Lifting At-Risk Haredi Youth

photo taken at Beit Midrash Sci-Tech Kfar Zeitim
photo taken at Beit Midrash Sci-Tech Kfar Zeitim

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Kfar Zeitim, Israel Here at Beit Midrash Sci-Tech Kfar Zeitim, Torah studies take place next to vocational classes in computer technology, electrical training, woodworking and even agriculture.

It’s like other Israel Sci-Tech schools throughout the country, where immersion in science and technology curricula prepares students for 21st century careers. But here, special sensitivity to the religious goals and values of students is also central.

That’s because this Israel Sci-Tech school serves Haredi youth exclusively, creating pathways to success for students who are very often high risk and ill- equipped for the economic realities ahead of them.

“Israel Sci-Tech is providing an entire new life path for these young people – one that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” said Edith Everett, Chairman of Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, who has visited the campus. “This initiative gives these students the promise of a bright future.”

The numbers underscore the need. The Israeli government has reported that 11 percent of Haredi students – the majority of them boys – have dropped out of high school, and another eight percent are not registered in school at all. Add to this that six in 10 Haredi youngsters live below the poverty line, and the outlook for social and economic alienation is high.

“For years these students have struggled with social and learning problems,” said Rabbi Dov Frank, head of the school. “By the time they arrive at Kfar Zeitim, they see themselves – and their community sees them – as misfits. They are on the verge of dropping out of the education system completely. But once here, they feel at ease and at home in a school designed for their unique background, needs and abilities.”

The school was founded in 2003, and recently became part of the Israel Sci-Tech system as programming and facilities were upgraded to make it a residential youth village for Haredi boys aged 14 to 18.

Since then, enrollment at the school has nearly doubled – to 95 students from throughout the country. Additional physical and academic enhancements are planned as the number of students is expected to increase.

Similar schools exist in Afula, Kiryat Gat, Tzfat, Tzrifin, Jerusalem and Katriel, and officials expect combined enrollment to soon reach 500 Haredi students. New schools are expected to open, perhaps including one for girls.

The protective nature of the Haredi community, combined with the fact that students may have learning difficulties and behavioral problems, make it difficult for them to thrive at a traditional yeshiva.

The school overcomes these hurdles by offering individual counseling and a diverse and unique set of extracurricular activities. By caring for horses, goats and cattle, for example, students boost their self-confidence and sense of purpose and responsibility. Sports and martial arts programs ingrain discipline and a desire to excel.

And as an extension of their woodworking curriculum, some campus facilities – classrooms and dormitories – were built by students, giving them pride and ownership in their home away from home.

“The fact that we are responsible for construction and maintenance ourselves, means we want to take care of it,” says student Joseph Safed. “Collective responsibility builds our character and our caring for each other and our environment.”

Torah is taught in non-competitive environments, and reinforcement of present and future success infuses the entire campus. The boys live in a supportive environment – sheltered from outside influences that could conflict with family and community values – focused on each student’s needs.

The school – which also receives support from the Max and Leah Rothstein Charitable Trust – has a professional team including rabbis, teachers, social workers and therapists.

“The professional staff spends hours trying to find the particular skills inherent in every student,” said Zahar Brandsky, an electrical engineering teacher. “There is no such thing as not succeeding in anything. Everyone has ability; they just need to discover their potential. We initiate a process by which boys are successful at first in small things, and then they find that they can succeed in bigger things.”

After graduating, many students receive licenses as electricians, carpenters and computer technicians, empowered to face adulthood with strong religious grounding, a solid vocation and a positive sense of their own value.

“Sci-Tech Kfar Zeitim is inspiring hope and a drive to succeed for students who quite easily could fall through the cracks of society,” said Everett. “Like the entire Sci-Tech system, this campus is oriented toward long-term positive effects, both for the students who come here, and for the entire fabric of Israeli society.”