Meir Shfeyah Youth Village: A place to call home

Meir Shfeyah gives both Israeli and foreign born youth a second chance.

Meir Shfeyah Youth Village: A place to call home (photo credit: courtesy of Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization )
Meir Shfeyah Youth Village: A place to call home
(photo credit: courtesy of Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization )
Israeli-born Yossi arrived at the Meir Shfeyah Youth Village, near the picturesque town of Zichron Ya’acov, when he was in ninth grade. He came from a difficult family background and was an underperforming student and a discipline problem. When his ninth grade English teacher could not deal with him, she called the coordinator of the English Department, Lauren Stern Kedem, to help her.
“I went to the class and told him to come out of the classroom so I could speak with him,” recalls Kedem. “He later told me that ‘Come out’ were the first words he learned in English.”
Despite his initial lack of success scholastically, the teachers and staff at Shfeyah believed in Yossi. They encouraged him to attend classes, made sure he got extra help, and involved him in extracurricular activities and the village’s social life. His dream was to be a driver in the army, so Shfeya sent him to take driving lessons during his senior year. At the end of 12th grade, Yossi passed all his matriculation exams and received a full bagrut. He was drafted into the army and fulfilled his dream of becoming a driver.
“When he was driving, he would always stop at the village to visit and to tell us how much he missed us. He was at the village after he graduated almost as much as when he lived here,” laughs Kedem.
It is this kind of caring and support that marks Meir Shfeyah Youth Village’s continued success. “Nobody gave up on Yossi, and in the end he didn’t give up on himself,” says Kedem.
Kedem, born in the US, has lived in the Village for 20 years. She teaches English but also serves as an informal ambassador of the Village. She has brought up her own children there.
Meir Shfeyah’s history goes back more than 100 years. Originally, the land was purchased by Baron Edmund de Rothschild in the late 1880s from an Arab village called Shfiya. It was one of Rothschild’s original agricultural settlements. An orphanage was housed there after World War I, and in 1923 the baron gave the entire village to Henrietta Szold, Meir Shfeyah Youth Aliya Village circa 1923 Shfeyah dancers the founder of the Hadassah Women’s Organization.
Szold was a driving force in facilitating Youth Aliyah, which rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis in war-torn Europe and brought them to safety in Palestine.
The Youth Village was a residential agricultural school from its founding until today. From 1923 to 1958, Junior Hadassah, which was comprised of single Jewish women in America, provided the operating budget and sent volunteers to work there.
Today, there are 300 students between the ages of 13 and 18 living at the village. Most are recommend by the Department of Social Services and come from low socio-economic backgrounds. The village continues to absorb new immigrant teenagers, many from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Its student body is a mix of native-born Israelis, new immigrants, Druse, Muslims and Beduin. Recently, 20 African refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and the Ivory Coast went to live at the village.
The campus is comprised of modern dormitories; a junior and senior high school; the Bonnie Lipton Center for the Performing Arts, which includes a 500-seat auditorium; the Deborah B. Kaplan Sports Center, which includes a full-size soccer field, sports stadium and swimming pool, all made possible with Hadassah’s support. In 2001, Shfeyah received the prestigious President's Award for Excellence in Education in recognition of the achievements of its students and staff.
Nine years ago, parents in the upper middle-class town of Zichron Ya’acov petitioned for the right to send their children to the village’s school. As a result, there are now 300 external students studying at the school, with a special high-level math and science program. There is also a large group of students whose parents made aliya from the United States and England, and there is an outstanding English language program.
“Everyone has a place here,” says Kedem, who has been teaching and living in the village for the past 20 years.
“There is a huge diversity of students from different backgrounds and at different scholastic levels, but they all interact in the dining room, on the sports field, in the classroom and on school trips. It’s amazing.”
In addition to orchards, a dairy, vineyards and a chicken farm, Shfeyah has a unique viticulture program that includes a winery. Launched in 2005, the program gives students the opportunity to learn how to make wine, from pruning and picking the grapes to bottling and marketing the wine. They are supervised by an expert winemaker. The 11th and 12th grade students produce 5,000 bottles of premium wine annually. This year, the students produced a Merlot.
“I like to call it Zionism for the 21st century,” says Kedem.
The village is also known for its music program, and its mandolin orchestra is recognized nationally and internationally. In 2009, Shfeyah received awards from The Council for a Beautiful Israel, which granted it the title of The Most Beautiful Village in Israel, and school principal Eli Bezalel received recognition as Outstanding Principal of the Year from the Mofet Organization for Excellence in Education.
There are 130 staff members at the village, with 40, mostly counselors and housemothers, living on the premises. A typical day sees the residential students up and at breakfast by 7:30 a.m., having already straightened up their rooms. At 8 a.m. they are joined by the external students, and school goes until 3:15 p.m.
The school is so good that parents in nearby Zichron Ya’aCov and Binyamina went to court to get permission for their children to attend. These middleclass kids make up the core of "external students" who come by bus everyday to the Village.
The external students then go home, and the rest continue their day. From 4 – 5 p.m. they meet with their counselors, followed by after-school activities and study time at the Learning Center, where tutoring is available.
The activities range from sports and martial arts to music and drama. The students also volunteer, some of them working with developmentally disabled adults, some at a senior center for Ethiopians and others as big brothers and sisters for the younger students.
“In addition to the activities, there are also sport events, field trips, hikes, movies and a village-wide talent show,” says Kedem. “We want to give our students a well-rounded experience that is as close to home as it can be.” The students go home every two weeks.
Liz Arbiv a village graduate who was born to an unwed teenage mother and a father who was in prison, was homeless before going to Shfeya. She spoke before the Hadassah Convention a number of years ago. "I owe my life to the village,” said Arbiv, addressing a crowd of more than 3,000 in English. “Simply put, I wouldn't have survived on the street."
What made Arbiv choose Shfeya from the number of other youth villages she had visited with a social worker? "It was peaceful, quiet and beautiful. I happened to see a staff member hugging one of the kids, and my heart skipped a beat. That's what I wanted. You see, I didn't really know what it meant to have a mother or a father who would hug me. I remember thinking, ‘That's something I want.’"
Hadassah’s partnership with Meir Shfeyah has been instrumental in its development, growth and success. In addition to being on the Board of Directors and its support of capital projects, Hadassah also funds the Graduates’ House for Meir Shfeyah’s lone soldiers who have no family to go home to.
At the village, the soldiers have a place to stay when they are on leave -- a warm meal, a refrigerator, washing machine and dryer, television and other amenities to give them a feeling of coming home. Hadassah also supports the annual trip to Poland for the residential students and the Joys of Judaism program run by the Frankel Institute in Jerusalem.
When an Ethiopian student drowned in a terrible accident a number of years ago, the village staff, students and late Hadassah president June Walker banded together to help the family, who were living in dire circumstances.
Graduate Eli Mentason, who came to Israel with his family from Ethiopia when he was four, began working at an outdoor market at age eight to help his parents. With nine children, no education and no familiarity with Hebrew or Israeli culture, it was impossible for his parents to get by. Today, Mentason is a lawyer, married to another village graduate.
“Meir Shfeyah was the only place that accepted me,” he says. “They accepted me with a hug, and that has made all the difference.”
Mentason now tries to help other disadvantaged Ethiopian youngsters to go to a place like Meir Shfeyah, where they can get on track to receive an education that will pave their way to a better future.