Steve Lipman reports: Stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air behind him, the sounds of weights clanging and billiard balls crashing in the background, Motti sits on a frayed couch in the heart of Flatbush one recent night and talks about what it is like – or was – to be an at-risk Jewish teenager.
Now 17, he came to Brooklyn seven months ago from the Midwest, where he was failing at school and fighting at home. Here, he says, he lived with a member of his family, but was still lost, “chilling on the streets, doing drugs.”
That changed a few months ago, Motti (not his real name) says, when “a friend,” someone he’d hang out with wasting time, told him about Our Place, a drop-in center for teens, many from Orthodox backgrounds.
He came one night, one of the more than 5,000 troubled teens helped by the center in the last dozen years. And he kept coming back.
“Every night,” Motti says. Shooting a little pool, watching some TV, talking with the adult volunteers and teenage peers who hang around the center, down a flight of stairs, through an unmarked door on Avenue M, a business center of Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox neighborhood.
The teens, mostly from Modern Orthodox and black-hat backgrounds, have the classic street look – garish T-shirts, jeans or cargo pants, suspicious eyes that give every visitor the once-over. Some of the boys are bareheaded; some wear stocking caps.
Were it not for Our Place, a 12-year-old independent institution under Orthodox auspices, “I’d be on the street,” Motti says.
Now, he says, he’s afraid he may end up back there. Our Place may have to close.
The center, which has depended on state aid and some private philanthropic support, has run up a $250,000 debt since the middle of this year, when government funding, the victim of budget cutbacks, stopped, says Chaim Glancz, executive director. Combined with a major decrease in donations from local philanthropists because of the ongoing recession, that leaves Our Place’s future in doubt, he says.
Glancz, 50, a “Brooklyn-born-and-bred” resident of nearby Borough Park who started befriending at-risk Jewish youth two decades ago and has served at Our Place since it was founded, called some of the center’s major supporters together earlier this month. “I wanted to pull the plug,” to close down Our Place before the debt grew larger, he says.
Give us a little time – we’ll try to raise the needed funds, the supporters said.
Now, Glancz says, Our Place is on life support, depending not on the kindness of strangers but on the chesed of people who believe in its mission. No one’s been paid since July, not vendors (they bring the kosher meals that keep a refrigerator stocked and provide nightly free meals for the kids) or the seven professional therapists on staff (they’re supplemented by a score of volunteers, mostly businessmen from the Orthodox community) or the landlord (“He hasn’t asked for the rent.”)
The center, which these days serves about 700 teens a year, is living on borrowed time, says Glancz, who says he has borrowed $40,000 to help keep the doors open. He is presently coordinating a raffle to bring in some funds, but he’s “still waiting” for the big money to come in.
Our Place’s final deadline is the end of January, he says. A barebones budget for 2010-11 will be about $400,000. “To do it right,” Glancz says, he would need some $600,000.
Three years ago, before the economy collapsed, the Our Place annual budget was $1.2 million, Glancz says.
Like the other professionals and volunteers there, Glancz has the typical charedi look: beard, white shirt, black pants. “Because I have a beard, they call me ‘rabbi,'” he says.
A yeshiva graduate, Glancz worked as “a regular worker in one of the camera stores,” then as a day school administrator before making at-risks teens his life’s work, “trying to help these kids.”
Self-taught, he calls himself “a paraprofessional.”
The boys – a separate Our Place for Jewish girls is located a few miles away in Flatbush – come up to Glancz, slapping him five or offering him a bite to eat, as he shows a visitor around the 4,000-square-foot converted karate studio.
Read more at The Jewish Week.