After the fire in Camelot

Inspired by the values instilled at the Yemin Orde youth village in the North, students and long-time graduates rush in to help.

December 16, 2010 18:30
Man inspects damage of fire at Yemin Orde

Man inspects damage of fire at Yemin Orde 311. (photo credit: DANIEL COHEN)

While the Carmel fire destroyed homes, a clinic and the library at Yemin Orde Youth Village, it didn’t touch the actual school, the classrooms where nearly 500 resident high school pupils study. This was not happenstance, either.

“We deliberately separate home and school. A child is not supposed to ‘live at school,’ he’s supposed to live at home and go to school, and that’s what they do here. This is not a ‘boarding school,’ not a warehouse for children. It’s a community of meaning,” says Chaim Peri, noting that the classrooms lie a 10-minute walk from the fire’s path.On Thursday of last week, the smell of smoke still hung in the forest air of Yemin Orde, next to Ein Hod. Tractors, bulldozers and electric saws rumbled and buzzed. A wide, irregular path of burnt trees and simple, square houses in rubble cut through the village. Since the start of the week, hundreds of graduates had been coming through, grateful to help out with any sort of “black work,” says Dima Kanevsky, 32, who came in from Hadera.

The pupils, mainly immigrants from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and South America, all of them either lacking families here or being unable to live with them, had been evacuated mainly to other communities; some were staying with family. Soon they would all be staying at a rehabilitation facility for soldiers at Givat Olga and commuting to classes for “about one to three months,” says Peri, estimating the time it will take to build temporary housing in place of the 20 children’s and staff houses destroyed.

Director emeritus of the village for the last year after running it for the previous 30 years, Peri goes in to a meeting of counselors to explain the complexity of the challenge they’re facing.

“We have to recreate Yemin Orde at Givat Olga,” he tells them, sitting in the lobby of the nearby Nir Etzion Hotel. “The young people have to be part of the rehabilitation of the village; I’d even take them out of class to work. They have to take part in the decisions. They have to know what’s going on. In my opinion, they should know how much we’re getting in financial contributions and what’s being done with it. It all should all be transparent to them.”

Officially, Yemin Orde is a religious youth village, even though most of the youth aren’t observant. Peri is a kippa-wearing, Orthodox Jew. “The religious establishment doesn’t approve of us because the boys and girls study together,” he says. He tells the counselors the story of Job, noting that Job’s redemption only comes in the end when, utterly bereft, he prays for the hungry.

“Giving – the young people want to give, they want to take the money that’s being donated to them and give it for Gilad Schalit,” he says. “Now is the time to talk to them about Gilad Schalit, about abandonment – because they were abandoned once, but we don’t abandon them, and they are learning, they’re experiencing, that you don’t abandon your brothers and sisters. These are the universal values of Judaism, and we have to engrave them on their souls.”

Peri, 69, is a philosopher of education and an unreconstructed utopian. Yemin Orde is his life’s work. “When I came back on Sunday and saw the destruction, I began having chest pains, I was sweating, I thought I was having a heart attack. But when the shock passed, my first thought was: ‘We will rebuild.’ I kept repeating to myself the passage from the Torah: ‘A time of disaster for Jacob, and from here we will be saved.’”

Aside from the homes, some precious, highly symbolic things were destroyed, such as the godjo, or Ethiopian shrine where pupils of all backgrounds go to commemorate the Ethiopian immigrants’ journey to Israel. One of Yemin Orde’s main principles is to impart pride in one’s heritage. Aside from national and religious holidays, the village also celebrates 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, they pray that God will bring them to Mount Zion. And on May 9, Russian plays and dances are performed and Russian poems read to mark the anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis.

Also destroyed, inside the library, was a memorial featuring the photos of the 27 Yemin Orde graduates who were killed in battle. “They come here as rebellious kids, angry at the world, and when they come back to visit they’ve got bars on their shoulders and wings on their chests,” says Peri.

Helping sort and launder the piles of donated clothing was Milana Brodyanskaya, 19, wearing her air force uniform, on leave from her post. An immigrant from Kazakhstan, she’d lived at Yemin Orde for four years, and since joining the IAF two months ago, she still spends her furloughs in the village. Until the homes are repaired, though, she’ll be sleeping at friends’ houses when away from base.

“This is the only place in the world where I feel at home, where I feel I have family around me,” she says. “I didn’t realize this until the fire.”

Peri says the fire even reminded him of what Yemin Orde really is. On Sunday he visited some of the youngsters staying at the “sister” village of Neveh Amiel. “They were talking with excitement about the belongings they’d recovered from their houses. It had been like a treasure hunt for them. Some of them were crying from time to time, but they were strong. They had their family with them. The buildings would be replaced. Their home was the people around them, and they still had their home.”

About 40 graduates still live in the village. “We don’t tell them when it’s time to leave – they decide on their own,” Peri says. He himself only moved out last year, when he turned over his house to his successor, Benny Fisher. Driving past the house, he says, “The house wasn’t damaged, but the garden was destroyed.”

Another building wiped out by the fire was the psychological counseling center. “They’re so full of bitterness when they arrive, you have to let them drain all the bitterness out of themselves, and then they’re born anew. Once we had a boy who threw stones at me, yelling, ‘My mother left me, my father left me...’ He’s a fireman now in the South, and I saw him a few days ago. He took leave from his job to come fight the fire here.”

“I call this place the ‘garden of the late bloomers,’” says Peri.

Throughout the day, graduates come up to him, people he may not have seen for 20 years. Claudine Shoshani, 40, has come from Ramat Gan. She’s handing some money to Peri. “It’s not much, I just wanted to give something for the rebuilding,” she says. Born in Morocco, she lived at Yemin Orde with her four sisters in the 1980s.

“When I heard about the fire, I felt like my home was burning down,” she says. “Be well, Doctor Chaim Peri. The talks you used to give on Friday afternoons – I carry them in my heart.”

Yemin Orde’s scholastic achievements are impressive. For instance, Ethiopian pupils do about twice as well on the high school matriculation exam as Ethiopian students nationwide – but that is not the village’s focus. “Our measure of success is if a young person grows up to have his or her own household and to contribute to the community. By that measure, our success rate is over 90 percent,” says Peri.

He’s put his philosophy, which he calls derech kfar, or “the village way,” into a book by the same name. “The objective is to reproduce the qualities and structures of the original village of humanity. The village way allows for a structural environment to endow children with recognition and pride in their past, and a sense of direction and security about their future...The village way philosophy uses this individual and collective support to provide at-risk children with tools to do more than survive but thrive and reach their full potential.”

In Israel, the term “boarding school” carries the same connotation as “reform school” does in the US, and in recent years, Yemin Orde has begun trying to change that. Backed by the Education Ministry, it has been training the staff at six boarding schools across the country in the village way.

It is also the guiding spirit at Agahozo Shalom Village in Rwanda, a home and school for nearly 400 orphans of the 1994 genocide. Shimon Solomon, 40, an Ethiopian immigrant and graduate of Yemin Orde who pursued a career in education, is about to start his third year as a director at Agahozo. There are now 375 orphans of genocide living at this first of Yemin Orde’s international projects. “Next year we will have 500,” says Solomon. I ask him what the word “agohozo” means. “In the language of Rwanda,” he says, “it means ‘to dry the tears.’”

Visiting his family in Ashdod, he spoke to me by phone on Thursday of last week, a few hours before catching a plane back to Rwanda.

“On Saturday night, when the fire was really bad, I drove up to Yemin Orde. There were seven police cars at the entrance and they weren’t letting anybody in, but three other graduates and I just drove around them and got in. That was about 8:30.

“We stayed up the whole night patrolling the grounds in our cars, calling the fire department whenever we saw a brush fire starting, then helping them with the hoses when they got here. At the very least, we saved two children’s houses from being burned down.”

He didn’t leave until eight the following morning, and only because the fire had died down considerably and he had a major exam to take.

“I didn’t think twice about going up to Yemin Orde during the fire. It’s my home,” he says. “Helping defend it was a great privilege.”

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