Shlomi Avni is a native of Or Akiva, a small city in the center of Israel with a large percentage of émigrés from the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Avni knows firsthand about the challenges that these young people face, as well as their high risk of succumbing to drug and gang involvement, and dropping out of school. Avni returned from service in Shayetet 13, Israel's elite Navy Seals Special Forces unit, with a clear fervent desire to "use the skills and ethics I learned in the military to transform the lives of troubled teens."
As such, he founded Nirim Schunot — or "Nirim in the Neighborhood" — in tribute to his fallen comrade, Nir Krichman, who was killed while trying to stop a terrorist attack.
"I am carrying on Nir's dream of helping troubled teens become productive members of Israeli society," he said.
Avni and his staff, all of whom have served in IDF Naval Commandos units, serve as positive role models and mentors for teenagers in some of Israel's toughest neighborhoods.
Their approach is two-pronged. Staff counselors intervene with street gangs composed of immigrant youths who are confused about their identity and angry.
"As these gangs form, they draw youth deeper into risk and turn them against their local community," explained Avni. He added that "over time, our staff develop positive relationships with individual gang members and help them to find their place in Israeli society."
Through Nirim's network of clubhouses — safe spaces for those ages 12 through 18 who live in some of Israel's most troubled neighborhoods — young people at risk of gang involvement, substance abuse and other destructive behaviors can help turn their lives around.
Nirim works with neighborhood schools to identify those students who have dropped out or are at risk of expulsion. Tutoring is available five days a week to give students confidence in their academic abilities. Staff will check in with teachers and counselors to monitor attendance and academic progress.
Nirim clubhouses also offer physical conditioning programs and outdoor survival trips that present young people with opportunities to build trust, gain self-confidence, overcome obstacles and prepare for the future. Nirim youth also participate in volunteer service projects to increase their awareness of community needs and to build a sense of social responsibility.
According to Avni, "helping our kids gain life skills — and prepare them for army service, enabling them to compete in mainstream society — is one of Nirim's primary goals."
He emphasized that "joining a combat unit is a challenge. When youth overcome challenges, they feel good about themselves, and are more likely to raise their aspirations and challenge themselves further in the future. We want them to keep challenging themselves throughout their lives."
Avni was in Philadelphia recently to meet with Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz, and the members of the Center for Israel and Overseas board to express his gratitude to Federation for its grant of $418,000. This will enable Nirim to expand to three new neighborhoods and serve an additional 270 teens at risk.
Said Avni: "Federation's generosity will help us to help more troubled teens to become productive Israeli citizens."
To learn more about Nirim, e-mail: Jeri Zimmerman, director, Center for Israel and Overseas, at [email protected]