By Aaron Greenblatt, Jewish Agency Intern
Ben Yakir's pinat chai! It's dusty. It's dirty. It's stinky. It's...sababa! Our mission today takes us to the youth village located next to the Galilean town of Hadera.
It is summer, the August heat scorches, and most of Ben Yakir's 135 residents have fled, so what in the name of HaShem are we doing here?
A 12-person, Karen Ha'Yesod youth leadership group - wishing to remain anonymous - is touring Israel for six days and requested to observe how their donations contribute to the youth community.
Which is exactly why we dragged them to the petting zoo.
Besides receiving basic necessities (showers, food, clothing, bed, etc.), Ben Yakir's at-risk youth participate in progressive therapy centered around supporting life.
These children originate in Israel, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, but, what they all have in common, is that many are physically, emotionally or sexually abused by parents, peers and society at large. Many cannot read or count for correct change from bus fare.
The 7th-9th graders represent only a fraction of Israel's 350,000 children, ages 6-18, categorized as at-risk youth: In other words, 20 percent of children in Israel live in poverty, subsisting on less than $270/month. Ben Yakir youth have bounced from one school to the next, and this community signifies a last chance in a long line of disappointments.
Ben Yakir is one of four youth villages located throughout Israel, helping to absorb upwards of 11,000 youth. By age 12, kids graduating from elementary to middle school are referred to these youth villages. What society has failed to provide the children, Ben Yakir makes up for with a loving atmosphere, emotional support networks and education. Not to mention dental and physical care: last year alone 25 kids received eyeglasses.
Finally, the kids receive much needed respect. Posted in the infirmary are the words: "Always give the patient the benefit of the doubt."
For once, children receive personal attention, helping to improving self-esteem, social skills and work habits. Classes range in size one-one student/teacher ratio to, at most, 12-1. The youth village staff comprises a dedicated group of 50 post-army and recent college graduates. They remain on-call 24 hours-a-day.
Slowly, Ben Yakir's atmosphere encourages students to bloom into young adults. With the staff's help, these children begin finally to live meaningful lives.
"It's about saving lives everyday," Tal Bar-Lev said, Director of Marketing in the Jewish Agency's Israel Department.
From 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, Israel's Ministry of Education supports all formal educational programming. For the remaining 19 hours a day, though, Ben Yakir exists through Karen Ha'Yesod donors, such as this group. After-hours include multiple forms of therapy and enrichment activities, from Capoeira, sports, music and horseback riding.
Here, children learn to respect themselves and other people; kids who once abused animals are taught to love them.
"The pinat chai," Gabi, the cowboy, said, is a sanctuary "built by the kids, for the kids, following the kids' wishes."
So what happens after 9th grade?
In a newly designed effort, youth continue to live in Ben Yakir but study in local high schools. The continued support has proven successful.
"95-99 percent of Ben Yakir high school students graduate from high school," Bar-Lev said. "In some cases, our kids go into elite units in the army or go directly to college, where, after they finish their degree, contribute to the army in their respective fields," she added.
It all begins in the pinat chai, "the heart of the village," Yossi Krotheimer said, Youth Village Coordinator.
Once a year, the community holds mayoral campaigns for the zoo. A genuine political atmosphere develops: kids buying and trading votes, supporting one candidate after the next. Promises. Speeches—The Works.
So, if the Karen Ha'Yesod group hopes to experience Ben Yakir values, the most logical place to begin is the community's spiritual center. Even better, this youth leadership group is helping spruce up the place a bit. Let them paint benches, stalls and fences. Let them rake and shovel.
Let them work with Ben Yakir youth bettering Eretz Yisroel.