By Simon Griver
Thursday night is the big night in Or Akiva as it is in every Israeli city. With the weekend falling on Friday and Saturday in the country, Thursday night offers an opportunity to unwind after a tough week's work and school. While adult Israelis may have the money to go out on the town, all too often teenagers can only afford to hang out on the streets and in public parks - a recipe the world over for drug and alcohol abuse, vandalism, gang violence and petty crime.
The Or Akiva Parents Patrol, established three years ago and supported by the Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000 (P2K) program, which twins Or Akiva with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, has been highly effective in reducing such delinquent behavior.
"The presence of more than 50 volunteer parents patrolling the city in groups on Thursday nights has had a significant impact," says Rena Genn, the Miami Community Representative in Israel. "The youngsters also appreciate that this is a group of people who are not looking to enforce the law but genuinely care about them."
In December the Parents Patrol program received Presidential acknowledgement when representatives of the volunteers from 13 cities around Israel in which the program operates were invited to the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem. "Any person who saves a teenager from drugs and alcohol, it is as if they have saved an entire world," remarked President Peres, adapting the Talmudic saying for the occasion.
Or Akiva Mayor Simha Yosipov told President Shimon Peres "This is one of the most vital programs in our city," he said. "The dedication and loyalty of these volunteers in supporting this project is truly commendable."
Avner Waxman, Chair of the Parents Patrol program and a member of the P2K Steering Committee spoke at the Presidents Residence on behalf of all the 13 communities involved in the program. "Parents Patrol as it operates in Or Akiva is unique," he explained, "in that we function as an educational rather than enforcement patrol. In other cities the parents work hand-in-hand with the police but I think it works better our way because the youngsters understand we are on their side."
Waxman stresses that as a result teenagers in trouble with often seek out the patrol rather than the other way around. "We had a group of 17 year olds last month," recounts Waxman, "who had dropped out of school. They asked the Parents Patrol to mediate for them and negotiate their return to school. They are now learning again in 11th grade."
Parents Patrol is just one of dozens of P2K programs which has been operating in Or Akiva over the past decade. In fact the Miami Jewish Community's relationship with Or Akiva stretches back 27 years and the communities were initially twinned in the Jewish Agency's Project Renewal program for urban rehabilitation. Over this period Or Akiva has been transformed from a sleepy, disadvantaged backwater of 7,000 to a more flourishing city of 22,000, though still with many socio-economic problems.
The 50 or so parents in the Parents Patrol represent all the population sectors living in Or Akiva including veteran families of Mizrachi origin to newcomers from the Former Soviet Union and especially the Caucasian Mountain region.
Shlomi Suissa is the Project Operator of the Parents Patrol. His daytime job is as the Or Akiva coordinator for the Authority on the War on Drugs and Alcohol, so he has a professional understanding of the problems facing today's teenagers.
"We have literally saved dozens of teenagers from becoming drug addicts," he observes, "and increasingly the youngster are seeking us out and asking for help. Just last week an entire group of teenagers came to meet us and asked us for help and we now have them attending Or Akiva's rehab program."
Judy Yuda, the Jewish Agency's Or Akiva Partnership 2000 Director, says that above and beyond the funding given to the Parents Patrol by P2K, the program also reflects the values being promoted by the Israel-Diaspora partnership.
"One of the fundamental aims of P2K is to encourage volunteerism," she stresses, "and the role that citizens can play in improving their own neighborhoods without waiting for the government and authorities to do everything for them. We also hope to bring together Or Akiva parents with Miami parents involved in similar programs."
Although Parents Patrol seeks to befriend beleaguered teenagers rather than enforce laws, the program operates in full cooperation with government, municipal, educational and other authorities. The bottom line is that the Parents Patrol has reduced crime in Or Akiva and enhanced the happiness of teenagers and their parents.