Web site offers support for uprooted teens in Israel

JERUSALEM — Rachel Rothstein had no idea what to expect in 1995, when her family packed its bags and moved from Portland, Ore. to Jerusalem. Two years later, the 15-year-old has been through it all: She has struggled with and conquered a new language, faced difficulties in making new friends, and coped with a radically different school system.

She has even experienced one of the most frightening aspects of life in Israel firsthand — Rothstein was injured last year when a terrorist bomb exploded on Jerusalem's Ben-Yehuda Street.

Now, through a new project launched recently, Rothstein has the opportunity to assist other teenagers going through similar adjustments.

A new Web site, "Teen to Teen," marks the first attempt to help English-speaking teenagers who are about to make aliyah, recent arrivals in the country, and veteran teenage immigrants. They can network with one another, trade information and advice, and offer each other moral support and friendship.

As a contributor to the new site, Rothstein says she doesn't intend to conceal how hard dealing with life in a new country can be, but plans to remain upbeat.

"My main advice for a teenager moving to Israel is to stay open-minded," she says. "There is a lot of stuff here to get used to that is very different from back home — not just the big things like language, but other things, like starting school earlier in the day and ending earlier, and going to school on Sundays. I still haven't gotten used to that!

"I know other teenagers who wish their parents hadn't moved them here, and are very upset and angry. I always try to tell them to look at the positive side, and think about the kinds of things they can see and do here that they can't back home."

"Teen to Teen" was initiated and created by two women who only recently moved to Israel themselves.

Susan Suna, who settled in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof a year-and-a-half ago, says she quickly noticed that among her new-immigrant friends, the families who were struggling the most were those with teenagers.

"Seeing teenagers go through this frustrating process, seeing families go back to their countries of origin because teens did not adjust well, and meeting people who turned into resentful young adults because they came here as teenagers led me to feel that something should be done to help this group," Suna said.

"For teenagers, their friends are everything. That's what their lives revolve around. By moving to Israel, they've just been uprooted from that whole framework, and they can feel lost. They have to look for new friends and cope with a new language and a new school system. A great deal of the time they are feeling angry that they had no choice in this decision: They were just told `We're moving' by their parents. Often, they feel as if they have no control over their lives and nobody to rely on."

Sarale Cohen, Suna's partner in "Teen to Teen," says the goal of the site is to provide support, networking and information to help teens integrate into society here, "and to give them a place to share their concerns and their joys with others who will understand."

There are sections in the Web site for teenagers to introduce themselves and tell their stories of moving to Israel, to write articles, and to contribute recipes, jokes, games and puzzles. There is a virtual art gallery, photo gallery and a creative writing section to allow the teens to display their creativity, and a bulletin board for offering practical advice and answers to questions.

All the advice and feedback will come from other teens, with the exception of a section called "Ask the Expert," where professional advice will be provided on questions relating to health, nutrition, personal problems and education.

Suna, who runs a home computer business with her husband, and Cohen, a retired professor for the Department of Child Development at UCLA, met, appropriately enough, in cyberspace. Both belong to the E-mail discussion group called Tachlis, maintained by the Jewish Agency, in which prospective new and veteran adult immigrants help one another with their move.

Originally, Suna and Cohen contemplated conducting a formal survey and a study of teenagers' adjustment difficulties, an endeavor which would culminate in a booklet; but ultimately they opted to help teens help each other through the dynamic forum of the World Wide Web.

"Having Tachlis there for us when we moved to Israel was so helpful and made our absorption so much easier, we felt that teenagers deserved the same kind of support," said Cohen.

"We've been advised to start small and let the teenagers gradually become aware of the site and develop it themselves," said Cohen. "We've had some focus meetings with teenagers and one thing is clear: They want advice and help from other teenagers. They don't want adults telling them what to do."

When Rachel Rothstein moved here, she had never even visited the country. Had she had peers to talk to "virtually" at the time, she believes her fears would have been considerably eased.

For example, "I had no idea what to expect from school. I just assumed that I'd be stuck in a Hebrew-speaking classroom and have to survive. In fact, I found a great ulpan program that helped me with my Hebrew before I had to deal with school. It would have been great if I had known that ahead of time."

Those who have fears about the security situation here can look to Rothstein for inspiration.

Despite her encounter with terrorism, she says, "Today I take buses, I hang out downtown with my friends without worrying about it too much. Every day is a risk anywhere, and overall I feel safer here than I did in America because the crime rate is lower."

Shira Beinhaker, another 15-year-old Jerusalemite contributor, says that being part of the Web site will be "a worthwhile way to spend some time. I'm ready to be there for people who are about to come, or who have just arrived and are having a hard time here. And I'm sure I'll get a lot out of it as well."

"Teen to Teen"can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/Dell/3239/