Breathing New Life
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Breathing New Life

Breathing New Life

Hundreds of orphans and rejected children find hope in an Israeli youth village.

by Yocheved Miriam Russo

All new beginnings are hard, but some are harder than others.

Voya, age nine, had lived one week in Israel, and he was ready to go back. Voya had been rescued from an orphanage in the Ukraine -- a place he hated, but he hated it in Israel, too. Everything -- the language and the food -- was strange and different. So one Shabbat afternoon he set out walking -- intent on walking all the way back to the Ukraine.

It's hard to start a new life when you're only nine and all alone.

Yosef began life in Ethiopia with so many strikes against him, it's hard to know where to start. When he was just five, his family began the treacherous walk to Israel through Sudan and Egypt. Along the way, two of his two brothers died -- a Sudanese soldier shot one of them in his mother's arms. Four years after arriving in Israel, his father died, and then another brother was killed in a gang fight. By the time Yosef was 14, he was in trouble himself. Depressed, angry and violent, Yosef pretty much decided that suicide was his only solution.

Five Jewish siblings from Russia -- ages 8 to 15 -- had survived by begging at the Vladivostok train depot, and when found, were hustled off to near-incarceration in a Russian orphanage. Ultimately, through a complex set of international connections and agreements, they were flown to Israel. When the children stepped off the plane, they were frightened and suspicious. What trouble would they face now?

All these children were sent to the Yemin Orde Youth Village, nestled high in the Carmel Mountains, just south of Haifa. It is known as one of the finest residential schools for at-risk youth in the world.

Chaim Peri, the visionary director of Yemin Orde, describes meeting the five Russian siblings:

"On their first Shabbat in Israel, I saw them in our synagogue. They were neatly dressed, and seemed to be marveling at the singing of the prayers. The singing helped allay their fears -- if people are singing, they can't be all that dangerous. Their healing process started right there."

Established by the British in 1953 (and named for British officer Orde Charles Wingate who helped train Haganah fighters), Yemin Orde was created as a home for children orphaned by the Holocaust. Today, 500 kids from ages five to 19 -- from 22 different countries -- live in 77 acres of white buildings, winding paths and magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea. The campus includes a high school, art and music center, large computer center, fully-equipped carpentry shop, dining room, library and athletic facilities.

"We do everything to turn them into healthy functioning people who reach their potential."

Only about 20 percent of the kids are literal orphans. About half came from seriously dysfunctional living situations. Many -- among them Ethiopians -- are new immigrants who, when they arrived, owned nothing more than the clothes they wore. Almost 100 young children were rescued from orphanages in the FSU countries. Children from France and South America have come to escape anti-Semitism. Native Israeli kids who have been abandoned, abused or neglected by their parents.

Yemin Orde is also home to five Muslim kids. In furtherance of social justice, they were rescued from Arab prisons and brought here to grow up in a warm, healthy atmosphere.

"Most come as teenagers, so we don't have a lot of time, but we work to make the most of every minute," says Susan Weijel, Director of Outreach and Development. "We provide the best possible education. We surround our kids with caring role models, mentors and guides. We instill a love of Judaism and a deep attachment to our homeland, Israel. We do everything we can to turn them into healthy functioning people who feel good about themselves, who contribute to society, and who reach their own individual potential. And we help them understand that service to others is something that gives meaning and value to their own lives."

Secure Roots

As you might expect, most stories from Yemin Orde are tales of transformation. Every year about 125 kids "graduate" and move along to life's next step. For most, that's the Israel Army (mandatory in Israel) or the alternative, National Service, or to some form of higher education. Volumes could be filled with all the 'That's how I was, but look at me now!' stories that emanate from Yemin Orde.

His family suffered serious adjustment problems and he needed help.

Shagau Mekonen is a classic example. At age 14, he and his family fled Ethiopia for Israel. Upon arrival, he took the Hebrew name 'Yitzik'. His family suffered serious adjustment problems, and it became clear that 'Yitzik' needed help. He came to Yemin Orde and discovered his many unique gifts. He studied hard, became a rabbi, served in the IDF, and then returned to Yemin Orde to work as a counselor. Today, he and his wife (they met and married at Yemin Orde) and their four sons make their home in the village, living among the residents, on call 24/7.

'Yitzik' also reclaimed his Amharic name, and now is 'Shagau' again. "It was part of my journey," he says. "A big part of what we do here at Yemin Orde is to connect each student to his own culture, his roots, and emphasize its importance. I realized I didn't need to be 'Yitzik' to be Jewish and Israeli. My culture, my heritage, is Ethiopian. Shagau is who I am."

Why all the emphasis on individual heritage? Why not have everyone try to blend in, learn to be just like everyone else?

"When we connect to our own roots, then our sense of self comes from deep within," Mekonen says. "We're secure in who we are. Then it's easier to accept and respect the differences in others."

Mekonen's religious development is another factor that contributes to his success in dealing with kids who are acting out. "I was brought up in Ethiopia by parents who were religious in every sense of the word. What I started at Yemin Orde, was to accept the observance -- kippa, tzitzit, daily prayers. That was a decision. But the basic belief in God, the faith, that was always a part of me."

Living Examples

The idea of having counselors live in the village with the students is another hallmark of the Yemin Orde philosophy. Counselors offer onsite supervision and help, and just as important, they serve as highly visible role models.

"Having our counselors like Shagau and his family live among the students is one of the best things we do," says Dr. Chaim Peri, who since 1978 has been the Village's Director and visionary. "What's the most important thing any parent can give to his child? Parental wholeness. A living example of honest, hardworking, caring, responsible, reliable role models. This enables kids to become successful heads of households themselves.

"It's especially crucial for kids like ours, who have been abandoned, to recreate that sense of parental wholeness here, among kids who've pretty much been spit out and rejected by society.

"What do our kids see? A warm, happy two-parent family, no drugs, no crime. They get the idea that's the way it's supposed to be. Successful graduates like Shagau are living breathing examples of what can be achieved -- 'We did it. You can, too.'"

Yemin Orde boasts an amazing number of success stories -- a mayor, a chief of police, dozens of elite military officers, medical professionals, engineers, businessmen, and too many responsible parents and good citizens to count.

Katyushka Rockets

What happened to little Voya, who tried to walk back to Ukraine? Time helped. As the weeks passed, he adjusted to his new life. Because he was so young, it didn't take long for new healthy patterns to replace the old.

Yosef, the young Ethiopian boy who was alienated and depressed, underwent a prolonged period of counseling. He graduated from Yemin Orde, entered the army, and is on the path to achieving a fully "normal" life.

In the story of the five Russian brothers and sisters, there's an intriguing synchronicity. They arrived at Yemin Orde during the height of the Hezbollah War, while the Katyusha rockets were falling all around. Oddly enough, one of the little Russian girls is named 'Katyushka'.

A lovely little Katyushka fell into Yemin Orde that day. And now, with the right guidance, Katyushka is on a new, bright path, full of hope and promise.

See more at www.yeminorde.org

Published: October 14, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Susana Lifschitz, January 20, 2007 9:35 AM

I would like to help

Thank you for the article. I live in Argentina, but I would like to help if there is a way.

(3) anonymous, October 16, 2006 9:51 PM

Heartbreaking but hopeful

Thank you for this article. I would like to volunteer at a place such a this when I get my degree.

(2) CarolynOlugbile, October 16, 2006 9:40 PM

Love at its zenith.

The article made my heart soar to the heavens.

(1) nell, October 16, 2006 5:55 PM

Please send me info on services to orphans and the disadvantaged in your country. What are the costs of housing orphans in your country?

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