Yonina Stern is a tall, pretty 16-year-old, but for all her life experience, she could easily be twice that age.
A truant since the age of 11, Stern (not her real name) ran away from home at least a dozen times. Living on the streets for months on end, smoking pot and crack, she would inevitably be picked up by the police and sent home – only to run away again.
This vicious cycle was finally broken three months ago, when the courts placed Yonina in Magen, a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation program for teen-age girls in trouble.
Supported by the ministries of social welfare and education, with assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Rashi Foundation and the Elem Association for Youth, Magen, which in Hebrew means shield, runs two live-in facilities for girls from troubled, often abusive homes.
The first home, Mesilla, provides on-site housing and schooling for 24 teens. Though the premises, on a moshav on the outskirts of the capital, are enclosed by a high fence, the residents are free to roam the grounds and are permitted to visit their parents once every three weeks.
The second facility, located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot, is a half- way house. Here, eight Mesilla graduates who are well on their way to leading “normal” lives, reside in a more open, yet still nurturing environment.
Those who break the house rules or fail to behave in school are sent back to Mesilla for a few days or weeks.
Shlomo Shoham, the stern but good-natured principal of Mesilla, says the Ministry of Social Welfare, which deals with dysfunctional families, has already identified 5,000 Israeli girls considered to be a risk.
While the majority of adolescents identified as high-risk receive counseling and other services within their communities, several hundred have been removed from their homes and sent to special boarding schools.
Unfortunately, experts say, there are too few rehabilitation facilities and too many girls in need of help. Of the 40 live-in programs around the country for adolescents, only a quarter serve girls.
In most instances, Shoham says, “the teens have been subjected to various kinds of abuse – physical, sexual, emotional. “Some have experienced rape by family members or neighbors. Some have been gang raped. Often their parents consider them damaged goods,” he says.
“Half of our students have at least one parent in prison. Two have both of their parents in detox. Many have dropped out of school and have behavioral problems. Is it any wonder that they have the least skills and are the least motivated?” he asks.
As a rule, Shoham says, “the girls suffer from extremely low self-esteem and, since they have not spent much time in school, lack the basic social and educational skills needed to function in mainstream Israeli society.”
Thanks to Magen, the girls at Mesilla are learning a trade, as well as receiving an education.
With the cooperation of the Ministry of Labor, the students are encouraged to study hairdressing, cosmetology and other marketable skills that will give them an advantage when they need to support themselves.
Though Mesilla looks like any other Israeli high school – except for the locked front gate – what goes on inside is far from usual.
First, the student/teacher ratio is an impressive 6-to-1, and sometimes less. The average ratio in mainstream Israeli schools is 40-to-1.
Discipline is key. Though amiable and accessible to all his students, “Shlomo,” as the girls call their principal, is a tough disciplinarian.
Working on a point system, the principal and teachers deduct points whenever a student runs away, disrupts class or refuses to do assigned tasks.
Edna Ron, a math teacher, explains that “Without enough pints, the girls won’t be allowed to leave the school for their once-a-month visits home. Very soon, the girls learn that being late for class or fighting with other students just isn’t worthwhile.”
Sara Cohen (not her real name), one of Ron’s math students, nods her head in agreement.
“I’m living in the half-way house in Ramot, but I was caught smoking at school and they sent me back here for three days,” she says.
Cohen, 17, says she is eager to return to the half-way house “because it feels like home.” Abused by her mother, she says she ran away to an army base when she was 12 to be near her boyfriend. Caught by the military police, she was sent to a shelter, then back to her mother. She was sent to Mesilla, against her will, two years ago.
“It’s okay here,” she says. “It’s given me the skills I need to advance in life. I learned how to be a hairdresser, and maybe that is what I’ll be once I get out of the army.”
“They want us to learn from our mistakes,” says Yonina Stern, “and it’s not so easy. I used to go to the disco with my friends, stay out all night and go to bed at 8 a.m. Now, suddenly, that world is closed to me.”
Still, she says, “this place has helped me think about my life, what I’ve done wrong and how I can improve things.”
Though life has offered few good things until now for these teen-agers, the girls say they are optimistic that they can turn their lives around.
“I want to serve in the army and then be a wife and mother with a normal husband,” Stern says.