Israel’s southern city of Sderot, located just one mile from the contentious Gaza strip, has been battered by nearly 10,000 Qassam rockets since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000. These rockets have caused deaths, injuries, significant damage to homes and property, profound disruption to daily life and severe psychological distress. Yet today, Sderot is not only rebuilding its infrastructure, but also developing the future leaders of Israel.
“Meir Panim works with Sderot’s at-risk youth,” explained Goldie Sternbuch, Director of Overseas Relations for Meir Panim. “We were amazed to discover that these traumatized youth actually have tremendous leadership abilities. Therefore, we are doing all that we can to nourish the future leaders of Israel.”
Last summer, Meir Panim inaugurated its first official after-school youth club in Sderot. The event was attended by city dignitaries, community and municipality workers, IDF soldiers who serve as volunteers at the club, parents and their children.
“With proper intervention, we will not only transform young adult lives but also build a cadre of young leaders that will choose to continue living in Sderot and contribute to its future stability and hence, by doing so, create a more secure and stronger Israel,” Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi said at the event.
Just one year later, the success of this club is clear to all. As a result, Mayor Davidi and the municipality, along with Meir Panim, will be partnering to open two more youth clubs in the area.
“The youth club provides high-level educational programs, the latest technological and computer education, therapies, and cultural and recreational activities, and even assists adults in need,” continued Sternbuch. “Meir Panim is proud to partner with the Municipality and expand this crucial program so that many more of the city’s residents can benefit.”
The Sderot Municipality has already appropriated a large public bomb shelter to house an additional youth club. “Converting a bomb shelter into a youth club is rather symbolic,” noted Sternbuch. “It demonstrates how, despite the difficulty of living under the daily threat of attack, the spirit of Sderot’s residents is alive and well. Even a place like a bomb shelter, which is associated with fear and terror, can be turned into a lively place which provides hope and solace.”
Meir Panim is actively raising funds to transform this bomb shelter into a fully furnished and outfitted home away from home with a kitchen, lounge area, computer stations, and play areas. Showers are being installed as, when needed, the shelter can accommodate up to 200 people seeking a safe place from rocket fire.
Fifty percent of Sderot’s residents are immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and many are socioeconomically challenged and have not had higher education opportunities. Approximately 75 percent of the city’s population suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and 80 percent of its citizens earn a minimum wage. Yet, thanks to programs like Meir Panim’s youth clubs, the city is experiencing a revival and showing signs of true leadership.
Social workers note that many of Sderot’s disadvantaged youth do not consider pursuing higher education, which is crucial to a productive future. Teens who participate in Meir Panim’s youth club, which instills in them the importance of a strong education, hard work and the skills to acclimate to Israeli life, consistently express their desire to achieve success and rise above their circumstances.
“We asked a fourteen-year-old boy from an impoverished background what he wanted to be when he grew up,” said Sternbuch. “He said ‘Israel’s Prime Minister.’ When we asked what he would want to be if he wasn’t Prime Minister, he answered with determination, ‘That is what I want to be – Prime Minister of Israel.’ Now, that’s an accomplishment.”
The Sderot Municipality, with the help of Meir Panim’s initiatives, are making a real change in the “bomb shelter capital of the world.” Although the combination of living in a dangerous area as well as the cultural challenges that children of immigrants often face creates a risky environment for young people, the youth club gives these teens the tools to break free of the cycle of poverty. Meir Panim’s after-school youth program not only provides the next generation a chance for a better future but also just might give Israel its future Prime Minister.