Finding one’s true identity – away from home

In these youth villages - youngsters are ‘adopted’ into families which include at least one child who is close to the same age as the adoptee.

Lidor, a member of the Hadassah Ne'urim Youth village, poses with one of the dogs being rehabilitated at the site. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lidor, a member of the Hadassah Ne'urim Youth village, poses with one of the dogs being rehabilitated at the site.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Youth villages have been part of the country’s landscape since the 1930s when they welcomed adolescents fleeing Nazism. In the 1940s and 1950s, they housed Holocaust survivors who were often the sole survivors of their families. By the 1960s, the kibbutz-style boarding schools began accepting youth at risk – youngsters from broken homes and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
In these youth villages – established by WIZO, the Jewish Agency and Naamat (then known as Pioneer Women), and subsequently by Hadassah, Amit and Emunah – youngsters are ‘adopted’ into families which include at least one child who is close to the same age as the adoptee.
Because the emotional, psychological, physical and educational welfare of all youth at risk is paramount, the various organizations work closely with the Education Ministry and the Ministry for Social Services, as well as each other.
To coordinate those efforts, social entrepreneur and philanthropist Avi Naor established the Public Forum of Youth Villages and Boarding Schools. The Forum, as well as some of the graduates of youth villages and boarding schools, met on Sunday with President Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama, who is passionate about youth at risk.
Naor called the Forum an example of what can be achieved by cooperation between civil society, the government and the Knesset. He praised those Forum board members who not only give of their money to ensure the smooth running of youth villages, but also give of themselves.
Representing the Knesset on the Forum is Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar, who said he had been through several institutions during his youth, and regretted that they were not run in accordance with the policies under which youth villages and boarding schools operate today. He said he was repeatedly told he was good for nothing and would never amount to anything.
Notwithstanding that negativity, Bar became an IDF officer, chairman of the World Youth of the Labor Zionist Movement, director of development economics and higher education in the Jerusalem Municipality, and adviser to various ministers. While working in public service, he also completed a BA in political science and an MA in international relations. He has also served as secretary-general of the Labor Party, among other accomplishments.
Rivlin recalled attending Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia, where one of his teachers was Yitzhak Ben Zvi, who was Israel’s second and longest-serving president.
“We had the best teachers,” reminisced Rivlin, “but every boy in Rehavia was thrilled if he was accepted at the Kadoorie or Ben Shemen agricultural schools.” Rivlin noted that some of Israel’s leading politicians and military officers had come out of Kadoorie.
(Shimon Peres, Shulamit Aloni and Moshe Katsav amongst others went to Ben Shemen.) Several youth village and boarding school program graduates were present. Two told their stories.
Michael Korbenko, who four months ago enlisted in the navy, was born in Siberia and came to Israel with his parents when he was three years old. The family settled in Netanya, and though he was very young when he arrived, Michael never adjusted. At school, nearly all his classmates were Russian, and they didn’t really fit in either. Unhappy, Michael drifted from school to school. Then his parents divorced, and his father returned to Russia. Michael ended up going to Russia to stay with his father. There he encountered antisemitism. “I realized that Israel was where I belonged,” he said.
Enrolling at a religious boarding school, he decided to convert since he wasn’t Jewish according to halacha. Today he is observant and wears a knitted kippa. “Today I’m much better equipped to go out and face the world than I ever imagined I would be.”
Hodaya Levy, who is from a religious background, also struggled to integrate. She arrived at her last school – where she spent five years – without social skills and lacking in self esteem. Gradually she discovered she had many talents, including playing the guitar and making confectionary. In fact, she brought a box of her hand-made chocolates as a gift for the Rivlins.
While at school, there was a crisis in Levy’s family. Without elaborating, she said she severed all contact. Engulfed with support from her fellow students and staff, she graduated high school four months ago. If she had remained with her family, she would be a different person, she said.
Nechama Rivlin said that when she watches documentaries about youth villages she is full of admiration for the work that is done with young people who blossom as human beings simply because someone cares.