Merkaz Nesher (Nesher Center) is in a neighborhood that houses immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union as well as old-timers. The center is a haven for local teens to hang out after school and, as they all put it, keep from doing “stupid things,” and it’s been doing that since 2015, when Yaniv Ben Hagai Levy, then 46, heard from a friend that the center was looking for someone to run it. He got the job and immediately did some repairs on the building to make it more inviting.

“After I fixed it up a bit, I talked the neighborhood streets and talked to kids who were hanging out on corners, in front of buildings, in empty lots, throwing rocks wherever I saw them, and I just invited them to come over and check us out. It soon snowballed: a kid comes here every day and his friends are curious and want to see what’s going on and become a part of it. I’m also very tough with these kids and set standards for them which they must meet. It’s this leadership the kids are lacking, need and want, and that’s what I give them. At first, their parents had no understanding of what we do here, but soon they saw how important we are in helping their kids get on track and stay there, and they are grateful, especially since it’s so easy for their sons and daughters to fall in with the wrong crowd and get into trouble.”

Three years since that first recruitment trip around the neighborhood, Merkaz Nesher is flourishing, so much so that the kids decided to do something they never imagined possible. It started almost as a joke when during one of their daily discussions with Levy, one of the boys blurted out, “Let’s go to Ethiopia!” The kids all laughed, but then they got serious.

“Why not?”

“What can we do to raise money?”

All kinds of ideas were tossed around until they came up with the idea of hosting people at a café on the premises. Shishi Bashuk (Friday in the Shuk) was born. The menu includes coffee, tea, lemonade and cakes baked by the kids on Thursday nights in a baking class held in the kitchen of a nearby high school. With a reservation, small groups can also enjoy brunch during the week which consists of toast, cheeses and salad made from the produce grown and sold in the adjacent hothouse which is also run by the kids.

The hothouse is a wonder of herbs, plants, spices and vegetables including cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, eggplant and squash. The cafe is not their only money-making enterprise: the kids build and paint plant boxes which are filled with whatever the customer chooses from the hothouse. Lovely bouquets of flowers, sold to the center at a generous discount from growers on Moshav Netiv Ha’asara (which has been on the receiving end of numerous missiles over the past few years) are also sold, as is high-quality olive oil, this being donated by a friend of the center who owns an olive-oil refinery.

The cafe and the shuk are open from 10 to 2 every Friday. Each week, three different kids get permission to leave school a little before 10 so that they can set up. The rest of the “staff” arrives right after school. Work positions rotate. They include kitchen, waiting on tables, working in the hothouse, hostessing, selling flowers, taking money and giving receipts. Everyone does clean-up duty.

The shuk has its “regulars” who come every Friday to buy flowers for Shabbat and the organic produce grown there, and as word of mouth spreads, people have been coming from all over the city and even from outside Ashkelon. Miri D. came all the way from Petah Tikva. “This is the second time I’ve been here, and this time, I’m buying plant boxes with those brightly colored peppers you see there, and all kinds of spices as gifts for the teachers in my school. These are one-of-a-kind presents and I know they’ll be appreciated. Along with that, my money is going to a great cause. It’s a win-win,” she said.

Indeed, it is a win-win because, contrary to all expectations, what started out as a dream will become reality when on December 23, 40 kids and eight adults will board an Ethiopian Airlines flight for a five-day trip to Addis Ababa and the Gondar region of Ethiopia (where most of the Jews lived and some still do). It has also motivated them to find out more about their roots, something which many of them were indifferent to, but not anymore.

Every Friday, before Shabbat, Levy sends out a newsletter that the kids must read. In it, he describes the week’s activities and lets the kids know where they stand vis-à-vis their trip, for example, “Today we earned enough for one and a quarter tickets.” They need NIS 5,000 per teen. Ethiopian Airways is the airline of choice because it’s the only one that flies nonstop from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa.

Not everyone can go on the trip. It depends on several factors, including the permission of their parents and approval of their teachers. “The kids don’t have to get 90 on everything, but they have to go to school daily, do their best and do what’s required of them, be on time, behave and cooperate with their teachers and classmates,” Levy says.

“For me,” he explains, “the main aim of this trip is for the kids to come home, take their mothers’ hands, kiss them and say ‘thank you.’ The crisis facing the Ethiopian community today is so deep that anyone who isn’t close to it can’t imagine what’s going on. I’ll tell you a true story that illustrates this. A few months ago, I brought in some herbs, plants and spices for the kids to plant and I got reactions like “Ugh! Yech!” and looks of disgust after I explained what they needed to do. We have small parcels of land here in the center that we give to the people of the neighborhood to farm. You see that woman over there?” He points to an older woman dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb watering her corn. “She comes here every day to take care of her small piece of earth, because that land is part of her life, her identity, her DNA, her existence. She made the dangerous trip to Israel by foot from Ethiopia, across the desert, risked her life to come here and upon arrival, kissed the earth with her lips. And I look at her daughters and I say to them “Your mothers made the perilous trip all the way to Israel by foot, by foot across the desert, risking their lives, hungry, thirsty, afraid, just to be able to come here and kiss the land when they finally make it, and you say ‘yech?!’ That’s the break we have to heal: the deepening rift between parents who come from one culture and their kids who come from another. Out of necessity, the kids become the head of the house, in a sense. When anything outside the home has to be taken care of, it’s the kids that go with their mom and speak for them, in the National Insurance Institute, a doctor’s visit, open school night. Their parents just aren’t able to do so.”

“We’re fortunate to get the help of the Ashkelon Municipality, the Education Ministry’s department for dealing with children at risk, and from the nonprofit organization Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Our successes are theirs.”

While the kids are dreaming of their trip to Ethiopia, Levy is dreaming of building a second floor to house two classrooms (for kids who can’t make it in school and are getting lost and need a place to sit and study) and a music studio. “Some of our kids have the most beautiful voices you’ve ever heard but are too shy to sing in public.” One of them is Ofek Adanek, 16, who got his start singing with his friends in the center, and although he’s appearing in concerts and has a CD climbing up the charts, he still comes at least once a week to keep himself grounded. “That second floor is my next project and I don’t know how, but I’ll figure out a way to do it.”

“The ‘seniors’ here are 17 years old and have been active in the center since we opened three years ago. They will all go to the army or do national service and they’ll all be ready to serve and do a good job whatever they do; I’ll make sure of it.”

Daniel Ambon has three years to go before the army, having just completed ninth grade. When I met him, he was busy preparing drinks in the kitchen and checking on the tomatoes and cucumbers in the hothouse getting ready for customers. ”Before I came here, I was in a very bad place and got into trouble almost every day. My mom didn’t know what to do with me. Then I started coming here and after a short time my behavior started to improve. My mother wasn’t sure what the reason was so I told her to come visit the center and meet Yaniv. She had a hard time understanding what was going on here, but when she visited, she became very happy and emotional. Being here has changed my life for the good, and I’m not the only one who will say this. It’s lots of fun to be here and besides having fun and learning new things, I became closer to my Ethiopian roots. Going to Ethiopia is a dream come true. Who would ever have thought that I, that any of us, could make a trip like that? Some of us have never even been to Tel Aviv!!”

Ambon’s message was repeated by every teen I spoke to and they can’t wait for the big date. Until then, they continue to do whatever it takes to raise enough money for their trip that, just like coming to Merkaz Nesher will change their lives forever. And maybe it’s not just a coincidence that the word nesher means “eagle” in Hebrew, and just like the eagle, these kids will soar high into the sky when they board Flight 7113 to Addis Ababa.