Translated from Haaretz article written by Neta Halperin and Chen Katchevich Presler, November 29, 2023
Concern for their parents, volunteering to help the youngest of them, limited privacy and a lot of togetherness. We talked to three teens and staff of the support system helping those evacuated from their homes and staying at hotels. “The first week, I stayed in my room alone all day, but the second week I decided that there’s no way things can stay that way.”
When Ofri Elkabetz, 25, joined the efforts to establish a school for evacuated teens in a hotel that has become a home for these adolescents, it was clear to her that it would require special considerations. “I felt that the teens needed a sense of meaning, belonging, and routine,” Elkabetz describes. “So we put together a school for grades 3-9. Suddenly they had a reason to get up in the morning, as opposed to Zoom class, which they could join from bed or just not pay attention. Also, we would call them. They couldn’t really get away,” she laughs.
“A week and a half ago, external school started – there are teens going to the city’s school here in existing classes, and there are those who prefer Zoom with their teachers from back home. So they don’t go every day, but the framework exists.”
Some of the challenges facing the teens evacuated from their homes during the war include still living away from home, concern for their loved ones, an attempt to create routine out of chaos, and getting used to the feeling of uncertainty about the future. A return to a kind of routine is clear in the afternoon hours during a meeting with girls living at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Tel Aviv, while in the mornings they study at school or on Zoom.
For the first few weeks there was no school, Elkabetz tell us. She is studying art, gender, and conflict studies at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva and is a graduate of the HaNoar HaOved youth movement. When the war broke out and so many were evacuated, Elkabetz was called to a kind of “reserves duty,” as she smilingly describes it, and ever since she has been running the youth movement activities at the hotel and has been responsible for the staff of counselors for the children and teens.
The evacuees staying at the Crown Plaza are mostly from Sderot, Ashkelon, and Kiryat Shmona. “Now it’s nice because we’ve gotten to know one another. Kids from Ashkelon are hanging out with kids from Sderot. We didn’t know each other before, and now we really do,” says Tohar Jerby, 14, from Sderot.
Jerby is in 10th grade and the second of four siblings. She arrived at the hotel two days after October 7, “Nothing happened to our home because we live on a high floor, but they [Hamas] did reach our neighborhood. There were shots, and shrapnel fell near the building.” Her extended family is being housed at the hotel – parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.
Jerby regularly visits floor -1 at the hotel where the teen club is located in a relatively large space with a view to the Mediterranean Sea, with a foosball table, playstation, and couches. Next to the room is a door leading out to the beach, where recently volleyball games have taken place and also surfing lessons, which have been very popular. “I have two hours of Zoom school a day, and during the rest of my time I’m mostly here for our activities or working with the younger children,” she explains while two six-year-olds stand in the doorway hoping she will finish talking to us soon so she can play with them.
“In the beginning, they were afraid to leave the hotel,” Elkabetz explains. “They left to buy some clothes to replace what they left behind, but they didn’t walk around the city because of the shock of it all, and also feeing unsafe, with all the incoming rocket sirens. As opposed to people from the center of the country who hear the sirens and just walk to shelter, when there’s a siren, you see everyone running – they are used to having only 15 seconds to get to shelter in Sderot, and you understand their anxiety.”
Being a youth counselor
Physical space is of utmost importance to allow the youth to meet, play, and talk amongst themselves, says Gaya Nir, director of the Breathing Space initiative, which was founded at the start of the war for this purpose. “The goal is to strengthen the youth’s resilience and internal strength in order to help them recover from this crisis and to benefit themselves and society,” Nir explains. “We don’t treat trauma, but rather want to provide a space to hear and be heard, and to create a solution that connects between the moment of crisis and treatment in the future.”
Youth need a feeling of identity, belonging, and meaning, adds Rotem Rogovski, who coordinates the activities of evacuee youth in Eilat for the HaNoar HaOved youth movement. “Teens have incredible capabilities, and even the need, to be together, to form a group. I see that they understand how much power there is in their feeling that they can depend on one another,” she says. “During the second week of the war, we held a junior counselors’ course for teens from the evacuated communities in Eilat, and teens in grades 10-12, who hadn’t been a part of the youth movement beforehand, came and said, ‘We want to do something meaningful, we want to lead the younger children at the hotel. We understand that this is our role now.”
Or Avinoam – 16 years old from Sderot – who has been living at the Royal Garden Hotel in Eilat for the last three weeks, identifies with Rogovski’s words. “It’s not fun to come to Eilat under these circumstances. During the first week, I stayed in my room all the time, alone, but the next week I decided that there’s no way things can stay that way. At about the same time, one of the youth movement counselors talked to me in the cafeteria and proposed that I join the junior counselors’ course.”
Since then, he has been running activities twice each week with two other counselors for a children’s group. “I remember as a kid in the scouts, I admired my counselor and wanted to be just like him. So when I was offered to join, I jumped at the opportunity to be like my counselor back then. It warms the heart to see them jumping and happy, especially after all they’ve been through. It’s very psychologically rewarding.”
Jerby also participated in a similar training at a hotel in Tel Aviv. “I like to run activities for children and I like to come to our activities here, in the big-kids’ room,” she tell us. “Sometimes the activities are games and laughs, and sometimes more serious conversations. We sit here at night until the room closes at 10.”
Shoval Lugassi, a 14-year old from Sderot, told us that some of her friends are at the hotel, “but most of my class is in Eilat. On the other hand, because a small group from my school is now going to a school in Tel Aviv, we’ve gotten closer.” For her, too, activities in the youth movement and the teen space provide her with important distractions. “I don’t always have something to do, because most of my friends aren’t here and I don’t leave the hotel much,” she says, “so instead of sitting around bored or on my phone, I come here and have fun passing the time.”
How hard things are
From our conversation with Jerby, Lugassi, and Avinoam, it’s clear how much the youth movement activities can help at this time – by providing a regular framework, responsibility for younger children, interaction with the older mentors, and a space to meet with the opportunity to get out of bed and away from screens, and to inject some meaning into daily life. School has actually provided a less stable support – Lugassi only went back to in-person school less than two weeks ago, joining a school in Tel Aviv, facing all the challenges involved in studying in a new school. Jerby prefers to study via Zoom with her teachers from home, and Avinoam doesn’t always attend his classes on Zoom, because he says he finds them not very effective.
One of the difficulties raised repeatedly by the experts has been the lack of meaningful adult figures, explains Ori Peled Nakash, director of informal education in the Kibbutz movement. “Some of the parents go to work and aren’t around for many hours at the hotels,” he explains. “Others are anxious about finding work, new housing, and building the basis of new life for the family. They only rarely, if ever, see the educational figures from the schools they attended before the war, and the same goes for their counselors in informal education. So they have been left with other adults, who are trying to be meaningful and beneficial to them, but are constantly switching.”
Elkabetz also sees the importance of the presence of parents – or lack thereof – on the children and teens. “There are parents who drive to work in Ashkelon or Sderot and come back at night, or only once every few days, and there are parents who work from computers in the lobby or the cafeteria. To the children, they are here but also not here,” she says, “so many teens are playing the role of parent to their younger siblings and are responsible for them most of time, which is a lot of responsibility. But we also have to remember how hard things are for the parents. They don’t know how long they’ll stay here, some of their homes have been significantly damaged, they need to work and be with their children, and they are exhausted. After a month and a half, they are just worn out.”
The fact that there are parents working in the south is also concerning for the teens. Lugassi’s mom volunteers at the hotel, but her father is in the Border Police. “He leaves in the early morning and comes back in the evening, and sometimes sleeps at my aunt’s house, which is near the base. It’s scary that he’s there most of the day. Now I am volunteering in HaNoar HaOved, so I’m also busy most of the day, but I still send him messages a few times a day.”
And just as the parents are too far away, they are also too close. Most are living in the same room with their kids, and even if the kids are only sharing a room with their siblings, everyone is dealing with a lack of privacy. Jerby tells us that she is staying in a room with her older sister, “which is ok because that’s how we are at home, too.” Lugassi also is staying in a room with her sister. Avinoam is in a room with his parents and older sister. Sharing a crowded room with siblings is one of the reasons why the teens spend most of the hours of their day in the teen area, Elkabetz reasons. “It’s a small room with only a bed and a desk, and usually has more than two occupants.”
Peled Nakash adds that older teens wandering around the evacuee centers has become a concern of the professionals. Alongside the loitering, they have also noticed that there are rooms in some of the hotels that have turned into group rooms, where teens sleep without parents.
Rogovski is ambivalent to the phenomenon: on the one hand, she says, it’s a positive thing that there’s an alternative to the youth club that they had back home. But on the other hand, no adults really know what’s going on there. She said that in Eilat, some teens also go between the different hotels, and “there are hotels where teens meet at night, which is a vulnerability that needs to be monitored by the adults.”
Growing up in an extreme time
The location is not the only thing that has changed. Their sense of time has also changed significantly. None of the girls we spoke with could say exactly how long they’ve been away from home. “Time is a fluid thing here,” says Elkabetz apologetically. Day and night also become confused.
Jerby’s mother wakes her up each morning at 8 to a day that she’s learned to fill for herself, and she goes to sleep at about 3am. Lugassi says that now that’s studying at school again, she goes to sleep at 11pm, “but before that I was going to sleep at 2am.”
Avinoam also says that he “tries to wake up as early as possible, around 10am, and at night I go to bed later than usual, mostly because of screens - I’m not in my usual routine, so I just get pulled in.” Despite this, Avinoam’s situation as an evacuee in Eilat is unusual – he lived in Eilat in the past, and his father works as a maintenance director at the hotel they’re staying at. “My friends are not in Eilat and that’s hard, but I hang out with my old friends from Eilat, and my father is at the hotel and I see him a lot. Sometimes he just comes to the room to see what’s going on with me.”
Most of my conversation with Jerbgy, Lugassi and their friends is conducted in a smiling and joking atmosphere. Every once in a while more disturbing topics that bother them come up – there are girls who talk about vandalism at the hotel – a door was broken, a ceiling damaged, a chair’s upholstery removed. It’s clear that their experience of crowded and temporary conditions for over a month now, alongside significant stress, is sometimes released violently. “Patience runs out much more quickly,” says Nir, and adds that aside from vandalism, at some of the hotels, there was been violent incidents between teens.
“There are big differences between the different evacuee centers,” Nir explains. “We see conflicts between different populations, for example between the evacuees from the south and from the north.” Nir also points out a rise in watching violent videos, not only from October 7, and violent online games, including for example a game in which Hamas terrorists harm Israelis.
“It’s a confusing time in life when you try different things, that’s the story of being a teen, to grow up, to understand who you are and your identity in the world. Everything that happens normally is more extreme now,” agrees Rogovski, and addresses the fact that sometimes drugs and alcohol are involved in interactions between boys and girls. “In normal times, a girl can go out, drink and come home to her room, to her private space where she feels safe. I think a lot about how we can create safe spaces that they can come back to, that they know they have the space to make mistakes, and they are seen, hugged, and guided, even if they come home drunk.”
But these issues don’t concern the girls who we talked to. They are worried, for example, for the pets that they left back home, and that their parents’ new routine includes traveling every 2-3 days to go grocery shopping and take care of their damaged homes. What concerns them more deeply is missing home. “I miss my room, my friends, being at home,” says Jerby. “Right now, what I want most is to be at home, like everyone else,” says Avinoam. “Just to be in my bed, in my home, in my quiet little corner.” Lugassi tells us that she misses her friends, and even school. “Lots of kids say that they miss school. Everyone is more open because of the situation. They talk about what they miss and what’s hard for them.”
Elkabetz thinks that most teens express their difficulties in actions, and not in words. “You see it in their disorientation sometimes. You can ask a teen where they have been all day and they say in their room, sleeping, or on their phone. There are days with better moods, when they go to the beach and participate in activities, and there are worse days, when they come to the teen room but are more closed off, more angry. The videos of the atrocities also impact them a lot. We try to get them to talk, to raise the issues and have a conversation – sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t really.”
Every once in a while, rumors fly at the hotel about some date on which the evacuees will have to go home, but right now this isn’t clear. Jerby, Lugassi and their friends will need to keep making a routine for themselves through the uncertainty and create a purpose. “It’s a lot to carry, and they are handling this journey incredibly well,” says Elkabetz. “I wish they could have certainty and calm, and a space in which to do what they like to. When they are at a surfing lesson, it makes me so happy, that they have a moment to just be girls, unconcerned with the insanity and chaos. The opportunity to be girls is what they need from us right now, as much as possible.”