Yedidim gives immigrant kids a chance to fit in, do better

When 13-year-old Gosha got into a violent fight with some local kids, the police gave him a choice: live with an incriminating police record, which would prevent him from serving in the Israel Defense Forces, or enroll in Yedidim, an organization that runs programs for new immigrant children and marginalized at-risk youth. 

Gosha chose Yedidim, whose Sikuim program helps young offenders turn their lives around and stay out of trouble.

Winner of Israel’s President’s Award for Excellence, Yedidim was established in 1991, at the height of the influx of Soviet Jews to Israel, to help young immigrants integrate into Israeli society. What began as an intervention for a few dozen kids has evolved into a nationwide support system that works annually with 6,000 at-risk children, youth and young adults in 57 mostly outlying communities.

To date, more than 40,000 young Israelis have participated in Yedidim’s six programs. 

The Sikuim program was created in partnership with the Israel police, Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Ministry of Social Affairs and local municipalities to give young offenders a chance to rehabilitate themselves. Once the teens successfully complete the program, the police ask the court to close their files, allowing them the opportunity to serve in the military and get a good job.

“A quarter of the juvenile files the police open belong to new immigrants,” Ruthie Saragosti, Yedidim’s director of international development, explained during a visit to Beit Yedidim, a drop-in center that runs after-school programs and summer camps for Ashdod’s many underprivileged children and teens.

Once they’ve had a brush with the law, Saragosti explained, “Immigrant teens in trouble find themselves disadvantaged in relation to their native Israeli peers.” Whether they come from Russia, Ethiopia or Argentina, “Immigrant parents are often terrified by authority and don’t act on official letters.”

If the letters aren’t answered, Saragosti said, the case enters the judicial system “and it snowballs from there.”

Shimon Siani, Yedidim’s executive director, noted that “being a teenager today is challenging even for those who come from normative families. It is that much more complicated for immigrant families who don’t speak the language, who can’t supervise their kids’ homework or do simple daily tasks like filling out forms.”

All too often, Siani said, immigrant kids “lose respect for their parents and start rebelling against the values of the home.” These dynamics, “intertwined with the emotional and hormonal changes they go through could be a recipe for behavior that has detrimental effects not only on themselves but the communities they belong to,” he said.

Sikuim helped Gosha, whose family moved to Israel from Russia when he was a year old, to turn his life around. For more than a year, he was mentored by Meytal Agerwarker, a volunteer and university student whose tuition scholarship was contingent on performing community service.

Virtually all of the program’s 3,000 volunteers are from distressed high-risk, low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

To instill a sense of responsibility and boost self-esteem, teens like Gosha participate in group activities, like boating and dog training, and perform volunteer work. 

In the beginning, as they were establishing trust, Gosha and Agerwarker just hung out together and played video games and talked.

“When his parents couldn’t reach him, I could,” Agerwarker, a vivacious 22-year-old from an immigrant family, said of the enduring emotional bond she and Gosha continue to share, even though he is no longer in the program. “We’re friends but I think I’m also a role model.”

Unlike many at-risk teens, Gosha said he has always had “excellent relations” with his parents, but because of Sikuim, “it’s even better now. I also began to do better in school, and I feel like more like an equal when I’m around other kids.”

Like Sikuim, Sela, a Yedidim program for Russian and Ethiopian immigrant girls at risk and in distress, works with teens whose dysfunctional home life and behaviors are leading them down a destructive path. 

“This is a true story,” said Saragosti, who proceeded to describe a Russian-born family — mother, father, grandmother and young daughter — who moved to Israel several years ago.

“The father was a gambler and gambled away everything, including the stove and refrigerator. The mother had a breakdown, and the child was left alone with the grandmother.”

With no family network or appropriate adult supervision, “The girl gravitated to the park where older men, many of them from nearby [Bedouin] villages, offered to buy her a Coke and told her she was beautiful. Before she knew it, she stopped going to school and was involved in dangerous and promiscuous behavior in exchange for cigarettes and a pair of new jeans,” Saragosti said.

Once referred to Sela by social services, the girl was paired with a specially trained mentor/university student for one-on-one and group sessions aimed at raising her self-confidence, self-image and self-awareness.

The messages are imparted in a fun way that promotes friendships among the girls. With their mentors, the girls engage in activities like photo therapy, drama therapy and animal therapy, and learn about makeup, style and fashion. They also initiate community service projects. 

“It’s important the girls, who have suffered emotional and sometimes sexual abuse, feel they’re on the giving end of things, that they have something to offer and aren’t owed anything,” said Anafa Shai, national director of the Sela program. “They paint run-down community centers, visit the old and the sick in hospitals.”

Dressed in a flattering outfit, with carefully applied red lipstick drawing attention away from her braces, 14-year-old Sonja (a pseudonym), declared that she is “on the right track thanks to Orbaz [Biton],” the teen’s 21-year-old Sela mentor.

“I was going around with the wrong people. I did some things I’m not proud of,” Sonja said, declining to elaborate. The teen doesn’t have a criminal record, Biton said, adding that “she’s much more responsible than she used to be.”

“I can concentrate better in school, and I’m not disruptive,” Sonja, who has severe learning disabilities, said proudly. “I received a school certificate for improving so much!”

Asked what her future plans are, Sonja replied, “I think I can be a very good singer. Or a social worker.” 

Sara Cohen, head of Department of Social Services in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, said Yedidim is a vital partner in helping at-risk kids stay on track.

“We — Yedidim, the police, social services — we all have one goal: to help these children lead normal lives.”

American Friends of Yedidim and Yededim Israel will host a tribute event at a private Beverly Hills residence on Aug. 5 to honor entertainer Mike Burstyn for his leadership and support in helping at-risk youth in Israel. For tickets and more information, call (310) 666-8555 or e-mail