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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jerusalem forum for at-risk youth teaches coping skills

Forum discusses problems in the haredi sector, as well as the high incidence of suicide among Israeli youth.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was joined by teachers, youth groups, youth advocates, city councilors and students for the first-ever “Forum for At-Risk Youth” on Wednesday evening, in the municipality’s first attempt to unite the city’s various educational programs to solve some of the most pressing problems faced by the city’s teens.

The forum was held just prior to the lighting of the “Lights of Hope,” a 720- meter-long flag, which was lit on Wednesday night on the walls of the Old City near Jaffa Gate, by President Shimon Peres, Barkat and Nava Barak, the head of the ELEMYouth in Distress organization, to raise awareness and funds for at-risk youth.

Spearheaded by youth advocate powerhouse Shabtai Amedi, head of the municipality’s Kidum Noar (For the Advancement of Youth) program, the forum discussed problems in the haredi sector, as well as the high incidence of suicide among Israeli youth.

The ultra-orthodox is the sector with one of the highest drop-out rates, at 10.9 percent. Additionally, 8% of haredi youth are not enrolled in any kind of educational framework.

In 2010, there were 640 reported incidents of suicide attempts among people aged 14 to 24, according to hospital emergency rooms across the country. This does not include the suicide attempts that went unreported, said Talal Ben Noar, a 16-year-old from Beit HaKerem, and an active participant in Kidum Hanoar, who presented the findings on suicide rates to the forum.

She pointed out that Facebook and online harassment was the cause of at least one suicide in the past year, when a 15-year-old from Kfar Adumim hanged himself after receiving nasty comments on his Facebook page.

She added that the causes of depression and suicide were complex – especially in the ultra-orthodox and religious sectors, where the social stigma can keep some people from seeking help.

Another Kidum HaNoar participant, Natan Stivelberg, criticized the municipality’s suggestion to fund more therapists.

“Don’t just look for money for more therapists, we need to look for alternative ways for people who won’t ask for help,” said Stivelberg. “Make school more meaningful for them... the only reason I stay in school is my cinematography class. Find more options like that.”

Echoing Stivelberg’s comments was Fiona Kanter, the mother of 16-year-old Lee Gabriella Vatkin, who died after a drug overdose in June 2010.

“My daughter was one of the ones who fell through the cracks,” Kanter told the forum. She stressed the need for informal educational options – something the city is presently lacking. There are successes in Jerusalem’s struggle to help troubled youth, Kanter told The Jerusalem Post, citing alternative schools like Meled, or the four-year-old “Parent’s Patrol,” for parent volunteers who oversee troubled neighborhoods.

But one giant gap in the city is informal programs.

Kanter, who worked for Nir Barkat’s mayoral campaign as the organizer for Anglo residents, is trying to start a non-institutional afternoon “school” in her daughter’s memory, which will offer teenagers a structured framework in the afternoon.

While drop-in centers already exist in the city, Kanter wants to offer courses including philosophy, drug education and a “street smarts” course that would teach kids how to open a bank account, or rent an apartment.

Kanter said that rather than relying on an extensive network of donations to start her initiative, she wants it to be funded by the municipality, because she envisions it as the overreaching “umbrella” for youth organizations in Jerusalem.

In the meantime, before the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death in six weeks, Kanter hopes to launch a Facebook page for Jerusalem youth called “Interactivi-Lee,” where teenagers can reach out for help in a medium they are comfortable with.