As I entered Kiryat Malachi last week, I was shocked at the slumlike appearance of the city: dirty old walls, peeling paint, broken signs. The last several weeks had not been easy for Kiryat Malachi. The city’s mayor, Moti Malka, was arrested on the severe charge of rape. I approached the city cautiously, led by my own prejudice and fears, only to find amazingly warm, friendly and welcoming people — people who struggle to live their daily lives and who are deeply embarrassed by the latest disgrace. Many of them feel as if the mark of Cain has been given to them on behalf of their mayor.
Kiryat Malachi is only a 60-minute drive from Tel Aviv but it is light-years away by any other criteria. A small town with about 23,000 people, of whom a quarter are ultra-Orthodox and a quarter are immigrants from Ethiopia, the city went through some major renovations in the last 10 years. A new library, a new community center and a new park were built, yet it still looks much like a wreck.
Kiryat Malachi is one of the two Israeli partner cities Tucson has through the Partnership 2gether project TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle). Partnership 2gether was created in 1994 by the Jewish Agency for Israel with the Jewish Federations of North America, as a tool to connect 550 Jewish communities worldwide with 45 regions in Israel. Today it has become a key element in maintaining a worldwide Jewish peoplehood. For Americans, it gives Israel a face; for the Israelis it gives Diaspora Jews a face. It creates relationships and allows Jews from around the world to keep taking active roles in the amazing Zionist project of creating a Jewish state and helping it flourish.
Upon my arrival in Kiryat Malachi I went to visit Art City, one of the projects sponsored by our Federation through TIPS. Art City is a youth empowerment project through the performing arts. As I approached the building I noticed a significant difference from the bleak atmosphere of the surrounding area: The entrance was packed with teenagers. They were sitting around the staircase, chatting, telling jokes, smiling, having fun, young and energetic, like teens should be.
As I entered the building the sound of rock music reached my ears. I met an amazingly talented 17-year-old, Ben Sulimani. Ben is the singer and guitar player in one of the leading bands of Art City. Two years ago his band won first prize in a nationwide song contest, performing a song Ben wrote.
“Four years ago, I did not know what will be with my life; I did not know if I will have a life. Art City gave me a way to express myself, now the music is my life, it is my future and I know, regardless of what the future might hold, I will be a success!” Ben told me.
“These kids had nothing,” said Guy Vaknin, the program director, a local young adult. “They were on the free fall to crime, drugs and lives with no real future. The music gave them something they can be proud of, it gave them self-esteem. It also improved their social skills, their ability to speak and perform in front of an audience and the sense of personal responsibility. They know that they control their future; they know that only through hard work can things be accomplished. The music and Art City gives them the environment to grow and flourish. It gives them hope.”
I came out of Kiryat Malachi inspired. I had seen the touch of true activism, true Zionism and real tikkun olam (repairing the world). Above all, it was the magic of those teenage golden hearts like flowers above the wreck, bringing the amazing energy of hope that can lead to real change.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (emissary from Israel) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.