There’s not much to do in the rundown Jaffa Dalet neighborhood on the outskirts of Tel Aviv – no cinema, no cafés or any prominent cultural attractions. That is, aside from the extraordinary youth theater in the heart of the neighborhood that offers local kids a chance to escape their immediate surroundings and discover the stage world.

Named after a young Jewish woman who perished in the Holocaust, the Etty Hillesum Youth Theater is home to 65 local teens who participate in a four-year program where they get to experience acting, playwriting, stage production and directing.

Etty Hillesum Youth Theater participants in Jaffa. Photo by Dan Yosefi

 “We’re open to listening, open to hearing, and we give a real safe space that manages to retain the teens because they need it,” says artistic director Gal Hurvitz, who cofounded the theater with her French partner Annie Ohana. “It really is a safe space where they can express anything.”

An actor by profession, Hurvitz studied and worked in Israel and abroad before deciding to found a theater for youth who otherwise would not have the opportunity to take part in such work.

“We’re located in Jaffa Dalet, which is a melting pot of a neighborhood, not an easy neighborhood at all,” she notes. “It’s a very difficult neighborhood, with many cases of violence. We decided it would be right to operate the theater in a neighborhood such as this so that the teens could benefit from it.”

Etty Hillesum Youth Theater cofounder Gal Hurvitz with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. Photo by Dan Yosefi

The program is open to teens aged 14 to 18 of all backgrounds, and requires a lot of discipline. Not only are kids expected to participate at least twice a week and keep a tight schedule, but they also go through the grueling process of creating real, professional theater.

“Every year we put up a play. Sometimes they write the play,” Hurvitz notes. “They get a hot lunch when they arrive and then they start working very seriously on theater.”

This year one of the productions, written by the teens, is going to be about a hat shop where customers can transform themselves into someone else.

End-of-year performances at the Etty Hillesum Youth Theater in Jaffa showcase local teens’ hard work and dedication. Photo by Dan Yosefi

The combination of professional theater and the complex backgrounds of many of the participating teens does, however, require extra thought. While the ensemble itself isn’t a therapeutic framework, it does employ a therapist to accompany the kids in whatever challenges they’re facing.

“It’s an informal framework and the theater gives center stage to things that society often doesn’t accept,” Hurvitz says, citing ADHD, sexual identity and violence as examples.

One of the participating teens is 18-year-old Laliv Gano. She’s been part of the ensemble for nearly four years, and says it has been a life-changing experience for her.

“It really gives a sense of security, like a second home,” she says. “It’s not just an after-school thing. It’s a lot beyond that.

“It comes across, for example, in that I have a very complicated life and things are always happening to me. And Oshri and Gal and Ariel, my previous teacher in the ensemble, have been there for me in whatever I needed,” she says, referring to Hurvitz and her team.

“They’re always available to me at any hour. They’re always helping me and have my back in anything that I need, and it’s not obvious that it should be so.”

There are a quite a few things that Gano likes about the ensemble. First off is the quality of theater. “It’s not at the level of an afterschool club; the level really is high,” she notes. Another, she says, is the opportunity to meet teens of different backgrounds who live in the diverse neighborhood, which is comprised of Jews, Arabs and immigrants.

“For example, I never thought I’d have so many friends from the Arab community, but thanks to the ensemble I have many,” she explains.

Members of the Etty Hillesum Youth Theater learn acting, directing, scriptwriting and stage production. Photo: courtesy

Another important aspect is the feel-good atmosphere at the theater, which she says helps her put aside whatever may be troubling her. “The moment I walk into the ensemble it leaves my head,” she says.

Gano, who plays the piano, sings and acts, wants to be an actor in the future, and is already trying out and auditioning for roles. Participating in the ensemble, she notes, has really pushed her. “They’re teaching us to be actors –it’s a profession,” she says.

The benefits of locating the theater at Jaffa Dalet have not escaped her, either.

“Everyone who comes, usually the new ones, at first they see the ensemble as a way to pass their day. They’d probably get into crime or something less good at some point, but instead they come to the ensemble,” she says.

“At the end there’s a group of kids left who beforehand probably occupied themselves with irrelevant things or who were stuck at home,” she adds, noting that things change when they begin viewing the ensemble as something beyond just another activity.

High-quality theater training is the priority at Etty Hillesum Youth Theater in Jaffa. Photo by Dan Yosefi

 Oshri Sahar, the ensemble’s social coordinator, agrees.

“These are kids, I think, who if they didn’t have the ensemble I’m not sure what they’d do. It’s kind of a home for them,” he says.

“There’s something about studying acting that is very maturing, in a positive way, that makes you know yourself better, makes you aware, makes you accept yourself. And it’s a process they’re going through at a relatively young age, so I believe we’re pretty much saving them, contributing to their development,” he adds.

Sahar notes that there are two main challenges in working with the teens in the ensemble.

“The first challenge is to create a group – they don’t necessarily know one another, there are also different age groups – with chemistry that will work together,” he says.

“A second challenge is to open them up to something new that they’re not familiar with,” he adds. “It’s something they wouldn’t necessarily be doing if they didn’t have it for free in their area.”

The fact that the theater’s activities are provided for free is thanks to the efforts of Tel Aviv City Hall and a few French and Israeli foundations. However, as Hurvitz notes, funds are tight and not sufficient to expand the initiative’s activities. “There’s a very, very large demand, and unfortunately I cannot accept all the teens in need,” she says.

This need, of course, goes way beyond the acting aspect of the youth theater. As Sahar notes, the greatest things the teens could take with them from the experience far transcend theater.

“I would like for them to believe in themselves. I would like for them to have self-confidence and to be generous,” he says. “I would like for them to love life and to love living, to be optimistic and to do well in life.”

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