Hope for At-Risk Youth at Yemin Orde

One of the notorious ways that overwrought Israeli parents get unruly kids into line is by threatening to send them to a pnimia — a boarding school. For Israelis, “boarding school” carries the associations that “reform school” once did for Americans: juvenile delinquents, family outcasts, violence, crime, prep schools for prison.

Boarding schools are “bad news” even to Dr. Chaim Peri, director of Yemin Orde Wingate Youth Village, Israel’s best-known boarding school.

“No child wants to grow up away from his family,” he said. “The very name ‘boarding school’ stigmatizes them, turns them into handicapped people.”

So Peri has tried to turn Yemin Orde into everything the stereotypical boarding school is not. And by its looks, by the testimony of graduates and by key statistical measures, he has plainly succeeded. For that success, Peri had the honor of lighting the torch in the name of Israel’s educators at this year’s Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem.

Yemin Orde looks like a Catskills resort in the good old days. Situated among the pine trees of the Galilee, just south of Haifa in the Carmel Mountains, it’s a botanical garden with bungalows. It didn’t spring up by magic; plaques bear the names of donors who responded to Peri’s charisma.

Unlike an Israeli-style Eton, Yemin Orde does not serve the children of the Israeli aristocracy, but rather their opposite — the children of bereft immigrants, mainly those of Ethiopian, Russian and South American descent. Many of the roughly 500 students are orphans. Some are in Israel without their parents. Others come from homes that are too poor, overcrowded or violent to keep them.

“If there is even a shred of a chance that a kid can stay with his family, we won’t take him,” said Peri, 64, who has run the school for nearly 30 years.

Over the last generation, Yemin Orde has become best known for working near-wonders with Ethiopian-immigrant kids. On the whole, Ethiopian pupils are far behind the Israeli scholastic average, even though the gap is closing. At Yemin Orde, however, the proportion of Ethiopian pupils passing the high school matriculation exam is very close to that of Israelis nationwide, and nearly double that of other Ethiopian students.

And Yemin Orde gets some hard cases.

“I didn’t want to get near white people. The only business I had with white people was fighting them,” graduate Tsachi Godo recently recalled to the Ma’ariv daily newspaper. “I used to hang around the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station with my friends, and we used to buy the cheapest bottle of vodka we could find, and get drunk or get into fights. I was the head of the gang, but luckily the police never opened a file on me.”

In the 12th grade, Godo took hold of himself and went into Yemin Orde. There he passed his matriculation exam and went through the school’s pre-army preparation course. Today, an officer in the Israeli paratroops, he stood at the head of the corps of soldiers present at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Itzik Dessie, by contrast, was born for leadership although he, too, was shaped for the better by Yemin Orde. His grandfather, Dawit Ya’acov, was one of Ethiopian Jewry’s leading kesim, or spiritual leaders.

“What Chaim Peri taught me was a continuation of what my grandfather taught me, and what I’m doing today is a continuation of what I learned at Yemin Orde,” said Dessie, 35, who went from Yemin Orde to Haifa University, and then became one of Israel’s few Ethiopian-born attorneys.

For awhile, Dessie said his career was “built around making money, and I wasn’t doing what I believed in.”

Now he heads Tebeka — Amharic for “advocate of justice” — a law office with 15 student interns that represents poor Ethiopian immigrants.

“My idea is to use the law to change society,” he said.

Peri’s educational outlook fuses Jewish multiculturalism with Israeli patriotism. Speaking to some 500 boarding school educators at a conference near Jerusalem, he reminded the audience how, in the early days of the state, the Israeli establishment viewed immigrants, especially those from a Middle Eastern, religious background, as people whose traditional culture was worthy of disparagement and better off erased. These were culturally lesser Jews, the thinking went, who had to be re-educated as secular Israelis, as “new Jews.”

“We’ve learned from the experience of the 1950s,” Peri said, “when the attitude [of veterans to immigrants] was, ‘You’ve had tough luck, but now you can become like us, the insiders.'”

Mulitculturalism at Yemin Orde means teaching the kids that “Ethiopian is beautiful,” and “Russian is beautiful,” and “Azerbaijani is beautiful” and “Argentine is beautiful” — to teach them to have both cultural self-respect and respect for other cultures.

“And you can’t do it by simulation, with lip service, by boasting that you know a few words of Amharic. It has to be the real thing,” Peri said.

One way Peri does it is with a mass celebration of the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd, which falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur, when everyone dresses in holiday clothes and runs to the top of a grassy hill, just like Ethiopian Jewry did for 2,500 years. On the hilltop, participants pray that God will bring them to Mount Zion.

Another way is by a mass celebration every May 9 of the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis, when Russian plays and dances are performed and Russian poems are read.

Yet, while learning to be proud of their traditional cultures, the students at Yemin Orde also are imbued with Israeli patriotism through a curriculum that emphasizes the wisdom of Judaism and the importance of the State of Israel. Army service and volunteer humanitarian work are supreme values at the school.

This fusion of multiculturalism and Israeli patriotism has a lasting effect, notably among Ethiopians, whose cultural self-image has taken a battering in Israel. Ethiopian immigrants have suffered both from a sudden “drop in class” upon entering a materialistic, technologically advanced society, and from the condescending attitude — or worse — shown them by so many Israelis.

“I spent a lot of years working in the field, going all around, and whenever I’d be in a room with Ethiopians, I’d be able to tell after awhile which of them went to Yemin Orde,” said Susan Weijel, head of the school’s outreach program. “They were the ones who felt comfortable being black, being Ethiopian and being Israeli. They felt good about it all.”

In a small, extremely close-knit country where family and social connections — protekzia in the local slang — are usually prerequisites for success, immigrant teenagers with troubled families or no families at all are at a huge disadvantage. So Yemin Orde tries to be their graduates’ protekzia.

“One of the most important things we say to the students here is, ‘We’re with you not only until you graduate. We’re with you as long as you need us.’ That’s a message that gives them strength,” Weijel said.

One graduate recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and school officials helped her obtain social and psychological assistance. In another instance, the school stepped in after a Chinese graduate who converted to Judaism seemingly ruined her chances of going to university by doing poorly on the “psychometric” entrance exam, an exam known to be especially difficult for non-Westerners. Yemin Orde officials convinced Hebrew University to admit her on the strength of her grades alone.

Yemin Orde-educated soldiers on furlough, university students and graduates going through hard times often stay for awhile at the school’s Graduate House residence hall.

“We have a graduate who’s recuperating from leukemia,” said Weijel, “and we told him he doesn’t have to worry about having a place to stay, that when he’s able, he’ll come live with us at Graduate House.”

Even though Peri wears a yarmulke and Yemin Orde is officially a religious boarding school, most of the students who come in are not religious and most leave the same way.

“But they usually come out with a greater appreciation for spirituality, however they see it,” Weijel said.

While Yemin Orde strives for excellence, it doesn’t define excellence in the familiar way. All students are pushed to get their high school matriculation certificate, but not everyone is necessarily pushed to go on to university and carve out a sparkling career.

“They don’t have to become heroes, but they should come out with a sense of worthiness,” Peri said. “The common goal is that they become heads of households who contribute to society and have a god in their hearts.”

On Sunday, June 12, Friends of Yemin Orde is holding an Israel 5K Challenge in support of the annual three-day hike from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea known as the Etgar (the Challenge) at Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. For more information, visit www.israel5k.org.