The tragedy of it all — The tragic story of Lee Gabriella Vatkin

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

This is the story of a beautiful, brilliant girl who fell through the cracks and slipped into the dark abyss that is the drug scene in Jerusalem

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post Magazine, 8-18-11

The death last year of Lee Gabriella Vatkin, the 16- year-old daughter of Fiona Kanter and Yehuda Vatkin, traumatized Jerusalem parents and teens. Lee Vatkin was an eighth-generation Jerusalemite on her father’s side, the daughter of the idealistic aliya from London on her mother’s side. She grew up enjoying the best modern Jerusalem had to offer in its tolerant, sophisticated, altruistic, traditional-yet-not-too-dogmatic, South-Central bubble – living in Katamon, attending elementary school in Baka. Yet by the time she reached junior high, the city’s ugly underside, the harsh, drug-perverted, aimless street culture that festers downtown nightly, after the tourists turn in, seduced and killed her.

Vatkin’s tale is a story of Jerusalem’s “magic” bypassing one of its children and turning tragic, creating a perfect storm of institutional breakdown and individual dysfunction, with a dash of evil added.

It is a story of an over-extended, underfunded school system that let a brilliant, creative child fall through the cracks.

It is a story of a hypersensitive girl lured into the dark abyss of central Jerusalem at night, manipulated by her immigrant boyfriend, a petty criminal and drug addict, himself abused by his drunken father.

It is a story of an overextended, undertrained, frequently insensitive and occasionally brutal police force that has lost control of the youth prowling around the city’s downtown core.

It is a story of a desperate mother who warned, “This man is going to kill my daughter” – and no authorities would, or perhaps even could, help her.

And it is a story of that heartbroken mother now crusading to reach other at-risk youth so her daughter’s death at least becomes a constructive warning that saves others’ lives.

Kanter is a civic and cultural consultant, an event organizer and community activist, well-known in Anglo Jerusalem as a social spark plug. She organized Anglo support for Nir Barkat’s mayoral election, and now she is concentrating on Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – her initiative, following her daughter’s death, to raise money for and awareness about at-risk youth.

Lee Gabriella Vatkin was born on February 5, 1994, eight years after her mother immigrated from London. Vatkin has a brother, Matan, now 14, and a sister, Maia, 12, as well as three older siblings from her father’s former marriage.

“Almost from the day she was born, Lee was clearly advanced developmentally,” Kanter recalls. “She started speaking at seven months – and never closed her mouth from then on!” She was also “fiercely independent, always challenging, giving the impression she was the one in charge.”

Extremely bright, creative and artistic, she was an accomplished pianist, drummer and equestrian. She participated in the Ofek supplementary program for gifted children, but was unchallenged the rest of the time, a source of great frustration. After graduating from the Efrata School in sixth grade, she had trouble finding a suitable successor school. The 2007 teachers’ strike hurt her. “From June that year through Hanukka, she barely had a framework; the strike just derailed her,” her mother reports sadly.

She ended up at Leyada, the prestigious school close to The Hebrew University. There, the administrators initiated a pointless power struggle with her over her continued participation in Ofek, which anchored her. “The whole struggle was very damaging to her,” Kanter recalls. “I couldn’t persuade them at Leyada to leave her alone.” In November 2008, administrators told Kanter their school was “not the right framework for Lee,” even though Kanter insists it “is unlawful to send such a message mid-year that they simply don’t want to deal anymore with a student.”

She then chose to attend Ankori, an alternative school on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. That school has “wonderful,” empathetic principals and teachers, Kanter says. But Vatkin exploited the school’s loose framework; her “downward spiral” had begun.

BORED IN school, rebelling at home, she started hanging out downtown. There, her mother insists, she was not part of the heavy drug scene, but she found a community of kids who had fallen through the cracks. “All the experts talk about the various groups – the haredim, the Russians, the Ethiopians,” Kanter explains. “I personally have a different take. Many of the children who are being drawn to the street are super-sensitive, super-intelligent, super-creative and are fearless, feeling they have absolutely nothing to lose jeopardizing their lives by substance abuse and destructive behavior patterns.” Like her daughter, she says, they circumvent the overloaded educational system as the street’s edginess sucks them in, feeling invincible.

Kanter, who supports Sayeret Horim, the Parents Patrol of volunteers who try bringing a friendly adult presence to teenage haunts, loves these street kids – but is disgusted by their behavior. She describes, in both Independence Park and the city center, activities “not suitable to be mentioned in a family newspaper,” that occur as voyeurs encircle young couples, egging them on while obscuring the authorities’ view. And she describes a culture of risk, shamelessness and aimlessness, along with elements of violence, cruelty and selfishness.

In March 2010, Vatkin met a young, charismatic tough who was originally from Azerbaijan, Rauf Zagloff. Zagloff, nearly 21, was well-known to the authorities. “Suffering from his influence, his Anglo ex-girlfriend was eventually whisked out of the country to Montana,” Kanter explains, “to dry out from drugs and other destructive behaviors.”

She and her parents, of course, are the lucky ones in this story On Independence Day that year, Zagloff, “drunk and drugged up to his eyeballs,” threatened Kanter and her young daughter in their own home.

“You are always welcome, but that boy is not crossing my threshold any more,” Kanter told her 16-year-old daughter. But Vatkin was under his sway.

Desperate, Kanter went to the police that same day, begging for help, saying, “This man is going to kill my daughter! What are you going to do?” The police, she charges, are useless.

When they do respond, “they are generally so violent in their dealings with the youth that an insurmountably bad rapport with our youngsters seems to have been created. For a while this year, all police personnel were required to do a night in town, but this seems to have slacked off, probably due to lack of resources and training.”

The police acknowledged Kanter’s desperation, but felt handcuffed by the law, their limited resources and the ambiguity of the threat. Kanter was led to believe she should find ruffians to administer vigilante street justice, but that is not the kind of person she is – although she thought about it seriously enough to realize such actions would make her vulnerable to blackmail from whatever vigilantes she found.

Under Zagloff’s influence, Vatkin’s behavior deteriorated. She was playing her parents, who divorced in 2007, off against each other. “She did not want to be helped. She thought she had all the answers. She thought she was invincible,” her mother says, reciting a heartbreaking haiku of parental powerlessness. “She did not want anybody to guide her or teach her.”

By May, Kanter was “petrified. I was afraid for her life. I was very verbal about it, writing and saying, ‘He is going to kill my daughter.’ And nobody would listen to me. Nobody would help me.

You know that African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? Well, the opposite is true, too – it takes a village to lose a child.”

She pauses. “I don’t walk around with resentment,” she says. “But I feel the system let me down. I approached the courts – they wouldn’t give me any grounds [for a case].”

THAT SPRING, Vatkin and her boyfriend moved into an apartment in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood that her father had secured for them, despite Kanter’s objections. Kanter felt her daughter was “losing the ability to judge right from wrong,” but she no longer had control. On June 5, she spoke to her daughter, saying “I won’t judge you, I love you.

Whatever is going on, we can solve, but we need to deal with this.” Vatkin replied, “Ima, I am fine…” Kanter’s voice trails off. “And within three days she was gone.”

On the night of June 7, a known drug dealer and addict found a bag that had been discarded in the compound of the Italian Synagogue. In it were eight vials of methadone, the heroin replacement the government-authorized clinic dispenses to addicts under treatment. “Can you imagine, they give these drug addicts a few bottles at a time, and its street value trades at NIS 100 a bottle,” Kanter complains. The dealer poured the eight vials into a water bottle, then “disguised it” with raspberry syrup.

Shortly thereafter, Lee joined her friends in town, who were sipping the concoction carefully, one bottle cap’s worth at a time. The “friends” later admitted to Kanter that no one had told Vatkin what was in the bottle. Eventually Zagloff “swiped the bottle,” and he, Vatkin and another friend, Menny, walked to their apartment.

At the apartment, Menny reacted badly. At 6:30 the next morning he called his girlfriend – “herself a 17-year-old single mother, from a different fellow,” Kanter says. Rushed to the emergency room, he had his stomach pumped. At 8:30 a.m., Menny called Zagloff, who said everything was fine.

Neither Menny nor his girlfriend thought to alert the authorities, or warn their friends. Vatkin and Zagloff went to sleep – “and never woke up. Methadone acts like heroin, it depresses your system,” Kanter explains. “Lee’s heart stopped.

She was 16 years and four months old.”

By 3:30 p.m., Yehuda Vatkin started looking for his daughter, calling her cellphone repeatedly. He only thought to go to Nahlaot at 11 p.m., where he found her, dead in bed with Zagloff.

A doctor interviewed for the Uvda program, which aired on national television in January, stated that had they been found early enough, they could have been saved. That fact is one of many particular plot twists haunting the grieving mother – along with other outrages, such as the state’s continuing failure to prosecute the drug dealer.

“ONE YEAR ago, my heart stopped when Abba told me he had found you cold and unconscious,” Kanter wrote in an open letter to her daughter, a year after she died. “My soul is crying that I will never hear the sound of your voice again, never see your face, never touch your hair or tickle your back, never again see your smile or hear your laugh.” She admits she spent months looking for her dead daughter: “I was looking for you everywhere, knowing I would never find you. I see a little girl with blond tresses and blue eyes and pray I could turn the clock back. Never in my worst imaginings did I truly think there would be no tomorrow for you.”

While grieving, she did what she does best: mobilize and organize. She has established Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – a play on Lee’s name and Hillel’s teaching in Hebrew, “If I am not for myself, who is for me” – as an umbrella group dedicated to saving youth at risk. Currently she is fund-raising for three projects. The first is Sayeret Horim, which she wants expanded to cover all the wellknown youth hangouts several nights a week. The second is a Facebook initiative created by Shaby Amedi, the wellregarded head of Kidum No’ar, to reach out to youth at risk and their families, providing information, advice, contact numbers and wisdom, 24/7.

“Facebook is their social tool,” Kanter explains. “So let’s try to reach out – and create a dialogue – in a non-judgmental, loving way.” Finally there is the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts’ pathbreaking videotherapy program, which uses filmmaking as form of expression and a constructive outlet. She also wants to create a central resource for referral and raising awareness, so no parent ever flounders as she did.

More broadly, she is pushing for some visionary leadership. “We need to generate more opportunities for our kids to express themselves creatively and productively, to create more regular outlets of challenging sports activities, music and the arts right in the center of town,” she explains.

“The kids are bored and don’t have the funds to sponsor expensive pastimes.

The festivals which abound in Jerusalem today provided by the municipality are nice, but don’t provide a consistent response to the needs of this particular sector of the population. Why are we not finding temporary solutions right now, such as lighting up Independence Park and providing a platform to encourage our youth to channel and focus their energy and natural impulses on more creative solutions, turning it from a literal den of iniquity to a place of positive personal expression?” She asserts that “we don’t need an extra organization, we just need to support projects that work but are underfunded. We are talking over 10,000 kids at risk here. And those are the ones who we know have fallen from the system.

What about the others?” Her daughter, she says, “had a larger-than-life personality. Incredibly funny and marvelously astute. In her circles she was a celeb. The fact that it happened to her, given her powerful personality, shook the kids to their core.” Many of them, during this black year of mourning, have turned to Kanter, supporting her and getting support in turn. “These are not bad kids,” she concludes. “They are just lost. I believe that all these projects can and will effectively reach out to our youth in Jerusalem who are going through such troubled and anguished times.” She offers her e-mail – fionarachelkanter@gmail.com – and an invitation to join her. “Working together will give us the strength to prevent this from ever happening again,” she says.

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Oases of Israel excellence at IASA and elsewhere

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-19-11

Tragically, an Israeli epidemic of mediocre teachers, undisciplined students, unsupportive parents, unyielding bureaucrats and unchallenging curricula is spawning many dysfunctional classrooms and failing schools. Although we also see fabulous teachers, stimulating classrooms and well-run schools, the educational mediocrity my children have experienced has been our greatest disappointment in Israel. Shrieking teachers, wild classrooms and pointless tests demoralize students. 

When I complain about Israeli education, most Israelis say, yiheyeh beseder, it will be OK. They insist good families nevertheless raise good children; besides, the army straightens every one out. This characteristic insouciance, while admirable, also yields a sloppy improvisational ethos celebrating the cut corner over the job well done.

Traditional Mapai socialism confused individual ambition with indulgent elitism, high standards with bourgeois values. Today, while Israel could use more Ben-Gurionesque collectivist idealism, Israel needs centers of excellence to stretch our minds, our souls, our selves, individually and collectively.

In Jerusalem, poetically located between the Malcha mall symbolizing modern Israel and the Biblical Zoo, lies one oasis of excellence, the Schusterman Campus of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. The campus honors the Oklahoma-based miracle-workers Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman. This marvelous initiative unites American philanthropic do-gooders like the Schustermans and IASA’s founder Robert Asher with visionary Israelis to change the world. 

Visitors most notice the 200 or so students attending the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA, “Madaim ve’omanuyot” in Hebrew). This high school is a magical mix of Zionist summer camp and Harvard. Students hail from 100 different communities, including Christians and Muslims, religious Jews and secular Jews. Tuition assistance guarantees that anyone admitted can attend, harmonizing excellence with egalitarianism. Even with high standards, frequent tests, and crushing workloads, the school is a surprisingly happy place, featuring class talent nights, silly bonding games, and a warm family feeling uniting students and staffers. 

“This school is much more intense than other schools I attended,” says one satisfied student. “The teachers have high expectations. There are consequences if you don’t do your work.” But students feel motivated, she explains, because these teachers are so creative and dedicated: “they don’t just teach to the bagrut,” the matriculation exams that undermine so much high school learning, “they are teaching for the sake of learning.” Science entails intensive lab work supplementing classwork. Literature class often involves following authors’ footsteps. Recently, Meir Shalev guided students through the battle sites in A Pigeon and a Boy. Describing the volunteer work in distressed communities, and the dormitory life with its group-building and values-clarifying activities at night, she sums up the school’s mission: “To be excellent in every way.”

Recently, when the Army’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashekanzi visited, the students followed through on their school’s culture of voluntarism by protesting cutbacks in pre-army volunteer opportunities. 

“This commitment to excellence in all dimensions is an expression of our Zionism.” Hezki Arieli, the chairman of the board explains. “When we founded the school twenty years ago, excellence was a dirty word in Israel, considered elitist. Today, Israelis – and people around the world – look to us, and to Israel in general, as a center of excellence.” 

Arieli spearheads the Center’s other initiatives, which include running educational summer camps; organizing in-school enrichment programs, Excellence 2K, in 250 Israeli schools; developing curricula; and teaching teachers. The Center now exports excellence to India, Singapore and North America, where 150 schools, half Jewish, half not, use the Center’s math and science curricula. “Once educators from Singapore asked me ‘how do you do it?’” Arieli recalls. “’We don’t just want to teach our children to pass tests, we want them to be creative like you, to be considered for Nobel Prizes like you.’” Arieli explained the Zionist ethos of “ein breira.” “We have no choice but to use our wits. If we lived in a rainforest we would not need this,” he said, stopping at one of the ubiquitous drip irrigation systems that make this desert bloom, “But without water, you devise a solution. Lacking natural resources, our only major exportable resource is brainpower.” 

Seeking a new image, early Zionists considered the People of the Book too passive, vulnerable, victimized. Today, as the Israel miracle matures, we understand that the secret of Israel’s success has been remaining People of the Book, surviving and thriving with our collective smarts. But what kind of book will our foundational text be? We fear our children are becoming the people of Facebook, addicted to false friends, fleeting experiences, virtual values. We need a new Torah for today, rooted in the best of our tradition, responding to contemporary realities, and facing the future boldly, creatively, humanely, Jewishly, virtuously. 

Fortunately, the Israel Center for Excellence through Education is one of many brilliant flowers blooming in Israel today. We see the zeal for aesthetic excellence in the renewed Israel Museum, which its director James Snyder explains, “not only brings together the best of the East and the West, but has become a model for other museums. Even before the economic downturn we decided to make our recent ‘campus renewal’ project a $100 million refurbishing initiative rather than a half-billion dollar or billion-dollar tear-down-and-rebuild project. Now, colleagues worldwide are studying our alternative model.” We see the zeal for spiritual excellence in cutting-edge synagogues like Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha, which, while pioneering an Orthodoxy empowering women, has top quality volunteer cantors and sermon-givers. We see the zeal for intellectual excellence at the Shalom Hartman institute, which runs its own superb schools while pushing Israel, the world’s start-up nation, to become the world’s values nation too. 

I have firsthand knowledge of each of these oases of excellence, representing this growing trend. For, I am not only a happy Zionist but a proud (and relieved) parent. The satisfied IASA student is my oldest daughter.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

Defending a Jerusalem oasis

Jerusalem Post, Gil Troy’s Center Field, August 10, 2008

The battle to save Baka and the German Colony is a skirmish in a long -overdue struggle. Center Field

Jerusalem’s German Colony is an architectural jewel a magnificent urban oasis offering historic houses soothing visual harmony intimate settings and even the sound of birds chirping amid the hurly burly of Israel’s capital. Neighboring Baka while less sculpted is also delightful offering an equally alluring sense of community. While the Emek Refaim cafes serving both neighborhoods attract crowds Baka and German Colony residents are also blessed by a friendly not-yet-overdone shopping strip along Derech Beit Lehem

Alas – surprisingly tragically foolishly – the delicate urban ecology of the German Colony Baka and Beit Lehem shops is now endangered. And the threat comes from civil servants who should be committed to preserving such urban gems.

In launching the light rail system Jerusalem’s bureaucrats plan to divert as many as 1 0 cars an hour from Derech Hebron to Derech Beit Lehem. Private cars will be banned from Remez Street near the old train station so huge buses can whisk commuters downtown from the outlying neighborhoods. But independent traffic engineers have confirmed what any intelligent person can see – this well- intentioned but poorly thought out automotive invasion will turn Beit Lehem into what one resident calls “the autostrada and bring urban blight to these lovely neighborhoods. The result will be traffic snarls, constant noise, polluted air, impossible parking, ruined shops, plummeting property values and, most disturbing, hundreds of pupils walking to the areas’ schools every weekday morning and afternoon

HAVING HAD the privilege of living in the German Colony since last July, and having regularly escorted my children back and forth to their schools, I have watched in horror as this fiasco develops. I have seen the work crews install the infrastructure for traffic lights and turning lanes, despite the municipality’s promise last year to freeze the plan. I have seen a small, noble group of concerned citizens try to alert their neighbors, while others flail about trying to get heard by someone in the vast urban bureaucracy. Last March, launching my own test of Jerusalem’s supposedly responsive bureaucracy, I contacted the authorities regarding this dumb plan. Identifying myself as an occasional columnist, I sought an official comment. I’m still waiting.

Fortunately, there are enough engaged residents to launch a grassroots campaign. Recently, some locals led by Itay Fishendler and Jonathan Kalman started raising money and awareness to save their community. They understand that to fight an indifferent city hall they will need a comprehensive campaign of public protest, attracting supportive media coverage. This is especially necessary because the bureaucrats are surprisingly gung-ho about this project despite the feared fallout. This campaign has been fully co-ordinated with the local community center and the head of the community council. These urban heroes can be contacted at bakaa.s.o.s@gmail.com

IF MORE neighbors weighed the pending threat to their quality of life and property values against what many of them spend on renovations, they would flood the activists with cash.

Frankly, residents have yet to respond as generously as they should with their time, passion, and money. Still, in other neighborhoods threatened by equally ridiculous plans the locals do not even have the resources to fight.

This debacle-in-the-making reveals a deeper problem. The legendary American politician Tip” O’Neill famously said “all politics is local.” O’Neill understood that although citizens in a democracy judge their government on the big things such as defending the country and managing the economy the little things also loom large. Unfortunately in Israel the national issues are overwhelming the entire political system is too centralized. The residents of the German Colony and Baka – along with Israelis from Metulla to the Negev – miss the local representation that makes so many other democracies function. If city councils and the Knesset had some locally selected district-based representatives at least one national politician and one local politician could represent grievances effectively passionately independently. In this case two leaders – each beholden to the people – would wake up every day wondering how to preserve protect and defend Baka and the German Colony.

TRUE A locally based system risks people shouting Not In My Back Yard and ignoring broader community concerns. But in a functional democracy the local and the national balance each other in an ultimately constructive dance. All too often in Israel the big overwhelms the small. We see this when traffic engineers arrogantly impose harmful plans on neighborhoods. We see this when educational bureaucrats prevent parents from raising money in a particular school to lower student-teacher ratios or block principals from doing what is best for their students.

The battle to save Baka the German Colony and the Beit Lehem shopping district is then a small skirmish in a long-overdue struggle. Israel desperately needs a more responsive political system along with more responsive responsible officials at all levels. These public servants would understand that democracies – like the threatened neighborhoods – are delicate ecosystems requiring thoughtful tending.