’s an altercation and let us try to get things under control.

RSF: When the streets are where they feel the safest, reaching out to them on the streets must be more comfortable because the office can feel so institutional.

LG: Exactly, and we don’t have traditional offices. We have drop-in centers; they appear as coffeehouses and don’t look like the traditional institutions that you think of. Many of our staff and therapists are young, hip, and nontraditional. They look and sound like people that the kids can relate to so we can build up that trust.

LR: We hire people of Ethiopian, Arabic, and orthodox backgrounds to staff the programs that serve kids that are escaping from or dealing with problems in those areas. These problems deal with the traditions of different cultures and the volunteers and staff members are from the culture in question.

We always ask our volunteers and people who have graduated from our programs, “What does ELEM mean to you?” They say over and over that it’s their home and family. They really relate to it as their home base. They know that ELEM will have their back when they need it. They know that they have a safe place to go. If they want a cup of coffee, want something to eat or to play a game, no questions asked, they have an address that they can go to. If they want to talk to someone, they can.

We offer programs where they can learn to do different things as well through our skill building programs and vocational training. They have lots of options when they come to us and no pressure. It’s what they want, when they want it.

LG:  We have been given special consultative status by the UN because of the way we handle troubled youth. We hope that by sharing our unique models dealing with troubled youth, we’ll be able to impact policies worldwide. We’ve had programs that have been written up and developed by Dr. Talia Etgar at ELEM that are internationally known. Youth struggle world over and we welcome our colleagues in other countries to learn what we do and bring these ideas back to their own communities. While we are not the only organization that does this work in Israel, we are the oldest and most integrated and other organizations are starting to copy our work. We welcome partners in this fight.

RSF: Both of you have quite a background in social work and community development in the US. Are there unique challenges being an Israel-based charity?

LR: In David Ben-Gurion’s (former Prime Minister of Israel) words, “You’ll know that Israel has arrived as a nation when they have all the same social ills as all the other nations.” People think that violence, domestic violence, and hunger couldn’t exist in Israel, but no, it’s there. When you think about how many different cultures from around the world airlifted themselves and their families and came to Israel, it makes sense. Making a new life in a new country with a different language is tremendously stressful in the best of circumstances and magnifies when there are not enough resources. I’ve been practicing social work in NY since 1979 and simultaneously maintained a tight connection to Israel, so when Ann Bialkin asked me to step in as President it was a natural fit. It was past time for me to start giving back and addressing the issues that they are having.

LG: It’s very close, Israel to Gaza. It’s a very short distance. The geography is astounding. If you go to Jerusalem, there you’ll see that people’s houses will have a Star of David, a Crucifix, Coptic Cross, and the moon, the sign of Islam. They all share a wall. They’re all getting along. You can’t believe everything you’re reading on social media.

RSF: How can everyday individuals — people not connected to social organizations, help tackle issues? How can the everyday person be a supportive friend and community partner?

LG: ACCEPT YOUR KIDS. Really listen to them. If I had to pick one thing that ELEM does, we actively listen. So many of these kids don’t feel heard. Talk WITH your kids, not TO your kids. That’s the pebble that goes into the lake and ripples out and affects people. Across the country, if people did that, we wouldn’t need to worry about anything else. Support organizations in your community that reach out and help kids. That’s how to help.

LR: I work with parents and children in my personal practice, and I always say, “if I can straighten out the parents, I can straighten out the kids.” Children will pick up the energy of their caregivers. If their caregivers are not whole within themselves or not taking care of themselves, then they have nothing to give to these children.

RSF: If you had unlimited funds, how would you spend the money for ELEM and what is the most pressing need?

LR:  We need more vans and more drop-in centers. They’ve been so successful that we’ve had a pilot program to put them in more difficult schools and other schools are now requesting them. When kids are in school, the teachers can send the kids to the centers to have a talk that helps them to think twice about dropping out.

We need more beds in our hostels to make sure kids in unsafe environments have a place to rest their heads. We make homecooked meals and kids come to us because it’s the only place they can get a homecooked meal and they start to look at this as a home structure.

We don’t demand anything of the sex workers or addicts who come to us. We just ask that they keep our facilities drug and crime free. We take them as they are. We will give them good rest, a locker, laundry, and a homecooked meal. Then, they’re stronger and healthier when they come back, and that’s where the work begins.

We don’t force the youth to do anything. We say when you’re ready, you can develop different skills and open up your horizons. They get to a point when they feel very stuck and can’t see beyond their circumstances and we open up their horizons. If we had the resources, this is what we’d be doing – increasing and enriching our programs.

RSF: This is such important work that you do, Lenore and Lori. Thank you so much.

LG: We really appreciate you taking the time – and this is a heartfelt invitation, please come out with one of the ELEM vans next time you’re in Israel.

RSF: We would love that!

LR: When you come out, I’ll give you a tour that you won’t get otherwise.

LG: [laughs] Her tours are amazing.

Rimini Street Foundation is a proud financial supporter of ELEM. We invite you to visit ELEM’s website and listen to the touching success stories of youths who have overcome addiction, homelessness, abuse, self-harm, and so much more through the care and relentless love of ELEM staff and volunteers: