Jerusalem's American Street Kids


They live on the streets of Jerusalem. They sleep where they can, eat when they can, go to school when they can make it there, work when they can hold a job.  They have families, but no place to go home to.  They are not from Israel, but they are now Israel's problem.  They are Anglo teenagers from the Jewish diaspora who are homeless in the Jewish homeland.

The majority of the teens come to Israel in two ways. Some move there with their families from America, Canada, England and Australia.  Their parents make the decision to live as Ultra-Orthodox Jews in communities in Israel.  For kids who have not been raised strictly Orthodox, the move is a double culture shock.  Their parents are dedicated to a new life, but the kids cannot adjust.  When they don't live by the house rules, they are forced to leave their parents' houses.

Some of these teens are sent from overseas to study in yeshivas, Jewish religious schools scattered throughout the Jerusalem area.  For thousands of kids from Orthodox Jewish communities in America, these religious boarding schools offer a viable education.  Others are not cut out for them.  Some arrive at the schools with already troubled records.  Their families send them there to straighten up.  When they don't get straight they drop out or get kicked out of the yeshivas.  Some feel it is better to stay in Israel than return to where they came from.

There are issues that unite the teens.  They are English-speakers in a foreign country.  They often come from broken and troubled homes.  Their parents have changed countries, spouses, religions.  Their families do not have the money or resources to deal with problem children.  The kids have trouble staying in school or keeping a job.  They have drinking problems, drug problems and destructive relationships.

Jerusalem is a good place to be a homeless teen.  They don't encounter the level of street violence that exists in American cities.  They have a network of friends with homes who help take care of them, so they can exist by sleeping on one person's couch for days until they move to another friend's porch.  The weather is mild.  There is a constant stream of tourists and visitors to beg money from, and a lively drug trade.

The Israeli government has only recently admitted that there is a problem with foreign street kids.  The government and certain non-profit organizations are trying to tackle the problem.  There are some teens who have entered the system so that they have government-provided shelter and social workers who try to sort out their futures.  Some eventually return to families overseas or in Israel.  Others try to assimilate by joining a special unit of the Israeli army for children of Ultra-Orthodox families.  Still others remain on the streets, caught between two cultures and one religion.


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© Carmel Zucker 2008