Youth of Light

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By MAX­INE LIPTZEN DOROT

The Youth of Light Project is a “so­cial busi­ness” that helps teens in Is­rael who have lost their way. It is a glow­ing suc­cess. As a psy­chol­ogy stu­dent in Tel Aviv Univer­sity, 24-year-old Ran Oren took part in a men­tor­ing pro­gram called “Perah.” He was as­signed to help Sagi, a 12-year-old boy who was hav­ing trou­ble in school and came from a dif­fi­cult home. Af­ter their year of work­ing to­gether, they lost touch un­til two years later in the sum­mer of 1999. Out of the blue, Ran got a phone call from Sagi, who told him that af­ter be­ing in a suc­ces­sion of fos­ter homes and amass­ing a po­lice record along the way, he was home­less.

Ran met him in Tel Aviv, and af­ter talk­ing to Sagi’s mother and then his par­ents, in­vited Sagi to live with his fam­ily and also of­fered him a job in their re­tail busi­ness. Sagi then in­tro­duced Ran to his world, where he met street kids who had been lost in the coun­try’s so­cial ser­vice sys­tem and given up on. He was shocked and sick­ened by what he saw: young teens sleep­ing on the floors of aban­doned build­ings, roam­ing the streets, pan­han­dling for change or for cig­a­rettes and raid­ing the garbage of the nearby Mc­Don­alds. They were high on drugs and al­co­hol and their fu­ture was grim. Ran de­cided he had to do some­thing but wasn’t sure what or if it was even pos­si­ble. Af­ter lots of think­ing, he came to the con­clu­sion that the best way to help was to get these kids work­ing, hav­ing seen the pro­found ef­fect Sagi’s job had had on him in a rel­a­tively short time.

As a stu­dent, Ran had learned about Pa­trizio Pao­letti, a vi­sion­ary Ital­ian ed­u­ca­tor whose world­wide foun­da­tion is com­mit­ted to en­cour­ag­ing and helping each per­son to de­velop his/her full po­ten­tial via ed­u­ca­tional projects, life­long learn­ing and so­cial in­te­gra­tion. The Foun­da­tion con­ducts re­search in neu­ro­sciences and psy­cho-ped­a­gogy with uni­ver­si­ties all over the world, in­clud­ing Is­rael’s Bar-Ilan Univer­sity.

Ran went to Italy and met with Pa­trizio Pao­letti to get ed­u­ca­tional sup­port (and later fi­nan­cial aid). Ran was now ab­so­lutely con­vinced that the best way to mo­ti­vate and help these kids was what he had done to help Sagi who was now thriv­ing: give them jobs, a rea­son to wake up in the morn­ing, a sense of pur­pose, sat­is­fac­tion and, the ic­ing on the cake, a salary. A sim­ple busi­ness was needed, one that taught a skill that was easy to mas­ter and one in which you could see re­sults in a short time. But what would that busi­ness be?

In a Her­zliya res­tau­rant not long af­ter his re­turn from Italy, Ran no­ticed can­dles on ev­ery ta­ble, the wax flow­ing over the sides. He asked the man­ager what they did with the wax and was told that they threw it all out. Ran asked if he could have the ex­cess wax and a week later, was pre­sented with sev­eral large boxes. Ran’s busi­ness idea was to make can­dles, a skill nei­ther he nor Sagi nor any­one else who had hooked up with Ran knew any­thing about. Sagi and 24-yearold As­saf Per­sia went to can­dle-mak­ing work­shops, peeked through doors and win­dows of those they were re­fused en­try into, and learned all as­pects of can­dle mak­ing. Keep in mind that in those days there was no In­ter­net, so Sagi and As­saf re­lied a lot on trial and er­ror to per­fect the craft un­til, fi­nally, “Youth of Light” was born.

The first group was in Jerusalem. When asked why not in Tel Aviv, Ran ex­plained, “Let’s say there are 1,000 home­less kids in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, there are 5,000. I’m throw­ing out num­bers, they’re far from ac­cu­rate, but the point is Jerusalem is worse than Tel Aviv, loaded with at-risk kids from ev­ery strata of so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing those who come from ul­tra-Ortho­dox fam­i­lies who were thrown out of their homes when they de­cided not to be re­li­gious any­more. There are also many Arabs, Ethiopi­ans and Rus­sian kids with nowhere to go, so this was our first project.

“We got do­na­tions from the Pao­letti Foun­da­tion, Tz­i­unut 2000, the phi­lan­thropist Stef Wertheimer and the Jerusalem Mu­nic­i­pal­ity. I also put in what I could. Motty Levy, a Jerusalem con­trac­tor who had a big ranch in Jerusalem, of­fered to give us a car­a­van on his ranch to work in and the kids were given places to sleep nearby. The Dan Bus Com­pany do­nated a car, which we used to drive up and down the streets where Jerusalem’s home­less kids con­gre­gated, ar­bi­trar­ily pick­ing them up and feed­ing them.

“We in­tro­duced them to the idea of mak­ing can­dles and ex­plained to them that they would learn how to take some­thing of seem­ingly no value and turn it into some­thing of great worth,” he said. “‘Look,’” we said, “‘here’s an op­por­tu­nity to work, get paid and cre­ate some­thing in the process. Just show up, no ques­tions asked.’”

“Word of mouth did the trick and our group grew,” Ran said. “When kids didn’t show up for work, we looked for them. Some days, they were too spaced out to man­age, but slowly and surely, I’m proud to say, most of our kids be­came clean. We con­cen­trated on be­ing a ‘so­cial busi­ness,’ i.e., our main goal was and still is mainly not to make money, but to help peo­ple, not only like our kids at risk, but any group, phys­i­cally chal­lenged, men­tally chal­lenged, etc., by giv­ing them the life skills that’s needed to suc­ceed in life.”

Af­ter get­ting glow­ing (no pun) recog­ni­tion from Pres­i­dent Reu­ven Rivlin, many cities ap­proached Ran Oren, ask­ing him to open a group in their city. Ashkelon was even­tu­ally cho­sen, since the need there was great, and with the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s sup­port, in­clud­ing gen­er­ous back­ing from the city’s Youth’s Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Of­fice, a 120-sq.m. build­ing, the sec­ond “Youth of

Light” work­shop, opened in 2013 with 20 kids. Ashkelon’s mayor, Tomer Glam, is a big fan. “Ashkelon is lucky to have the ‘Youth of Light’ work­shop here, one of the most im­por­tant projects in our city,” Glam said. “Be­sides the beau­ti­ful can­dles and pack­ag­ing they cre­ate, the kids get an amaz­ing sense of achieve­ment and con­fi­dence in them­selves with the added bonus of learn­ing about busi­ness and how to man­age their lives. These tools will guide them their en­tire lives. The city of Ashkelon will con­tinue to help them in ev­ery way that we can and show our thanks and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for hav­ing been se­lected to be part of the project.”

Be­ing in Ashkelon had an im­por­tant ef­fect on “Youth of Light.”

“Af­ter a few months in Ashkelon,” Ran re­ported, “ev­ery­one knew about us. To­gether with the city’s ‘meitar’ (mer­caz yom tomech l’noar, a cen­ter for un­der­priv­i­leged youth), we were awarded a na­tional prize by the gov­ern­ment for helping high-risk teens get on their feet. Af­ter Ashkelon, we chose Arabe as our next des­ti­na­tion, an Arab vil­lage in the Galilee where it is very hard to find jobs. They see us as a life­saver for the vil­lage and the 22 tal­ented and en­thu­si­as­tic kids there have made this work­shop very suc­cess­ful.”

Two new projects in the cen­ter of the coun­try are on the draw­ing board.

IN 2010, Ran and some kids from Jerusalem went to Ha­vat Derech Atavlin, an herb farm in the Galilee, to take part in a work­shop on medic­i­nal herbs. Ran was so im­pressed with the pos­si­bil­i­ties that he and the farm’s owner, herbal­ist Avi Ziter­sh­plier, de­cided to col­lab­o­rate on pro­duc­ing an herbal can­dle based on co­conut wax and var­i­ous herbs such as laven­der, rose­mary and ver­bena. These in­gre­di­ents have dif­fer­ent ef­fects, in­clud­ing pu­ri­fy­ing the air of bac­te­ria, helping one re­lax, and even re­pelling mos­qui­toes with their cit­ronella line.

Be­sides these and “reg­u­lar” can­dles, “Youth of Light” makes spe­cific can­dles to com­ple­ment soaps made by the na­tion­wide soap bou­tique, Sabon, which sell their can­dles in all their shops and on­line. The same goes for Steimatzky. It is im­por­tant to note that 100% of the sales rev­enue goes back to “Youth of Light.”

Dur­ing their stay in the work­shop, (an av­er­age of 18 months), the teens learn to make the ce­ramic cans that the can­dles are pack­aged in and also learn can­dle de­sign, but there’s much more.

“We en­cour­age and help the kids com­plete at least their high school ed­u­ca­tion. We also open a bank ac­count for each par­tic­i­pant and teach him/her how to man­age it and han­dle their money, a skill they have never learned or even imag­ined they would need,” Ran said. “They meet with CEOs of many busi­nesses and visit hi-tech com­pa­nies. We also teach them how to run our on­line sales (or­ders, fol­low-ups and cus­tomer ser­vice), which is pretty amaz­ing, since most of these kids have never had ac­cess to a com­puter. Some of them have never even been out of their neigh­bor­hoods or to the lo­cal mall or out of their cities, let alone Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When we took the kids (from all the projects) to our herbal farm in Rish­pon where we grow the herbs used in our ‘Lum’ line, Arab and Jewish par­tic­i­pants were to­gether for the first time. At first, they just looked at each other, but the ice broke soon af­ter. Some got up and told their sto­ries, some sang in front of the group and the kids re­ally bonded. It was heart­warm­ing and in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing.”

More than 800 kids at risk have grad­u­ated from “Youth of Light” since its in­cep­tion. Re­search pub­lished in 2018 by Bar-Ilan Univer­sity found that more than 80% of “Youth of Light” work­ers found jobs af­ter their stint in the project, as com­pared to 20% in the con­trol group. 56% went to the army or to per­form Na­tional Ser­vice, as com­pared to 10% in the con­trol group. It’s a sure bet that had they re­mained on the streets, that num­ber would be close to zero, since their high-risk back­grounds made them in­el­i­gi­ble for ser­vice.

In each of its cities, “Youth of Light” at­tracts vol­un­teer res­i­dents who help when they can, in­clud­ing pack­ag­ing or­ders and be­friend­ing the kids. Lo­cal busi­nesses also do­nate money and busi­ness ex­per­tise.

“Youth of Light” is win-win-win: for kids who have lost their way, for the con­sumer and for the en­vi­ron­ment (a good part of all the can­dles, if not 100%, are made from re­cy­cled wax, most of which is bought from all dif­fer­ent sources. They also reuse wax from their work­shops).

The cat­a­lyst for “Youth of Light” was a 14-year-old home­less boy whose fu­ture was any­thing but hope­ful. To­day, Sagi San­torini is 31 and an in­te­gral part of the “Youth of Light” project. He is a liv­ing in­spi­ra­tion to the boys and girls there, the poster boy for the suc­cess of the project. He and the Oren fam­ily are very close. Ran Oren now is 45 years old, a fa­ther of three, and the per­fect ex­am­ple of what can be done with in­spi­ra­tion, a deep sense of pur­pose, com­mit­ment and vi­sion. Who would have imag­ined that his men­tor­ing of one 12-year-old boy to make some ex­tra money in univer­sity and get some ex­tra course credit would snow­ball into helping 800-plus kids get their lives back and lead healthy pro­duc­tive lives?

Ed­i­tor’s note: In Jan­uary, a fire caused by a short-cir­cuit com­pletely de­stroyed the Youth of Light work­shop. The city of Ashkelon pro­vided tem­po­rary workspace and now, thanks to the gen­er­ous help of the Ashkelon Mu­nic­i­pal­ity and Mayor Tomer Glam, Sabon Is­rael, Mig­dal In­sur­ance and other friends and donors, a state-of-the-art work­shop will open on Novem­ber 13 at noon, Mer­caz Bur­ton, Ati­cot, Ashkelon. You’re all in­vited to the open­ing cer­e­mony.

“Youth of Light” prod­ucts can be pur­chased at any Sabon store, Steimatzky’s and through their web­site: mar­ket.marme­lada.co.il/yol

Our main goal was and still is mainly not to make money, but to help peo­ple

(Tal Flint)

A GLOW­ING suc­cess: Youth of Light.

(Pho­tos: Avi Bini)

RAN OREN: It all be­gan when he took part in a men­tor­ing pro­gram.

PA­TRIZIO PAO­LETTI’S vi­sion and ed­u­ca­tional sup­port pro­vided a firm foun­da­tion for the project.

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