Connecting to the land

A visit to the Hadassah-Meir Shfeya Youth Village, where 700 students from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries learn to work the land.

Students at youth village521 (photo credit: Courtesy Meir Shfeya)
Students at youth village521
(photo credit: Courtesy Meir Shfeya)
With the blistering summer sun overhead, 17-year-old Sasha S., an immigrant from Ukraine, takes a break from his demanding work in a recently planted vineyard.
Boasting a large frame, built perhaps more like a defensive lineman in American football, it’s actually Sasha’s delicate and sensitive hands which allow him to fulfill his current task.
He explains that while he usually works in the evenings to avoid the heat, he has come outside to carefully remove extraneous leaves from the rising grapevines he is overseeing.
Sasha is doing so, he clarifies, to ensure that the variety of grapes growing on this patch of earth can receive the necessary sunlight needed to flourish, before they are picked and fermented into a wide range of exceptional wines.
Welcome to the Hadassah-Meir Shfeya Youth Village, located in the heart of the North’s wine country near Zichron Ya’acov, in the Carmel Forest Mountains.
The village was established more than 100 years ago by the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, by its founder Henrietta Szold, as a center of youth aliya, absorption, and education. Today, it has a population of 700 students in grades seven to 12, with nearly half of them young immigrants, many arriving in Israel on their own from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries, seeking a better life in the Jewish homeland.
What makes Meir Shfeya’s educational syllabus unique is that in addition to the typical academic courses offered in other schools throughout Israel, there is a special program in various forms of agriculture, which allows the students to directly connect to the land while learning a range of farming and cultivation trades. At the same time, pupils interact and collaborate with their peers, who come from very diverse backgrounds.
On a tour of the facilities, Yoram Panias, the village’s director who has served in various roles at Meir Shfeya over the past 20 years, showcases the assorted agricultural industries all housed on campus, which are overseen for the most part by the students themselves.
There is the chicken coop in which, according to Panias, over 750,000 eggs are laid each year and sold to market. In addition, there is the cow dairy, which he says “produces more milk than any other dairy of its size” in all of Israel for sale to Tnuva, where it is then pasteurized and becomes customer-ready.
But the “diamond” of the village, according to Ruti Ben-Israel, a certified sommelier and teacher who learned her craft in Italy and then worked at the nearby Carmel Winery before transferring to the youth village, is the school’s in-house, studentoperated boutique Shfeya Winery, which produces over 3,000 bottles of wine a year.
According to Ben-Israel, over the past eight years, a select group of 11th and 12th-grade students having been receiving course credits by taking part in all facets of the winemaking process, from start to finish. The only aspect of winemaking the students can’t partake in, says Ben-Israel, is the “tasting” of the finished product – since most students are underage.
“What you have here with the winery,” says Ben- Israel, “is a special educational program for the students, in which they learn so many overlapping disciplines hands-on. There is geography, Bible, history, technology, science, viticulture [the cultivation of grapes], all in one.”
Seated in the heavily air-conditioned production center of the facility among the enormous hi-tech wine vats and the classic wine barrels, Sasha, along with two other students – 17-year-old Vlad S., a Russian immigrant, and 18-year-old Netanel M., who was born in Israel but whose parents are Ethiopian immigrants – the young men describe their involvement in wine production, from the planting stages through the bottling and sales and all points in between.
All three hope to use their direct experience in wine production towards receiving their matriculation exam credits in the subject of agriculture, which the students explain has a specific section in the field of viticulture.
Overall, according to statistics provided by school administration, Meir Shfeya students’ matriculation scores are twice the national average.
While unsure if they will pursue careers in the wine industry, all three students plan on enlisting in the IDF upon graduation. According to Panias, the vast majority of Meir Shfeya graduates successfully integrate into the IDF, including in elite combat units.
Continuing the tour of village’s agricultural facilities, which also include hi-tech laboratories involving micro-algae testing for animal fodder, a petting zoo, an animal hospital, and more – all run mostly by students – Panias provides a glimpse into the overall student makeup of the village.
He says that 330 students spend the school year living in on-campus housing. The students who dorm, he says, “come to the school mainly from low socioeconomic families in surrounding communities. Some arrive with difficult family lives. Some of these kids are on the edge of society, or have been thrown out of schools.” According to Panias, 120 of these students are lone students with no family in Israel who live on-campus year round and call the village home. Only around 30 percent of these pupils’ parents will eventually move to Israel.
Another 370 students who study at the village are from more upscale neighboring communities. These students, Panias explains, come from families with greater opportunities and educational choices, “but specifically chose to commute and attend school at the village due to its highly reputable educational programming.”
But what unites the diverse group of youngsters, Panias says – citing a student body of born Israelis, those from the FSU, Ethiopians, Muslims, Beduin and even several children of Eritrean refugees – is the learning which takes place outdoors through the agricultural track.
“This is where the connection between all these kids takes place,” he says, while passing the petting zoo and animal hospital. “It is through their work that bonds develop – they talk to each other, they help each other, they eat together on breaks outside – this is what brings them together.”
Netanel, who dorms at the school during the year, seems to concur that the hands-on aspect of the school is what makes it special. “This isn’t just a [regular school] with dorms,” he says. “This is an agricultural institution. This is what we do.”
Back inside the winery, Ben-Israel has set up various types of wines produced on-site for sampling. The design of the labels on each bottle is unique – featuring multicolored fingerprints of different sizes from those students whose efforts made the finished products a reality.
Barbara Goldstein, the deputy executive director of Hadassah offices in Israel, who is also present on the tour, is extremely proud of the youth village, which Hadassah founded, on land it purchased, and continues to support in a wide variety of capacities.
“It fulfills the expression ‘It takes a village [to raise a child],’” she says. “That’s the reality here. We have a village which includes a committed staff, the kids themselves and ideas which are built together, in order for each child to reach his or her potential.”