In tall, blazing letters the Hebrew word 'Ofek' is spelled out across the sky. As the last letter is set aflame 500 young people hailing from 20 different countries burst into cheers.
For the eldest, the graduating class, the fire inscription means they met the 'Challenge.' They achieved the goal. For the youngest, the incoming 9th graders - the 'Ofek' class - 'horizon' is their name. The seniors achieved their goal - their turn is on the horizon.
At Yemin Orde Youth Village, 'Etgar', the Challenge Hike, is the highlight of the year. For the most part the students who live and study at Yemin Orde, ages 5-19, are the world's castoff children. Orphaned or disadvantaged, abandoned, neglected or abused, they come here after the rest of the world has given up on them. For them the challenge of the hike is everything. It means beating the odds, surviving, prevailing and it is the ultimate in personal achievement. So on Simhat Torah, when the graduating seniors set out to walk the breadth of Israel, to span the land, they're also claiming it as their own.
In the three days it takes to walk from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean, they find strength they didn't know they had. "It's a tough hike," says Susan Weijel, the Village's Director of Outreach and Development. "Some are fat, others skinny, some tall, others short. They're girls and boys, black and white, they come from every possible background. They all get hot and sweaty, tired and achy, blistered and sunburned. At some point, most want to quit. But they don't. They push on, knowing that finishing is something they have to do for themselves.
"On the last day, as they near the Village, the youngest class, the 9th graders, runs out to meet the hikers, to escort them home. Seeing them, the seniors shout and cheer. The Challenge is over. 'We did it! We made it! We're the best!'"
The blaze of the fire inscription seals the deal. The torch has been passed.
Interestingly enough, it's not the seniors who completed the hike who benefit most from all this 'hozek,' strength. It's really for the younger kids. "For the ones who've only been here a month or so, the 'Etgar' is pure inspiration," Weijel says. "A month in, the new kids are overwhelmed and miserable - "This is terrible. My life is ruined.' But when they see what the seniors did, how strong and confident they are, the younger ones see the potential for themselves. 'The seniors were once new and afraid, too. But look at them now!' Slowly the idea starts to take hold: They did it. I can too."
Walk through Yemin Orde Village and it looks like anything but what it is. Established in 1953 by the British as a home for children orphaned by the Holocaust, the Village perches on 77 acres of lush greenery on top of a hill in the Carmel Mountains just south of Haifa. With breathtaking views of the Mediterranean and rows of pristine white bungalows for dormitories, it is clean, neat and meticulously maintained. The common buildings - class and meeting rooms as well as a light-filled glass-walled cafeteria - could grace a university.
Yemin Orde is open 365 days a year, never closing for any vacations. It can't. For most of the students, the Village is their only home.
According to Yemin Orde's resident visionary, Dr. Haim Peri, most of the students today are not literal orphans. "The mix of students at the Village has changed over the years," he says. "Yemin Orde began with the children of Youth Aliya, and that's still our mission. But today Israel has other needs that are equally critical, so we adjusted our outreach. Right now, children at risk are our biggest segment."
With its focus on first-generation Israelis, today about 55 percent are Ethiopian. "Each wave of new immigrants produces its share of endangered kids," Peri says. "For years we had Russians, then Ethiopians. Now we have South Americans, a few French and Chinese, all in addition to native Israelis. We also have five Muslim children who were rescued from Arab prisons and brought here to grow up in our warm, healthy atmosphere."
Dr. Peri, who served as director from 1978 to 2006, has been one of Israel's most honored educators and perhaps its most prolific author on the topic of childhood education. Having officially retired as director he now spends his days teaching and mentoring other group homes in the methods that made Yemin Orde such a staggering success. His new book, 'Reclaiming Adolescents: A Return to the Village State of Mind' sets forth the unique educational philosophy that underlies Yemin Orde.
Like the dual benefit of the Etgar hike, many of Peri's programs and methods are precisely the opposite of what you might expect. For example, on the first day a new child arrives at the Village he or she is taken to see the neat row of houses called 'Home Away from Home.'
"Children who arrive here are traumatized," Weijel says. "The one thing they fear most is being abandoned again. So right away we take them to see the 65 apartments we keep open and available for our graduates - our 'Home Away from Home.' We explain that every graduate is always welcome to return to the Village any time he or she wishes. The Village is now their home. There's always a place for them. For a new kid who's desperately seeking some assurance of permanence, seeing those homes helps."
The word 'love' isn't used at Yemin Orde. "Most of the kids are too damaged to deal with the concept of 'love' in the beginning. We begin with basic safety and security. We had one little boy, five-years-old, and his room began to stink - it was horrible. We couldn't figure out what it was until someone discovered he was hiding hard boiled eggs under his mattress - he was afraid there wouldn't be food on a regular basis. Safety and security come first."
Stability comes next. "We surround them with a lot of strong people, not just teachers, but everyone they deal with. Everyone who works here in any capacity also imparts values just by the way they live. We have a strong contingent of staff, from National Service (Sherut Leumi), social workers and our very fine coordinators who live in the Village and are on call 24 hours a day. In Israel, the State mandates one counselor for every 40 youngsters. In the Village, we have one for every 24 students. After graduation, we're still there to help - counseling, scholarships, work. We're committed to our kids forever."
With such a mix of backgrounds and ethnicities, conventional wisdom might dictate that conformity would be the goal - encourage everyone to be like everyone else. Yemin Orde does exactly the opposite. "We put a big emphasis on having each child honor his own ethnic roots," Weijel says. "We want each child to recognize his own uniqueness. Why? It's about empowerment, about learning to get along with everyone else. If each child is proud of his own heritage, his unique roots, then he's self confident. He knows who he is. And when a child feels secure in himself it's then easier for him to be accepting of others, to accept other people's traditions."
In fact, the various ethnic celebrations are some of the best days at Yemin Orde, especially the Ethiopian festival of Sigd. In Amharic, Sigd means to 'bow down.' For Ethiopian Jews, Sigd comes 50 days after Yom Kippur and recalls the giving of the Torah and the return from exile to Israel. After prayer and fasting, Jews in Ethiopia climb the tallest mountain and look toward Jerusalem, a city some 1,500 miles north.
"Here, in Yemin Orde, everyone wears white and we all hike to the top of the highest hill," says Sigal Kanoposky, a native Ethiopian who both lives and works in the Village. "One of the students is carried on a chair from the 'tukal,' a traditional grass hut, all the way to the synagogue, where we sing and pray. Then we feast on Ethiopian foods."
Similar festivals are held for other ethnicities. For the Russians, it's May 9th, the day the Red Army defeated the Nazis. The Russian festival features Russian plays and dances, poems and foods.
Jewish holidays are prime. "Not all of the children are halachically Jewish," Weijel says. "But they all came under the Law of Return, so they have some connection to Judaism. Officially, we're non-denominational, but we're kosher and shomer Shabbat. Infusing Jewish identity is a big part of what we do. We do have mixed classes, boys and girls studying together. Most of our kids came from non-religious backgrounds, so we don't force anything on them too quickly. They move at their own pace."
Dreaming is also encouraged. "We don't have these children with us for very long," Weijel says. "Every minute has to count. So right away we encourage them to look toward the future with hope. We want them to dream, to identify the things they'd most like to do. Then we show them how to make their dreams come true. Nothing is out of their reach."
Yemin Orde's long list of success stories inspires everyone, even the staff. Weijel tells about one Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day) when she was watching the televised ceremony. "The camera panned over the line of soldiers standing straight and tall, perfect in their uniforms. Every one of them was white - except the leader whom we immediately recognized as one of our graduates, an Ethiopian boy. He'd come from an exceptionally difficult background and had been a very angry kid. The turn-around for him didn't even come at Yemin Orde. It came later, after he got into a pre-army leadership program. He explained it to me: 'One day something just clicked. I realized I was part of this line of Jewish history. I'm attached to this.' Now he's a great motivational speaker. That's the kind of kid who inspires everyone."
The 'role model' concept infuses everything. Not only are graduates permitted to come back, they're encouraged to do so, to mingle with the students. "Showing how successful our graduates are is part of the program," Weijel says. "Our graduates tell the story: How they, too, struggled. How they came here, worked hard, didn't give up. That's a great lesson for a kid who's having trouble adjusting."
There's a wealth of successful role models to choose from too. At a recent Village ceremony scholarships were awarded to 101 graduating seniors so they could go on to higher education. Usually, about a third of the 125 or so graduates attend university, about the same as the national average. Village alumni are leaders everywhere - former deputy mayor of Tiberias Yossi Ben David, a police chief, scores of IDF commanders and paratroopers, creator of Tebeka (a non-profit organization that provides legal aid to the Ethiopian community), attorney Itzik Dessa, medical professionals, government staffers and thousands of responsible parents and citizens.
A full time supply of role models live right on the campus. "Our counselors, many of them our own graduates, live and raise their families in the Village itself," Weijel says. "A kid sees a family like that - no crime, no drugs - he gets the idea that that's the way it's supposed to be. It's about parental wholeness, which is part of our philosophy."
Inspiring 'parental wholeness' is one of Dr. Peri's main objectives. "What's the best thing you can give your kid?" he asks. "Parental wholeness - the living example of solid, competent, honest, hardworking, caring, responsible, reliable good citizens. That's what helps kids become successful parents themselves. People wonder how we do that, since most of our kids were abandoned by their own parents. Our basic system is to first build up trust, assuring them in every way we can that they will never be abandoned again. Then we surround them with living, breathing examples of what can be achieved. That message is in everything we do: other kids were just like you, but they succeeded. You can, too."
In his December letter to supporters, Dr. Peri wrote about the fire inscription, the flaming letters that blazed out from the top of the hill. "The fire inscription that ended our annual cross-country hike and welcomed the newly arrived children echoes a fascinating tradition from ancient Israel," he wrote. "Our forefathers used to light torches to signal the dawn of a new month and a new beginning. These flames, lighting up mountaintops and hills across Israel, turned the whole country into one huge menorah, spreading a message of renewal and unity."
For the children who arrive at Yemin Orde broken and unwanted, the message of new beginnings lighting up the horizon seems just about perfect.