By Toby Klein Greenwald
It takes us a while to find Givat Ye’arim, the moshav that hosts Darchei Shalom, since we opt for the scenic route. Our journey leads us through winding forest roads and eventually we emerge into full sunlight and a glorious mountain view. We are immersed in lush foliage and every color of green under the sun. Hadassah Hospital is far in the distance, to our southeast. The Jerusalem—Tel Aviv highway is on the horizon to our west, but we don’t hear the traffic. All we hear is the sound of birds and the quiet talking and laughter of boys. It is truly a place to heal.
This is the pastoral and far-away location of the center for chareidi youth at risk called Darchei Shalom–Ways of Peace. The name is not political; it is peace of mind that is sought by those who enter here.
Peace of mind and protection. All of the boys here were referred by their local social-service offices from more than 20 towns and cities throughout the country–Jerusalem, B’nei Brak, Haifa, Rishon L’Tzion, Tsfat, Kiryat Shmoneh, Beer Sheva, Ofakim . . . the list goes on.
Some of them, had they not been referred, might have found themselves at Eitanim, a center up the road for children and youth with serious emotional disturbances. Some were suicidal. Others have suffered physical or sexual abuse, and sometimes both. They have finally arrived at a place that is safe.
Some 30% were sent here by court directive for being involved in criminal activities; the alternative was juvenile prison. They had internalized the “law of the jungle” as part of their struggle to survive. One has been living on the streets since the age of eight. In another case, a mother deleted her son from her official identity card, legally disowning him. In addition, all of them are AD(H)D. Some have learning disabilities.
There are no drug addicts here; it is not a detox center. It is a school, a yeshiva, where, in addition to their Torah studies, the boys study all the required Ministry of Education courses, receive vocational training in photography, electronics, real estate (business, the art of negotiating), carpentry, or computers, are treated with art and music therapy and animal therapy, and enjoy sports and other extracurricular events.
They have 24/7 access, says the director, Rabbi Ishayahu Erenrich, to a responsible, caring adult at any given time. There are 60 boys currently in the program and more than 40 staff members, including counselors, dorm parents, psychologists, social workers, a psychiatrist, and teachers.
The professionals are not monolithic; they are chareidi, chassidish, Modern Orthodox, and secular. The key requirement is that they be the best people for the job. “A cruel reality has left these boys with feelings of hopelessness, failure, and rejection,” says the rabbi. Darchei Shalom offers them a way out of that labyrinth.
Rabbi Erenrich has been the director of Darchei Shalom for only two years. It began in 1988 and went through many roller-coaster evolutions. He was not looking for a new project to fill his days; he is already the deputy mayor of Bet Shemesh, the chairman of the Mei Shemesh water company in that town, a member of the young guard of Agudah, and has private business ventures. He is a serial entrepreneur.
But Erenrich had reached a crossroads in his professional life, and was looking for something meaningful to do. He told us, “I had just completed one successful commercial project and a business associate of mine suggested we embark on a new venture. I put many hours and days into researching it and considering it; I knew it would be incredibly lucrative.
“And then an old friend of mine approached me about Darchei Shalom. He said, ‘It’s about to collapse. You’re the one who can raise it from the pit. If you don’t step in to save it, we’re finished.’ I came to visit the place, saw the boys, and my heart was captured. I felt that my purpose in life is to help children and not business enterprises.”
The man who is making these declarations is not a cool 20-something counselor. He is a chassid from the Gur court, with a long salt-and-pepper beard and a large black kippah, who at one point had engaged in dayanut studies, to be a rabbinical court judge. He thinks of himself as “from a dynasty of entrepreneurs and city founders.” He was one of the founders of the chareidi city Emmanuel in Samaria. His great-grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchok Gerstenkorn, was a founder of B’nei Brak.
Rabbi Erenrich says that hundreds of young men have graduated over the years, and thirty in the last two years. The school uses a three-dimensional approach, which he says is at the core of their success. They work on the “home” front, the educational front, and the therapeutic front.
On the home front, four couples serve as dorm mothers and fathers. They are closely involved with the students and provide the warm, loving atmosphere and quality time that the boys may have been missing as children. Each couple accompanies a group of 12 students for the five years that he lives in this framework. They wake the boys up and put them to bed, accompany them at mealtimes, help them build healthy interpersonal relationships, educate them on personal hygiene and dress, and teach them to take on personal and group responsibilities.
On the educational front, there are small classes and every student receives an individualized program. Each student also receives his own individualized treatment plan, which combines therapy, counseling, and guidance offered to the student’s parents. Each boy has his own personal social worker, psychiatrist, or psychologist who accompanies him throughout his years at the school, working with his inner world to help him build trust in himself and in others.
Even the kitchen and dining hall are used to educate. The boys are involved in the preparation, serving, and cleanup of meals, as they would be in a regular family, to help them develop a sense of responsibility, and great attention is given to proper nutrition. The staff believes that healthy food will have a direct influence on their motivation and exertion, both mentally and physically.
Rabbi Erenrich’s assistant, Chaim Vidislovsky, says, “They need someone to say to them, ‘Shalom, boker tov.’”
The rabbi became totally committed to raising necessary funds. “I am a well-known public figure so I understood how much I could help them not only survive, but move forward.”
I asked, “What was the first thing you did when you took over the directorship?”
Erenrich answered, “First of all we needed to make it normal. Even the physical premises were horribly neglected, virtually unlivable. The school had received letters from various government offices threatening closure based on that alone, although they appreciated the goals.
“Everything had to be renovated from the bottom up–the dormitory rooms, the dining hall and kitchen, even the ramshackle caravans housing the four couples who serve as house mothers and fathers. How could they perform their jobs while living in appalling conditions? We needed to fix everything so the boys would feel they are in a place fit for humans.
“Previous administrations had kept promising the government offices that they would renovate but they never succeeded, due to lack of funding. The Ministries of Education and Social Services provide the budgets for ongoing expenses, but not for renovation. So when I took it on, we bulldozed ahead.
“I got a former business associate to donate $100,000, and he is not even an Orthodox Jew. When I told him, ‘This is the ICU of the chareidi world, but they are Jewish children; they belong to all of us,’ he got it.
“It took us nine months just to plan how to proceed, and the first thing we did, with our donors’ input, was to get rid of the asbestos buildings. We care about their health and the environment.” Yet, I had noticed that his office was the most primitive building on campus. He saved his own comfort for last. “I want only the best for the children.”
It has paid off, even in the eyes of the authorities. Today Darchei Shalom has endorsements and letters of praise from the Jerusalem and Bnei Brak municipalities, from city welfare departments and from juvenile court.
The night before our interview, Rabbi Erenrich said that he met again with that generous donor and told him about the housewarming they had held a month earlier of the kitchen renovations. “I had sent him photos. He told me how happy he was that I had come again. He himself is dyslexic and he built up his successful businesses with his own two hands, from scratch.
“It was personal contacts such as these that I approached with all my energy–people I knew from the worlds of politics and business. Usually fundraisers feel more comfortable approaching strangers, but I pulled out all the stops with my closest, wealthiest friends and colleagues. If you are profoundly committed to something, you can do that. They knew I was deeply immersed in this project.”
It is important to Rabbi Erenrich to emphasize that the students are not “dropouts,” which is a much lighter definition. “They are youth at risk, ranging in age from 13 to 18. Some have been abused or were abusers. Some have serious emotional, behavioral, or psychological problems. Others were borderline criminals.
“Until now they have known only failure. They have been repeatedly struck down (literally or figuratively) by their families, the schools, society. One of our primary goals is to help them to experience a feeling of success.
“We hire as counselors young men who themselves went through our process. A month ago we held sheva berachot for two of our graduates. It’s important for the current students to see that they, too, can grow up and create successful families.
Regarding what work they find at graduation, Erenrich responded, “We cannot always bring the boy to professional level by the age of 18, but, in addition to vocational proficiency, we have given him the emotional tools to succeed. In normal situations, a boy receives these ‘tools’ at the age of 10. We help them develop skills that will help them to survive in the workplace, to not plunge to the depths if something does not go well for them.
“Some of them will already be proficient enough in photography or carpentry, computers, or electronics in order to apprentice in those areas, while they continue to study. The music, art, or animal therapy they receive also sometimes helps them to navigate in one of those directions.”
Regarding the army, Erenrich clarified, “We don’t make an issue out of it. I am in a very delicate place so I walk between the raindrops. We want them to be able to go home and feel comfortable in their communities, but if they show interest, we help them and stay in contact with them if they enlist. Unfortunately many of them have issues or background stories that would preclude them being accepted into the army anyway.”
I asked, “How is your school accepted in the chareidi world?”
“With great love and appreciation and respect. The parents and the rabbanim, some of whom arrange for boys to be referred to us, think we are performing true shlichut.”
When asked if they have any students from outside of Israel, he answered, “There are a few children from abroad and there is demand but we don’t have the financial resources to handle it right now. Perhaps someday.”
What can be done to prevent the situations that cause the boys to come here? “Nothing. There always were problems such as these and there always will be. We must learn to deal with them.”
Erenrich describes the families: “They are always difficult families. Some are very poor, some have difficult marital relations. There will always be causes for children to become ‘at risk.’ Sometimes parents feel powerless and they don’t know how to handle a more difficult child who comes along.
“We also try to find surrogate families for those who, for one reason or another, cannot return to their original home, as in the case of a boy whose mother literally threw him out of the house and deleted him from her official identity card. A place was found for him with a family in the Binyamin area. He goes there for weekends, goes on family vacations. He totally became one of the family.”
I walk around the campus and notice a student standing in the door of the beit midrash. I wandered over and asked how he enjoys being at the school. “Very much,” he says with a wide smile. I peek in and see everyone is in crisp white shirts and dark pants. I asked if they’re in white shirts because it’s rosh chodesh. “No,” he says, surprised at the question. “We always dress like this.” Later, Rabbi Erenrich tells me that teaching them to dress properly helps them internalize proper behavior norms and raise their self-esteem.
I ask, “What is your vision going forward?”
I see a twinkle in his eye, but he takes his time answering. “My true vision is to create an expansive therapeutic youth village that will provide enough space for as many boys who need it, that will address a number of different problems. We need many frameworks. It would be in the Jerusalem hills. I’m already scouting locations.
“My goal is to be a source of support to these boys until their second child is born. We accompany them on their way–professionally, in learning frameworks, and as they begin their marriages and building families, for they continue to need our support.”
Erenrich explains his financial structure: “I know exactly how to handle our running budget from the ministries; have it down to a fine science. But it leaves us ‘choked.’ The vocational training we provide is not included in the official funding, and we help them out with clothing as necessary. None of that comes from the government offices. We have some private donors, and have received generous help from Keren Yedidut Toronto.”
Darchei Shalom’s tagline is “A helping hand at the edge of the abyss.”
“Today, more than everything else I’ve done, I feel this is my calling in life, my reason for being here,” says Rabbi Erenrich. The savvy, articulate director is a little embarrassed by the involuntary tears that spring to his eyes, as he says, “I am connected to them. What are most fathers doing erev Pesach?” I shrug and raise my eyebrows, imagining my husband on a ladder, handing down boxes of Pesach dishes, grating the horseradish, peeling potatoes, or having a look at the Haggadah.
“I spend it calling every single one of these boys to wish them a chag sameiach. They are not ‘like’ my children. They are my children.” v
Rabbi Erenrich will be in London during August 22—29. More information is available by eâ€‘mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Among the projects currently on the drawing board in need of funding: dorms, mentors, music room, electrical system overhaul, kitchen and dining hall, animal center, gym, bicycle room. computer room, and a game room.
Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist and editor living in Israel.