OU Israel runs many programs in the Jewish state, mostly targeted to bolstering the Jewish identity of the English-speaking population across the country. However, the Pearl and Harold Jacobs Zula Outreach Center, a safe haven for at-risk teens, may be its most ambitious.
“Zula,” a Turkish word that means “relaxed” or “laid back,” has entered the lexicon of Hebrew slang. The center’s founder, Harel Chetzroni, saw a second interpretation: Zula=Zu La’Hashem (“This to God”).
The Zula concept started more than two decades ago, when Chetzroni saw teens on the streets with no place to go and nothing to do, likely to end up in trouble. OU Israel decided to create a haven for the youth.
It began in the basement of the OU Center on Keren HaYesod Street in Jerusalem but it quickly outgrew the space. With funding from the children of Pearl and Harold Jacobs, The Zula now has two centers, one on the capital’s Jaffa Road and a new one in Safed, offering teens a place to play music, light candles, create art in special therapy rooms, and communicate with each other and with 38 post-army/national service advisers, social workers and psychologist who staff The Zula.
“When the teens first come into The Zula, they feel like they’ve walked into a home,” said Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of OU Israel. “It’s a 450-square-meter [4,850-square-feet] space with a fully stocked kitchen complete with pasta, soup, salads and other refreshments. There are no rules written on the walls but the kids know and respect the unwritten rules. No alcohol, no drugs and no boy-girl PDAs [public displays of affection].”
Berman recalls showing then-Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovitz around when a teen entered The Zula with a bottle of beer. Kalmanovitz was shocked and asked Berman what he was going to do about it.
“I don’t have to do a thing,” he answered. “Watch.”
Immediately four boys and a girl descended on the beer-toting teen, shouting, “What are you doing? This is not allowed! Throw away that beer!”
The deputy mayor was incredulous. He looked at Berman and asked, “How?”
“We’ve created a spiritual safe haven for these teenagers,” he responded. “If they are looking for beer or drugs there are plenty of places they can go to get that. They respect this special place.”
Many of the teens come from difficult backgrounds and many come from National Religious or Haredi families. While some have great parents, some were abused, some were kicked out of their homes and some were traumatized by witnessing terrorist attacks, said Berman.
Some need answers while others don’t know how to ask, and some have been judged for dressing in skirts deemed too short or tops that are too revealing for Orthodox dress codes. Others are battling substance abuse or pornography/promiscuity addictions, are frequent truants, or need help dealing with low self-esteem or social rejection.
Mevaseret Ben Meir bravely shared her Zula journey with the crowd at OU Israel’s recent premier annual Erev Tu Bishvat luncheon, held at the Psagot Winery in the Binyamin region.
She was in 9th grade, 14 years old in a religious school. She suffered from anxiety and couldn’t sit or focus and was miserable in school. At the end of the school year, they told her she couldn’t return. There was no other option, and she had no other frame of reference.
She was no longer religious and she left home. She spent her days hanging out with her friends on the beaches in Tel Aviv and in Be’er Sheva. And then, one of her friends brought her to The Zula.
“I arrived from the cold streets of Jerusalem to an island of sanity, silence and positive eyes in the center of the city,” she recounted. “I met a pair of cute little eyes of Talia’s tiny baby Benro, who was crawling from place to place. And from that moment I met the people who accompany my life to this day.”
Talia, an adviser and young mother, and Chetzroni helped Mevaseret, housing and ministering to her when she needed it most, and helped mediate with Mevaseret’s mother. Mevaseret said that if not for them, her mother would have gone crazy with worry and pain.
Mevaseret met her future husband, a close friend of a friend of hers from The Zula who had died, and at 18 and a half she got married. She is now the mother of a 14-month-old.
Does she worry that her child will one day battle demons similar to her own?
“I think a lot about what will happen to her when she gets older,” she confided. “Will she have questions and problems like me? But I believe and I know from Zula that there are always good people who will be around to help us. I learned so much from watching Chetzroni and the advisers how to educate and watch over my own child.”
At The Zula, social workers are on hand to work with the advisers for the ones who seek out help, and a safe art room is available for women who were victims of abuse and who need sequestering from the larger group. Advisers maintain ongoing relationships with the youth by phone or WhatsApp, and when requested by the teen, they help them talk to their parents, find social services, find food and lodging or pair with host families.
“They know that The Zula is a place where they are going to get unconditional love, guidance and support, no matter what they look like and how they dress. We see hearts and neshamas [souls]. Our staff are human MRI machines. They don’t judge the outside—they look within,” said Berman.
In a creative drawing room at The Zula, the rabbi says you don’t have to be a psychologist to see the messages in the teens’ art. And music is an integral part of the formula as well. The OU produced a CD of some of The Zula music.
The Zula tends to 2,000 teens each week and 5,000 unique teens each year. About 30,000 teenagers have gone through The Zula since it opened 22 years ago. While OU Israel doesn’t track success stories, the stories are endless, Berman said.
In a separate facility in the basement of an old Kurdish synagogue in Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, there is a Zula called Liba for yeshiva boys who crave the Zula atmosphere of spiritual music, food and love but who aren’t comfortable in an atmosphere full of guys and girls. Zula strives to cater and create tailored programs for specific populations, just as it has a separate music circle just for girls who prefer it that way.
A midrasha, Midreshet Zusha, is available for homeless girls over age 18 from Zula.
Two apartments are maintained, one in Psagot and one in Jerusalem’s northern Ramot neighborhood, that together house 21 girls who are performing national service or working.
A couples program called Tochnit Binaya helps young Zula alumni couples who didn’t have solid role models for parenting. They learn how to deal with their relationships and are given advice on raising their children and managing their finances.
According to Berman, the Zula solution is simple—a warm hug, a bowl of hot soup, soulful music, and by the time they leave the Zula support system, they have been given appropriate help to address their frustrations and angst. In some cases, hopefully, that is just what they need.