Mikve Israel - Israel's first village looks to the future

As Mikve Israel, Israel’s first village, celebrates 150 years, we take a journey into nature to find out how the school and agricultural center is preparing for its future.

MIKVE ISRAEL decked out with balloons at a 2018 fundraiser for a school trip to Ethiopia (photo credit: JEREMIE KORCHIA)
MIKVE ISRAEL decked out with balloons at a 2018 fundraiser for a school trip to Ethiopia
(photo credit: JEREMIE KORCHIA)
 As I step out of my taxi and into the grounds of Mikve Israel, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The village is located just a 20-minute drive from central Tel Aviv, south of the Holon interchange on the Ayalon. Yet the endless noise of traffic and construction which underscores daily life in modern Israel is gone. Here instead is the sound of birds chirping; trees gently swaying in the winter breeze and schoolchildren singing as washing dries naturally in the open air. 
I could be on a kibbutz in 1948. Or at least on the set of the Israeli teen TV show Palmach. As I wander past old buildings, including a beautiful blue-and-white stone synagogue that was built in 1895, I begin to lose myself amidst all the open green space. 
This feeling of freedom – of turning back the clock to a simpler time – is one of the main attractions of life at Mikve Israel, which last year celebrated a major anniversary.
“This is the first village in Israel; it was established in 1870,” explains Yan Krel, director of Mikve Israel’s boarding school.
“Our country has existed for nearly 73 years, but we’ve existed for 150 years – and even today it’s like a moshav here. Tel Aviv is just over there; all the tall buildings and noise. You can see it. But here it’s green and calm. It’s a very special place.”
Since Mikve was founded, it has set itself the goal of becoming a base for agricultural studies and the love of the land. 
“The main purpose of the village was to train young people to cultivate the soil and to acquire knowledge and skills, increasing their Zionist feelings and deepening the Jewish rooting in the Land of Israel,” says Krel. Mikve Israel absorbed many young Jews even before the establishment of the state. Many of them went on to establish villages and settlements all over the country, thanks to their experience and the thorough practical agricultural training they received here.
The village is still working its magic today, except now it has three high schools side by side: one for secular, one for religious and one for French students. Some of them are day pupils, some are in the boarding school. What unites them all are their agricultural studies and our current global circumstances, which means that academic classes take place on Zoom; and trips, plays and other celebrations have all been put on hold. 
“Now with corona, things are very difficult,” says Krel. 
“The students are learning in capsules; they don’t mix.” The village did have a COVID-19 outbreak: “One boy had it first and then several more but they were all in one capsule. So they quarantined and we contained it.” 
In non-corona times, every day there are around 2,000 students here. Now there are just a few hundred. 
“We have many different kinds of children here,” says Krel. “Some come purely for the academic and agricultural experience. Others come because they have ADHD and we have the time to help them. Or because they struggle to make friends at their old school, or their community can’t support them. Here we can help.”
ONE STUDENT who has recently made Mikve Israel her home is Salamawit Asmamaof. Originally from Ethiopia, Asmamaof and her family now live in Kiryat Gat. In 2020 she moved to Mikve’s boarding school. 
“My aunt suggested this place,” she explains. “I wanted to go to boarding school. I applied and showed my grades and got in.” Asmamaof, aged 15, speaks fluent English, Hebrew “a bit of Korean” and Amharic – and even when going to school means logging on to Zoom, she finds more energy to do so at Mikve.
“It’s way easier to wake up in the morning and start learning here. At home I don’t have the motivation to wake up. I can’t get up. But here I find it.” 
BOARDING SCHOOL students Salamawit Asmamaof (left) and Adi Kiberti at Mikve Israel on January 7, just before heading home for Israel’s third lockdown.  (Photos: Natalie Blenford).BOARDING SCHOOL students Salamawit Asmamaof (left) and Adi Kiberti at Mikve Israel on January 7, just before heading home for Israel’s third lockdown. (Photos: Natalie Blenford).
Her favorite thing about living here? 
“Nature and my friends. Even in a lockdown I can walk around in this huge village and I don’t feel closed in. I share a room with two friends, including my best friend Adi, and it’s great.”
Adi Kiberti from Haifa joined Mikve Israel in November 2020. Despite moving at the height of the pandemic, she’s enjoying her new environment. 
“It’s an amazing place,” she says. “We live in the center of Israel, but it’s also like really far away from Israel. You need to be here to experience it. It’s hard to put into words.”
Noam Wiezmann, 17, was born in France but has lived in Israel for five years. 
“I really like it here,” he says. “At first in Israel, I wasn’t so sure because it was a new place. I was only 12, but now I am happy here.” His family is in Modi’in, but he lives on-campus as part of the French high school. 
Regarding his plans for the future, Wiezmann says: “I don’t know what I want to do yet, I just know that I simply want to help people; to be a doctor or a vet.”
Talking to the students, I’m reminded of my own experience living amid nature and best friends in an Israeli youth village in 1993.
As a participant in a residential framework organized by my London school, JFS, I spent five months as a student at Yemin Orde Youth Village on Mount Carmel. My group, “Wingate Golan One,” was welcomed to the village with open arms by visionary youth leader Chaim Peri. We were the first British children to live there and we felt like pioneers. Now, whenever I hear a jackal call or cicada sing, or smell eucalyptus or observe Shabbat, I’m reminded of my magical five months at Yemin Orde. I can see that experiences like this leave a lasting impression on young people, even if it’s not clear sailing all of the time. 
OMRI NAIM was a student at Mikve from 8th to 12th grade. He returned to the village eight years ago to work as a counselor. 
“Most of the time I’m like a parent,” he laughs. “I help them with homework, activities, sometimes even psychology. Kids need an adult who is not their parent here. I try to be that character. Most of the day they are very independent – they know what to do, where to be. But they need us to show them how they should be, how to behave.”
Naim is aware that living in a boarding school isn’t something that all Israeli children want to do. 
“At this time in Israel, boarding schools are getting weak,” he says. “There seems to be some kind of stigma, but the kids here do really great things. They learn how to be a DJ, how to fix their own phones; how to swim and ride horses. I think life here gives them the experience they need to join the army correctly and to do things properly as adults.” 
It could be that in a post-corona world, people become newly attracted to living together in communities like Mikve Israel. 
“I hope that we are going to see a revival,” says Naim, “because individualism is not giving us the right things we need as people and as a country. It’s not the direction that people need. But these kids are amazing.”
Thankfully, the land at Mikve Israel is protected by law, meaning developers can’t take this unique green lung in the heart of Gush Dan and turn it into offices or apartment buildings. A new CEO is said to be starting shortly. With its future secured, I wonder what is planned for the village’s next 150 years? 
MIKVE PRINCIPAL Yan Krel takes a selfie on a school trip to Ethiopia, March 2019. (Yan Krel)MIKVE PRINCIPAL Yan Krel takes a selfie on a school trip to Ethiopia, March 2019. (Yan Krel)
“Our aim is to expand the boarding school, absorb immigrants from many countries and encourage multiculturalism,” says Krel. 
“We also want to continue educating our students with values such as love of the country and love of mankind. We are interested in advancing science and personal knowledge in biology, chemistry and physics so we can integrate them in agriculture for the benefit of the various settlements in Israel and around the world.” 
In real terms, this means creating an educational campus that fuses academic studies in the village with a technological development center for agriculture. In the short term, it means getting back to a version of normal once COVID-19 is gone. 
On my way back to the entrance gate, we walk past a beautiful outdoor amphitheater. 
“Usually this is the location for end-of-year parties and the annual Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) ceremony,” says Krel. “This year it has not been used. We hope in 2021 that life will be back – that we can take the students on trips; that we can celebrate. And invite ex-students to visit. For me, the well-known saying – once a resident of Mikve, always a resident of Mikve – proves itself true over and over again.”