by Nathan Jeffay
The staff at Yemin Orde Youth Village in northern Israel is delighted: It’s raining, and the children are getting drenched coming back from school.
Many children in Israel’s residential facilities never experience a walk in the open air to or from school. They commonly live in large complexes that house both dormitories and classrooms. But at Yemin Orde, home to 500 youngsters, including victims of abuse, orphans and refugees, school is five minutes away by foot.
This is intentional. In his 27 years at the helm of Yemin Orde, educator Chaim Peri was on a mission to “deinstitutionalize the institution.” Youth villages, he believes, “aren’t boarding schools where the children who can’t go home should sleep a few yards from their classroom – they need to be balanced communities where the children can grow.”
Two years ago, Peri, double winner of the Israeli President’s Prize for Education, stepped down as director of the village and, with the encouragement of Israel’s Ministry of Education, set up an organization to take Yemin Orde’s model to other residential institutions for at-risk children. American Jewry funds the Yemin Orde Initiatives, as it is called, receiving its budget from American Friends of Yemin Orde and the Marcus Foundation of Atlanta.
Israel has about 50 youth villages, home to about half of the country’s 33,000 children deemed by social workers to be at risk. Many of the villages were set up to cope with orphan immigrants who arrived from Europe after the Holocaust.
Like those working with at-risk children the world over, the villages’ directors fear that children in their care have a disproportionately high risk of leading a life of exclusion, dropping out of school or turning to crime; however, a 2007 study by the School of Social Work at the University of Haifa found that nine out of 10 Yemin Orde graduates consider themselves satisfied or very satisfied with their lives, and that they exceed the national average for time spent in the education system. They are also high achievers in the Israeli army: Almost one in two male Yemin Orde graduates becomes an officer or serves in a combat unit, while the national average is around 10%.
Now, the 15-strong team of the Yemin Orde Initiatives is training the management and staff at five other youth villages in the ethos that they believe is responsible for this success. The program is intense, with sessions running three days a week for a total of 21 hours, and has the blessing – though not the financial support – of the Ministry of Education. In addition to the work in Israel, Peri and some Yemin Orde graduates are training staff and management at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The ethos, mostly formulated by Peri himself, draws heavily on the work of various scholars, including the late Israeli-American sociologist Aaron Antonovsky and the American psychologist Jerome Bruner. But the training program focuses on real-life experiences and not on book learning, which is why institutions have signed up for what they could have dismissed as a condescending initiative. “They see that I don’t come with a rule book from a university but am talking from working with children like theirs,” said Dotan Levi, who heads the training team.
Until last year, residents at Neve Hadassah near Netanya rarely saw a graduate come to visit. As at most care facilities in Israel and elsewhere in the world, graduates had minimal, if any, contact with the institution that brought them up. “Now, at every party we have, there are graduates, and pretty much every weekend, graduates come to visit, sometimes with their children,” said director Nahum Rinthler, who proudly added that he has 600 graduates as friends on his Facebook page.
Only two years into the five-year program, the villages taking part in the Yemin Orde Initiatives are still trying to translate much of what they are learning from theory into practice. But this change at Neve Hadassah is a clear example of a village acting on the biggest innovation of Yemin Orde, which is to challenge the standard assumption that a youngster’s formal relationship with a children’s village ends when he or she becomes legally independent.
Yemin Orde operates on the principle that just as most youngsters feel that they always have a home at their parents’ house, children who grew up in care should feel the same.
Peri believes children in care feel that “tomorrow I will be out on my own, so why should I change the behavior patterns that allowed me to survive before I came here?” These behavior patterns often include aggressiveness and rudeness. His solution is to tell residents that it is “up to them, not us, to cut the umbilical cord,” and to use charitable funding to provide housing for graduates to return whenever they wish. Dozens of graduates have chosen to get married at the village.
Peri’s ultimate hope is that children in care make a leap “from survival to leadership” by becoming adults who contribute to their communities. To this end, Yemin Orde residents are involved in numerous social action programs, and other villages are starting to emulate this. At Neve Amiel, a village near the northern Israeli town of Yokneam, the 100 residents have started volunteering in hospitals and organizations, distributing food to the needy. “The children see that they are not in a place where they are only taking and not giving, but are also starting to make their contribution,” director Nimrod Rosenberg said.
Other key principles of the Yemin Orde ethos include improving aesthetics, using informal education to increase self-esteem and insisting that children in care learn to help others in addition to being recipients of help.
“In Ben-Gurion’s day, the main way of thinking was to erase all the personal identity – but now we know that is not the way; the way to build a good healthy society is to foster the identity of these children,” said Yossi Tiram, one of the Yemin Orde Initiatives trainers.
Rinthler said that as his village integrates the Yemin Orde ethos, it is being transformed from a place that “lacked vision” to one with a strong sense of purpose, where “residents respect other children, staff, themselves and their country.”
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.