Israeli psychoanalyst and Argentine priest unite to help at-risk kids

Having met in Madagascar at a ‘kibbutz’ for the disadvantaged, the two realized they shared a belief in unconditional love for society’s most marginalized people

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Pedro Opeka and Henri Cohen Solal (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)
Pedro Opeka and Henri Cohen Solal (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

A loving, healthy family gives a child untold advantages in life, but not all children are so lucky.

In Israel, about 400,000 children (17 percent of all children) under the age of 18 are registered with social services as “at-risk youth,” meaning they are performing extremely poorly in school, abusing drugs or alcohol, suffering from mental health issues, or come from abusive or neglectful families. Of these, about 150,000 of teenagers are high risk, meaning they are exposed to violence, criminal activity, serious drug abuse and even sexual abuse in their own home.

But according to the Friends of Bait Ham NGO, about 39 percent of these kids do not get the services they need from the government.

Henri Cohen Solal began founding batim hamim or “warm houses” in Israel in the 1980s along with a group of like-minded fellow immigrants from France. A psychoanalyst by profession, Solal and his organization, Beit Esther, have founded 50 warm houses throughout Israel, in places like Jerusalem, Beersheba, Yeruham, Sachnin, Kseife, Hatzor, Tel Aviv and Daburriya, which he later hands off to the local municipality or another NGO. Many warm houses are located in Arab or Bedouin municipalities because Arab youth constitute 43 percent of at-risk youth in Israel.

Each warm house consists of an apartment with coffee, tea, snacks, two to four counselors and organized activities like music, sports, theater, drumming or photography. The warm houses are open 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Youths find out about them through word of mouth.

As one 16-year-old girl explained it, “You feel at home. You have a living room, a kitchen and a play area…you can pass the time without getting into trouble, and there’s a great atmosphere. There are people to talk to, people who care, you’re not in the street wandering around.”

Solal told The Times of Israel the philosophy behind the batim hamim is radical acceptance.

“We don’t kick any kid out,” said Solal, “even if they’re violent or difficult.”

Which may explain an unusual visit that took place earlier this month. Father Pedro Opeka, a Catholic priest from Argentina who works as a missionary in Madagascar helping the poor, and who received a Legion of Honor and had been nominated for a Nobel Prize, came to Israel at the beginning of December to visit Solal and tour the warm houses.

In fact, ever since the devout Catholic and traditional Jew met several years ago, both became convinced that the same spiritual force animates their life’s work: the idea that unconditional love and acceptance of society’s most dejected and marginalized people can help them achieve autonomy and pull themselves out of misery. So strong was their belief that they created a joint charity “Les Maisons Chaleureuses” (French for warm houses) and now fund-raise together in France and Israel.

A first-world problem?

One highlight of the tour was when Father Pedro visited the Intercultural Mediation Center of Abu Ghosh just west of Jerusalem, which Solal’s organization opened earlier this year with the goal of promoting dialogue between Jewish and Arab youth at risk.

“You’d be surprised at how well they get along,” Solal said. “The Jewish and Arab youth at risk have the same problems; they’re wandering the streets with nowhere to go, they get in trouble with all kinds of frameworks.”

One of the important cultural differences between Jewish and Israeli Arab youth, he said, is knowing whether boys and girls can be in the same clubhouse.

“In Kseife, boys and girls are separate, in Abu Ghosh there are separate hours for boys and girls, in Daburriya, it’s the same house but there are separate areas, while in Sachnin, the sexes are mixed,” noted Solal, referring to Arab towns with varying mores. In Jewish neighborhoods, he said, all the warm houses are mixed.

Solal with members of a joint Jewish-Arab soccer team (Courtesy)
Solal with members of a joint Jewish-Arab soccer team (Courtesy)


Asked how Father Pedro responded to the warm houses, Solal said, “He thought it was important and worthwhile, reducing the danger to each child from the street, but he did say, ‘There is a difference, Henri, between this and the poverty I witness every day. Even if you say there is something in common between us, still in Madagascar, the main problem for the children is having enough to eat.’”

The wretched of the earth

Several years ago, Solal was visiting a donor who lived in Mauritius near Madagascar. Solal had a part-time job teaching mediation at Paris’ Catholic University and his colleagues there told him to be sure to visit Father Pedro while in the area.

“I thought I would open warm houses in Madagascar. But when I got there I saw our tools were not strong enough. I saw that Pere Pedro was succeeding, so I joined his project.”

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, with 91 percent of the population living on less than $2 a day. Close to half of all children are malnourished and the country is ranked fourth-lowest in the world for access to safe drinking water.

When Pedro Opeka arrived in the country’s capital of Antananarivo in 1968, he saw small children who looked like skeletons scavenging for food on hills of garbage. He met families who lived in cardboard boxes and mothers who had lost five, six or seven children to malnourishment and disease.

“What can you say to a mother who has lost seven children?” Opeka said to an interviewer, “Nothing. You can take her hand and say, ‘Mother if you have another child, we’ll help you to raise it so that it will live.”

He founded an NGO called Akamasoa, which he helpfully described to The Times of Israel as a kind of “kibbutz,” but which now has spread out over 18 villages and houses 30,000 people. To live in Akamasoa, parents are required to work and send their kids to school. They must also abide by a charter, with rules that include no violence and no stealing. Another 900,000 people who are not residents of the villages have been offered food, medical care, clothing or shelter for short periods of time in Akamasoa’s welcome centers.

The villages are currently 75 percent self-sufficient and receives the rest of their funds from donations. Villagers have built schools, clinics and a stone quarry and sell embroidery and handicrafts. Many are being trained to build houses and pave roads so that they can use these skills in other parts of Madagascar.

What is a home?

“In Israel we are not dealing with the kind of absolute poverty you see in Madagascar,” said Solal. “Here we have kids on the street who feel abandoned, rejected, stuck. We shouldn’t let them stay on the street because drug dealers and others will take advantage of them.”

Solal says that of the 30,000 Malagasys living in Akamasoa, 13,000 are under the age of 18.

In both cases, he says, a child “gets the love that helps him change his position in society. It’s amazing how the same process happens in Madagascar. Pere Pedro takes kids off the street where they live in absolute poverty and many finish high school and even university.”

In both cases, kids are being given a place. “The place gives them back their dignity and they need to feel they belong to the place. Belonging is very important. Not to have the culture of the street but the culture of a home.”

Solal says he would like to open a warm home in East Jerusalem where he will target kids who might be attracted to terrorism.

Children in Akamasoa, Madagascar (YouTube)
Children in Akamasoa, Madagascar (YouTube)

“They receive propaganda that there is a satanic enemy called Israelis and I want to work with them so they understand maybe the enemy is the enemy but it is also a person you can talk to you can trust — and perhaps even for them it is better not to be in an endless war or endless terror.”

“We have plans with the Jerusalem municipality but no great success yet.”

Solal and Pere Pedro are planning to hold a joint fundraiser for their two programs in Israel in the coming year. Half the money will go to Madagascar and half to warm houses in Israel.

When asked why people would be willing to support such seemingly disparate causes, he suggests that they’re not as far apart as one might think.

“When I visited Madagascar, I was struck by the culture and their hospitality. There are words in Malagasy that seem to come from Hebrew. No one knows why. The people all undergo circumcision.”

In fact, there is a Malagasy legend that they are descended from one of the Lost Tribes.

“As for Pere Pedro and I, we have the same God. We don’t have a lot of theological discussions, but we both believe children are everything.”

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