New potential in a different landscape

Ein Yael Museum gives troubled Jewish and Arab youth a second chance.

Youth (photo credit: Shelly Paz)
(photo credit: Shelly Paz)
"We believe that some children just need to be moved to a different landscape in order to realize their potential," says Eli Vaknin, manager and founder of Jerusalem's Ein Yael Active Museum, which also operates an alternative school for Jewish and Arab youth at risk. Vaknin, from the southern city of Yeruham and a former company commander in the Naval Commando unit (Shayetet 13), came to Ein Yael 18 years ago. Slowly but determinedly, he has created an outdoor museum and cultural center geared primarily towards children. Three years ago, Vaknin added perhaps the most challenging piece of the puzzle being built around an abandoned train station in Nahal Refaim - Yeelim School, created for teenagers who have dropped out or been expelled from traditional schools. The school is a shared initiative of several organizations, with Ein Yael supplying the facilities and support coming from the Jerusalem municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Ashalim Association and Etgarim - an outdoor sports and recreation association for the disabled. "The youths who arrive at Yeelim receive a second chance to find their place in society. Many of them have criminal records, sometimes drugs, even prostitution. And some of them just used to sit at home and do nothing. One of our goals is to help them to find a meaning for their lives," said Hanan Barzilay, 32, the manager of the Yeelim project. Finding meaning may mean very different activities for Yeelim's wide range of students, Barzilay explained. "Those who are capable of doing so study for the matriculation examinations. But for students who show neither the desire nor the ability to succeed in traditional academic settings we provide alternative frameworks, such as Grandpa Jack's horse ranch in Ein Yael, Ein Yael's nursery or finding paid work as sports or youth instructors." Twenty to 25 teenagers arrive in Yeelim School over the course of a year, with some starting at the beginning of the school year and others joining the program after dropping out of high school. Most of the students come from struggling single-parent families. Matanel, 16, originally from Ness Ziona and now living in the Beit Hanna boarding school in Jerusalem, says he does not like to work. "I prefer to play with the animals here, the donkeys, the hares and the chickens, but I study too," he said. He spoke of his single mother being pleased that a fitting place could be found for him. Jonathan, also 16 years old, still lives at his home in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. He heard about Yeelim through recommendations from a friend and a municipality adviser who thought he would like it. "I messed up when I hit someone at school, but I didn't like going to school anyway. Here I study for the matriculation examinations and work during vacations," he said. "This place is like a small family, they [the students] are like my brothers and the staff pays us more attention." Jonathan added. He said he planned to join the IDF, hoping to serve in the prestigious special forces unit, Duvdevan. Sa'id, 17.5, is one of the three Arabs students attending the Yeelim School this year. He is from the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa in Jerusalem, and coming to grips with Hebrew is one of the challenges that he faces while learning to become a horse-riding instructor. "Back in school, we were 40 students in a class, the teacher shouted and no one listened, so how could I study like that?" Sa'id said. "Here I get more." Mahmud, 16, from Issawiya, an Arab village in east Jerusalem, struggles with the Hebrew language but does not give up. He explains how he had no choice but to leave his parents' house for a youth hostel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, a hostel to which he hopes to return one day as a tutor. Mahmud and Sa'id do not think the fact that they are Arabs and their friends are Jewish makes any difference. "We are all here together and we face the same problems," Sa'id said. "The students are not racist here," Mahmud added. Despite Vaknin's strong belief that troubled youth produce more when they are placed in an open, natural environment, Natti, 17, originally from Moshav Aminadav and currently staying in a boarding school in Ma'aleh Adumim, says he does not like being outdoors. "They kicked me out of school because I didn't study at all, but the truth is that I like to study and that's what I prefer to do here," he said. "The most important asset for them to acquire here is trust," said Elazar Feuchtvanger, 28, another instructor at the project. "They need to learn to trust themselves and their abilities first, and then to trust their friends and family members," he said, adding that these children do not leave Yeelim with all their problems solved. "We try to give them a clue as to what they're good at and what they want to be when they grow up, and we keep in touch with them afterwards to make them understand that they are wanted and because they become a part of this place," Feuchtvanger said. According to the Yeelim educational staff, three of the graduates serve in elite combat units in the army, while others continue to work in jobs they found while attending Yeelim. Some ambitious graduates even have plans to open businesses of their own. The staff members proudly speak of the 19-year-old graduate who became a professional rappelling instructor and today earns more than they do. "Children who once couldn't take care of themselves are surprised to realize they can instruct others. All they need is an embracing environment and someone who believes in them," said Vaknin, smiling. "And it really works."