Robin B. Zeiger, Ph.D.
Almost a year after our Aliyah, I am still continually amazed at all the Emek Hefer treasures in my back-yard. Recently I discovered such a treasure in Ben Yakir's Youth Aliyah Village, literally a stone's throw from my house. I walked past if many times and found it very unassuming from the outside gate. Only when invited by Partnership 2000 to visit it, did I find I could not have been farther from the truth.
Recently I participated in their annual Bar Mitzvah celebration left me in awe of the place. As we say in Hebrew it is "maxim" (magnificent). The Bar Mitzvah took place on the beautiful green grounds of the facility, with a wonderful spread of food. We were treated to everything from delicious Israeli salad and falafels to sushi and chicken.
The 23 Bar Mitzvah boys began the celebration in a most unusual manner. A beautiful Sephardic Torah led the way, as the boys marched in carrying light sticks. They surrounded the Torah and began to dance. During the course of the evening there were the typical speeches, albeit in Hebrew. But there was also a beautiful selection of singing and several very comical acts of dancing "dolls" and an over-sized balloon man.
I must admit I had visited once before. Thus I knew that the beautiful Bar Mitzvah celebration was but a small window into the inner workings of Ben Yakir. But just in case I was in doubt, I spoke to several grandparents and parents. They couldn't say enough good things about the youth village's director, Yossi Krothammer , and Lior Tubul, the dorm school teacher) and all of the staff. Again and again I was told the staff treats the boys like family and always goes that extra mile. While many of the boys come with learning gaps and/or learning disabilities, the school is amazingly successful.
Sixty-five to seventy-five percent of the graduates finish their bagrut (regents). This is a higher percentage than the average of the entire country. Many of the boys come with some delays or gaps in their social skills. Yet the typical graduate becomes well integrated into Israeli society. The boys go onto serve in the army. Many go to college. Many of the alumni chose to keep in touch and help students out with scholarships.
In contrast to America, many high school students in Israel attend dorm schools. In fact my Nechama will begin a dorm school next year. In that way, Ben Yakir is not unusual. But everything else about it is indeed special. Ben Yakir is one of four youth Aliyah villages established by the Jewish Agency 1974 to assist Jewish teen Olim in their adjustment to Israel. These students came from many countries in Europe and Africa. However, in recent years the majority of students are of Ethiopian descent. Ben Yakir caters to students with learning challenges and/or social struggles.
In my initial visit to Ben Yakir, I was introduced to Gabi Azulay Director of the animal therapy program. I announced to him that my Hebrew is at a beginner level. No matter. .He nodded and proceeded to speak to me in typical Israeli Hebrew; a mile a minute. I also nodded a lot, partially because I only understood every other word. Yet, it wasn't important. His enthusiasm and professionalism and love of the boys went beyond words. With pride, he described the riding program. Some boys benefit from therapeutic riding; a very specific type of therapy that helps the boys to gain confidence. Some of the boys just like to ride. Gabi explained that his style of teaching is very democratic. He encourages the boys to take responsibility and participate as a group in decision making. Gabi tells me that there about 20 boys each year who help take care of the animals. I meet a couple of them. They are friendly and enthusiastic and clearly very connected to Gabi.
The boys typically come from financially struggling families Thus, the Bar Mitzvah celebration with the school is very important to them. The boys are all treated to a flight to Eilat. They also travel to Jerusalem to receive an Aliyah at the Kotel. The school clearly makes a big deal of the event. One other aspect of the Bar Mitzvah celebration was particularly impressive to me. The boys received a nice selection of gifts; tefillin, a gym bag, a knapsack, and a very nice watch. I have participated in enough American Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to know how exciting the gifts are. My children enthusiastically opened all their gifts with care. Yet, for these boys in Israel, the gifts are all the more important. Many come from families that struggle financially. Some come from single parent homes, with many challenges. Thus, they really appreciate the gifts.
I met one other very special person at the event Gabi Weisfield. She lives in Canada, yet she is an ardent Zionist. She has adopted the boys. Gabi explained to me that she used to be very involved Witzo Women. This organization donated to money to Ben Yakir to help sponsor special programs, like the Bar Mitzvah. However, like many other organizations in America, this agency suffered many budget cuts. Thus took on this project by herself. For several years, she has brought the presents. She proudly told me about the care she took in finding the watches.
Meeting Gabi showed another impact on the boys. I had been told that for those kids, it will probably be the first (if not the only) time for them to meet an American Jew. In the past they have been given chances to meet the world Jewry through Partnership 2000 and that made a huge difference. They had participated in an educational program, and sat down as equals on a round table, discussing Tzedek, Tikkun Olam, leadership and more. For them, to feel supported and valuable- made a difference.
I left the event with a new awe of the place. I am very excited that it is only a few steps from my home, and now I want to volunteer some time there as a psychologist. Maybe you would like to join me…