Located near Haifa, Israel’s northern city of Or Akiva is known for its high unemployment, high crime rate, and low socioeconomic status. Residents’ feelings towards of the police has not been traditionally friendly, but today, things are changing.
Meir Panim, Israel’s premiere charity organization established to help alleviate and diminish the harmful effects of poverty, has a new success story – the creation of a collaborative relationship with Or Akiva’s local police force.
Meir Panim’s Or Akiva location manager Ilanit Hafuta has been working diligently to strengthen the positive image and relationships between local authorities and the community, particularly local youth.
“Unfortunately, because of the dysfunction and challenges that many residents in Or Akiva live with, people do not view the police as a helpful entity,” explained Goldie Sternbuch, Director of Overseas Relations for Meir Panim. “The progress that has been made in this arena is crucial for the future welfare of the city and particularly for its young people. This initiative fits right in with Meir Panim’s multi-level efforts to find solutions to poverty in Israel.”
Officer H. is in charge of Police Community Relations in Or Akiva. His gentle demeanor and laughing eyes belie the fact that he witnesses very difficult events on a daily basis. Seeking to improve the public’s image of law enforcement, Officer H. sought help from Meir Panim.
“Ilanit Hafuta has a way with the people,” he said. “They love her, respect her and do not want to disappoint her. She instills in them the belief that adults and people of authority can be trusted. Until recently, I felt incapable of building a good community relationship because I wore a police uniform. In Or Akiva, a uniform is associated with someone coming to take your mom, dad, or you away from your home.”
Recognizing the importance of building these relationships, Hafuta regularly invites Officer H. and his staff to Meir Panim activities. Officers join in Meir Panim food packaging and distribution activities, Purim carnivals, Chanukah parties and summer programs for kids.
Officer H. noted the impressive changes in Or Akiva over the past few months. He told me of a situation where both parents had to be removed from their home, requiring their two young children to be taken to the police station. The younger child needed diapers and milk. “I called Ilanit at 2 a.m. for help. She showed up with warm blankets, formula, diapers, wipes, food and a toy.”
He explained, “I knew that Ilanit would be available at night, after working hours, when the Welfare Department office was closed.” The children have since been placed with relatives and Hafuta maintains contact with them to provide further support.
“Ilanit’s presence soothes struggling families. She’ll do anything to ease very difficult situations,” continued Officer H. “Today, nobody is surprised when they see a uniformed officer with a computer or a case of hot food at their door. In fact, I have become somewhat of an ‘idol’ to many young kids. They even ask for my autograph.”
The model used by Meir Panim and the Or Akiva police has caught the attention of several law enforcement professionals in other cities. “Meir Panim is grateful for our outstanding Or Akiva staff, and especially for Ilanit Hafuta,” continued Sternbuch. “This collaboration venture will be used as a prototype for improving police-community relations in cities across Israel.”