It takes more than a village

Yair Lapid and friends fight the establishment in an effort to create a ranch for troubled Israeli teens. Guess what? They lose

I totally screwed up.


I have spent more than a little of my own money and a lot of other peoples. I wasted hundreds of hours on meetings, needless traveling and futile networking. I drove people who only wanted to help me nuts. I aggravated the newsroom, my family, even people I have never met. All of this in an attempt to establish a ranch for disadvantaged youth at Miftan Safed.


But I failed and I wasn’t alone in this. There were others involved as well. Each one will now have to decide what path to take. I am giving up. This is the last time I want to deal with it.


At the beginning, we were all naive. Nine years ago I got a call from a fellow named Uri Sivan. He introduced himself as the director of Miftan Safed and asked to meet me. The first thing I noticed when he sat down at the Tel Aviv coffee shop was the version 2000 of medieval paintings of Jesus: Light hair, long, a thin beard, on a thin body. We sipped espresso and he told me all about Miftan, a school offering the last chance to those who have already had their last chance. Forty-eight kids – thrown out of their homes, hanging out in street gangs – kids that we, Israeli society, the entire establishment have just given up on.


A week later I got in my car and drove up there. I met young people who still appear in my dreams at night and during the day. N who one day went crazy and threw acid on herself and her face. H and J, two brothers who essentially raised their baby sister because their father was in jail and their mother a drug addict. S the Ethiopian boy who somehow managed to reach 11th grade without knowing how to read or write, R who one day without any apparent reason placed his hands around Uri’s neck and it took three people to peel him off.


All of them spend are at Miftan. It’s an overcrowded facility made out of cement, ugly, not far from the Safed garbage dump. The stench is overbearing, the heat insufferable, the classrooms are small and an entire battery of engineers has already determined that the place is a safety hazard. Behind is a mound of gravel on which is built a spacious and ventilated stone building which looks out on its young neighbors. It’s a Talmud Torah – one of them – built by the Shas party.


When we went outside during that first visit, already I could not breathe. Uri brought me to an open space, west of Miftan. Here, he said, we will build our youth ranch. It was clear he could visualize it all: the stable, the corral for the horses, the metal shop, the kiln for ceramics and the carpentry shop, a kitchen and dormitories. After a few minutes I began to see it too. A working ranch, aesthetic, built according to those educational models that have proved themselves in Europe and the US. Students would leave the ranch with a trade or skill in hand. When he finished speaking, I shook his hand and promised him the ranch would be built. I have broken my promise.


The last two years have been stormy. A slew of organizations joined the effort: Zionism 2000, Galileo Fund, Friends of Miftan, Sacta-Rashi. The Social Affairs Ministry agreed to finance a long school day and new activities began to develop at Miftan: Sports and the arts, riding and extreme sport. My father-in-law who is an architect drafted – voluntarily of course – a first plan for the ranch. A year later Miftan Safed and Uri received the Social Welfare Ministry’s award for excellence in recognition of "using educational activities in innovative and groundbreaking ways". The main problem was the operational budget from the municipality which never arrived. We didn’t take it seriously, as it seemed the kind of problem that would be resolved in time.


We began appealing to anyone we knew in order to subsidize the extra curricular activities. Twice we managed to meet with a group of donors at the home of my friend Ronen Peled and they helped the place to survive one more year.


Once the extra curricular program was more or less running, we started to fight another battle. The Education Ministry cut the budget for Miftan for 2007 which was part of the special education allocation. Without these funds, the children don’t get therapy or a gym teacher, or a tutor for those with learning challenges (just about all of them).


Together with the administrators of the national Miftan organization we appealed to the Knesset Education Committee to reinstate the budget. The committee held a long meeting and ordered the education ministry to return the budget. We waited six months and nothing was done. We appealed again. The committee ordered the ministry to reinstate the budget and the monies still did not come. Three education ministers came and went, and we were still waiting for the money.


At this point the Safed's municipality entered the picture, notifying us that construction cannot take place without a tender going through the municipality’s bureaucracy. We tried to argue that since we were using money we raised, we are allowed to do whatever we want with it. But since Uri received (or did not receive) his salary from the municipality, we did not have any choice. One of my visits to Safed we took a trip to the designated building site accompanied by the mayor, Yishai Maimon of the National Religious Party. His predecessor Oded Hameiri had already been the subject of a police investigation into possible illegal payoffs at building sites. Maimon, a likable man, promised me repeatedly things would work out. I believed him.


To this day we have no idea what happened to that internal construction tender. No one has ever bothered to explain to us what happened to the funds we raised. We only received notification that a local contractor had been awarded the tender but we had never heard of him. But then we didn’t care because we were happy. I brought another group of donors and this time we showed them the area where the bulldozers were already starting to work.


It took a few months to realize that the bulldozers weren’t doing much. The work was plodding along at an aggravatingly slow tempo and what was worse, the digging of the corral where horse riding is supposed to take place was not done properly so the earth caved in after the first rains.


So we were stuck again. But we decided to at least try and raise funds for some of the other things that needed to be done. I turned for help to my good friend Tova Dorfman who is the Israel liaison with the Jewish Federation of Detroit. A few months later I went to Detroit and in 12 below zero (Celsius) temperatures I appeared in front of a group of good-hearted Jews. One of them, a charming renegade from the Sixties by the name of Philip Fisher has since become a good friend. He gave us $100,000 to help finance the building of the ranch. We felt we were back on the horse or if everything went according to plan, on several horses.


Three days later, Uri called me from home in the middle of a school day. He sounded weak and shaken. It turned out that one of his students had beaten the crap out of him. We met two days later. He wanted to leave the project but I convinced him to stay. It wasn’t the first or the last time.


Three months later summer came and none of the authorities were willing to take on the organization of summer camps for the youngsters. Maybe it sounds petty but for high-risk kids, summer camp is a crucially important thing. If you lose them for two months the chances are they will never return. I again called Philip Fisher and asked for his help. He sent it and I wrote him: “I thank you for the money dear friend and feel relief because without you these children would be spending the summer in the streets.” He called me that same night and asked if the country didn’t have any other group or authority that handles this issue and I said no.


So that is how we got through the summer and then the winter. The construction was at a standstill. In the spring of 2005, Uri, Tova Dorfman and I drove to Ben Shemen Forest, headquarters of the Sacta-Rashi Fund. We met with its director Eli Alayoff and asked him to take on the project. He was very energetic and productive. That same summer, the fund submitted a report to the Safed's municipality with recommendations how to quickly solve the problems. The municipality notified the fund that it rejected the report. The fund said in response that it was ready to take on and complete the project but on the condition that the contractor is fired.


In response, the contractor sued both the city and us for inflated compensation. The fund tried many times to reach a compromise but the municipality refused to take a stand for some reason. Strangely enough their first theory was proven: We are pests who cause trouble.


In the meantime, we had begun new activities: We stole money from ourselves. There wasn’t any money to help the families of the youths so we took from the ranch’s building fund. We lacked equipment so we took more from the building fund. There was no budget for summer activities so we took from the building fund. At a certain point we even took money to pay for cosmetic surgery for the girl who threw acid on her face. But after the plastic surgeon saw her he refused to take payment. I updated the donors on every detail and they approved every action we took but it didn’t make us feel that we were getting anywhere.


Then the war broke out. Uri – unlike so many of the senior municipal clerks who called him disloyal – didn’t run away from the town. Night and day he drove around in his battered old car trying to locate his students and take them home. When the Katyushas started to fall he called and asked us to find donations for meals and for activities. Revital Strauss and I tried to raise money but all our donors were busy, crazed and most important flooded with requests for help.


In the end we paid out of our own pockets, mostly her pocket. Uri wanted the summer camp to continue into the evening because he was afraid of what the war was liable to do to his kids. I told him that it wouldn’t work. That made him a little mad but in the end he understood and closed the summer camp earlier in the day. The next day, an hour after the kids left a Katyusha fell into Miftan. Had we gotten the money, there would have been a disaster.


Despite the tough summer, Uri swore that the Miftan Ranch would open in time for the new school year. He worked around the clock like a lunatic. He wanted Miftan to open on time so he refused to surrender despite the fact that he hadn’t been paid again.


The modest ceremony was nice. Too bad no one from the Safed's municipality bothered to show up. On the other hand, we read the newspapers and they all reported the promises of the budgets for rehabilitation that would now be made available. We drew up a new building plan and Uri wrote up for the-who-knows-how-many-times a brochure detailing the educational goals of the ranch. Again, a few months passed but no one gave us the slightest indication they were interested in our project or in our money for that matter.


Things were clearly deteriorating. The number of students dropped to only 30. Most of the donors had vanished. The activities now ended at 12 noon. No meals were served and Miftan was closed on Friday. There were occasional flickers of hope. The Social Affairs Ministry deputy director-general promised he would visit in order to try and help but he was unable to set up a meeting with any of the senior municipal officials so he cancelled his visit. The management of Miftanim promised to help and the Ministry of Education told Uri that they would not allow the project to collapse. We waited. Nothing happened


Two months ago we finally got a response: They fired Uri. No one admitted of course that it was because they were sick of our pestering but I am free to draw my own conclusions. No one spoke to me. True I was only a bit player in this saga but I did invest nine years in the project. Seems to me they could have called. I waited several weeks and then I called Philip and in one of the most embarrassing phone calls of my life, I refunded his money.


So how do I summarize it all? I don’t know. We had a good idea. We raised the money and asked nothing from the government or the Safed's municipality. But we failed anyway. Miftan remains the way it was: overcrowded, neglected, hazardous. The land that was designated for the building remains abandoned. Uri and I had coffee a few days ago. I told him that maybe it was better this way. Instead of spending his life surrounded by despair and violence, he has found a normal job that enables him to spend time at home. He said there was something to that. Afterwards we fell silent for about 15 minutes and went our separate ways.


פרסום ראשון: 08.24.07, 15:08
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