In the early 1990s, the State of Israel received its largest-ever single aliyah. The people who arrived came from all over the former Soviet Union and that aliyah became known as the Russian Aliyah.
Teenagers were frequently sent to Israel without parents on Jewish Agency- initiated programs designed specifically for them. An urgent need arose to organize the integration of these teenagers and introduce them to the realities of life, education, professional orientation and even free time in Israel. In many places with large groups of young new immigrants, teenage clubs were established jointly by the Jewish Agency and the absorption departments of city councils to specifically to address this need.
Creating these clubs and establishing their day-to-day activities was fraught with difficulties and was not always successful because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of the different mentalities and cultural values of these young immigrants from the various provinces of the former Soviet empire. Teenagers required completely different work approaches and methodology depending on whether they came from the Caucasus, or from the northern or western areas of the former Soviet Union. These groups differed, not only in everyday stereotypical behavior, but also in the average level of education, general cultural development and background. In many cases, they did not even speak a common language, apart from a little Hebrew which they learned in Israel.
The enthusiasm of people who took on this immense task was not always backed with suitable professional training and the knowledge and experience needed in order to succeed.
Two such clubs were opened in the city of Netanya towards the end of 1992. The first was in Azorim, in the southern section of Netanya. During the first year of the club’s existence, it faced many difficulties, and two of its first managers quit their jobs. In the afternoons and evenings, the club attracted large numbers of teenagers, but attempts at organized forms of work with them were not successful.
In 1994, members of the Advancement of Youth Unit of Netanya's Education Department (Kidum Noar) joined forces with these immigrant youth clubs. One of their main recommendations was to enlist professionals from the former USSR to work at the clubs. Ideally, a trained psychologist from the former Soviet Union with experience in working with difficult teens, was needed.
In light of this approach, a new manager of the Azorim club was recruited - the late Michael Fridman, a Russian, who had immigrated a few years earlier. He had already mastered Hebrew and was sufficiently familiar with Israeli realities as well as with those of various parts of the former Soviet Union.
During his time at the helm, many classes and activities were organized that proved to be popular with the club’s members. For example, an unpopular tailoring class was replaced by a dance class which attracted much more interest and a highly unpopular sociology group was replaced by a sports group that also enjoyed a.large attendance. There were also exceptionally successful evening readings of the works of Israeli writers in Russian translation, which helped teenagers understand culture and life in Israel. Monthly field trips were taken with a qualified guide who spoke both Russian and Hebrew.
Michael Fridman succeeded in attracting a trained psychologist to the club on a permanent basis. Her name was Tatyana Lebedev and, after Fridman's untimely death in 1995, she replaced him as manager. With the arrival of the trained psychologist, the club was at last able to conduct proper psycho-statistical screening of the youths. The results of this screening proved, beyond any doubt, that there was a need for specialized measures aimed at the relief of widespread post-migration stress and emotional deprivation. As one of the first such measures, a psychodrama class was initiated by Tatyana which proved to be highly successful and helpful. Also, as a result of the initial screenings and later, in more intensive work with small groups of teenagers, it became clear that without supplementary classes and tutoring, large numbers of teenagers wouldn’t be able to cope with the school programs, mainly because of the immense structural differences between the school programs in their original environments and those in the Israeli ones. Additional exasperating factors were the language barrier and wide-ranging cultural differences.
In an understandable desire to avoid an environment in which they were perceived as “stupid and lazy”, many teenagers simply stopped going to school and effectively lost any chance of getting a full education and a decent profession, or in other words, any hope for the future.
In many schools there were after-school lessons for new immigrants, but, because of their generally negative emotional background, few attended these classes. Loathing and fear of school in general existed despite teachers' efforts. Such situations naturally resulted in defiant behavior, petty crime and youth gangs.
During this uneasy period, Kidum Noar had developed a working relationship and cooperation with ESRA and for many years, it has been this cooperation that, among many other things, allows the Azorim club to take advantage of the great teachers and trainers who help all the club’s attendees immensely.
Finding teachers and tutors able to work with these so-called “difficult” teenagers was also a difficult task. It was only with the help and support of ESRA that this goal became achievable. Ever since, ESRA has financed the teaching of math, English, Bible, Hebrew grammar, literature and composition. It is largely because of this continued aid for the Azorim club that as many as 300 teenagers have continued learning at school and have successfully completed their matriculation examinations.
Among those 300 are some amazing cases in which it was truly ESRA’s help and support which saved their futures. These were teenagers with varying forms of dyslexia, which had not been recognised in schools for different reasons. The students came from low income families, without sufficient means to afford testing and specialist help. Three such teens went on, not only to complete their school education, but to succeed in obtaining university degrees because of the help they got from ESRA.