Noa Asher Berkeley lives on an “urban kibbutz” in southern Israel, has a 2-year-old son, and is about to give birth to her second child. For three years, she has been working as a Youth Futures Mentor, guiding a group of 16 at-risk middle-school students to more successful interpersonal, academic, and emotional lives. She currently manages the Youth Futures program in Sderot.
Even on a normal day, balancing work and home would be difficult; she is torn between the needs of her Youth Futures children and the needs of her own son, who attends a pre-school in a bomb-safe building near Gaza. But lately, times have not been quite normal.
Berkeley is one of 95 Youth Futures Mentors living in southern Israel; together, they are trying to help 1,160 Youth Futures children get through Israel’s current crisis with as little trauma as possible.
Merav Marciano, manager of Youth Futures in the South, pointed out that “There are Mentors who are dealing with the trauma of their own, biological, children. A few days ago, we reached out to one of our own staff members, because we worried that she needs help. We try to work in parallel, to worry about the children in our program, and also to be supportive of the Mentors – because if the Mentors do not feel a sense of security and appreciation, it is difficult for them to give to the community.”
“The most ‘protected’ room in my house is the bathroom,” Berkeley said, about where she needs to run to safety when the air-raid sirens go off – which they do so often now, all night and all day. “As soon as things escalated, we moved into the home of friends who had fled up north, and we stayed there until yesterday. My husband has been called up serve in the IDF Reserves, so we went yesterday to stay at my in-law’s house. I’m running two fronts now: work and home.”
Still, she has been calling and visiting her Youth Futures charges every day, assessing the emotional states of the children and their families, and finding out what material or mental-health support they might need. “When the ‘Code Red’ sirens go off, many children get anxiety attacks, and we need to organize home visits by psychologists,” Berkeley said.
In one incident, Noa accompanied another Mentor who had discovered that one of the children was living in a top-floor apartment with no bomb-protected space. The Mentors went in person to persuade the family to move temporarily out of their house, and are giving them ongoing support to help minimize their anxiety.
“We are doing what we can to help the children individually, and to take them out for days of respite as a group,” Berkeley said. “But it’s hard because we’ve been in ‘emergency mode’ now for several weeks. The children don’t have much time left in their summer vacation, and what is left we expect will be very heavy and full of emotional baggage they’ll be dealing with long into the new school year. We work so hard with them in Youth Futures to help them succeed, but after a summer like this, the children move three steps back.”
Shimrit Biton, another Mentor and the mother of a 2-year-old, who experienced a rocket landing on the house next door, said that working with the other Mentors inspires her and gives her the strength to keep doing her job. “I am so proud of the staff that is committed to education and to values-based action at all times,” she said. “It warms the heart that The Jewish Agency responds to us, and to others, in real time.”