The cafeteria at Kiryat Yearim Youth Village buzzes with chatter as children make return trips to the counter for more pita and falafel.
But while the menu is quintessentially Israeli, the students are not. Their parents come from as far afield as Cuba, Iraq, Russia, and Ethiopia. Struggling to fit in, they have been kicked out of one, two, even four schools. Some are as many as seven grades behind in reading or math when they arrive at this boarding school on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
“Our children here are at the end of the road,” says educational manager Naama Katz.
So three years ago, she and her colleagues turned to a Native American educational philosophy that focuses on developing a complete person through values like independence and generosity, that they feel is overlooked as a resource for children today. They say it’s hard to quantify the benefits of the new approach, but the fact that 80 to 90 percent of their students graduate and are accepted by the army gives them encouragement.
Kiryat Yearim is one of 60 youth villages in Israel that educate an estimated 25,000 students per year, putting them on a path toward becoming productive members of Israeli society, despite troubled pasts and higher rates of unemployment and poverty among their families.
The work of these schools, where as many as 70 percent of the students are Ethiopian, is particularly critical at a time when anti-immigrant tensions are running high – from recent reports that the government systematically administered contraceptive drugs to Ethiopian women, to racial profiling after last year’s protests against African illegal immigrants, to recent deportations of Sudanese refugees.
While children at youth villages are legal immigrants, they are often still the target of discrimination because of their skin color, immigrant activist groups contend.
Although Kiryat Yearim and other youth villages are achieving important successes, significant challenges remain. While Ethiopian graduates of youth villages are three times more likely to attend university than their peers in other schools, for example, the percentage who attend is still a mere 10 percent, according to a 2011 study.
“There are indications that there is a major effort going on to help these young adolescents, but in terms of success, there is still much more to be done,” says Prof. Rami Benbenishty of Bar-Ilan University, who co-authored the study. “We identify a need for more focus on higher education.”
Israel's promise falls short
Modeled on now-defunct youth villages in Germany and Austria, Israel's youth villages are boarding schools that evolved from educating Holocaust survivors in the 1950s to catering to mainly Ethiopian and Russian immigrants as well as some at-risk Israeli youths today.
Enrollment at youth villages has always been free for most students. The Ministry of Education provides 85 percent of each youth village budget and the rest is drawn from donors, often from Europe and the United States.
Emmanuel Grupper, former Ministry of Education director for youth villages, recalls preparing for 2,200 new Ethiopian students in the summer of 1991 after “Operation Solomon” airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of Ethiopia’s civil war. The government asked the youth villages if they could absorb the newcomers. They prepared by buying extra beds and developing Hebrew textbooks that included pictures of black children.
The waves of mass immigration, including 1 million from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, reinvigorated the purpose of youth villages, but also brought new ethnic and cultural gaps to Israel that have been difficult to close.
The differences are most acute in the Ethiopian community. The average Ethiopian household spent 45 percent less than the general Israeli household in 2009, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, and 50 percent of the roughly 120,000 Ethiopians in Israel have eight or fewer years of school compared with only 5 percent of the general population.
While Ethiopian children under 18 are only 2 percent of the total population, they make up 22 percent of students in the youth villages, underlining the higher rates of poverty that might lead them to seek the resources of youth villages.
A 2009 study by Prof. Anat Ziera of Hebrew University shows that while youth village alumni are making gains in some key areas like employment and housing, Ethiopian graduates almost always trail Russian immigrants and both groups often fall below national averages, often because they lack strong social support networks.
Her survey of 4,391 alumni of youth villages found that 79 percent of graduates have a steady monthly income, but 63 percent of Ethiopians and 58 percent of Russian graduates have salaries below the average monthly income.
Ms. Katz and her colleagues at Kiryat Yearim say that one of the key challenges is helping students overcome a feeling of being outcasts. Many come from homes where the parents are still learning Hebrew and looking for jobs, and are stuck in poor neighborhoods with weak schools because they can't afford to live elsewhere.
On top of that, the students have been expelled from school, often multiple times.
"They don't feel like they belong to anything," Katz says. "They have to feel they can contribute in society."
The professors behind the “Circle of Courage” curriculum that Kiryat Yearim has adopted argue that Native American culture provides a holistic approach that resonates with children anywhere who are distanced from traditional society. It promotes four interconnected virtues – belonging, skills mastery, independence, and generosity – and is drawn from a book “Reclaiming Youth At Risk” authored by professors from Augustana University in South Dakota.
Re-imagining Israeli childhood
Early Israelis idealized communal living, such as the socialist kibbutz movement. But as those ideals fade, Israelis are increasingly resistant to the idea of sending kids away to youth villages says Professor Benbenishty of Bar-Ilan University.
“Once they were associated with the positive image of the kibbutzim and the agricultural way and a way of really being the new Israeli, the Zionist, and a good way of getting into Israeli society at large,” he says. “Things are changing now. I think that more Israelis have the idea that they’d rather not have their kids in out-of-home care.”
The percentage of Israeli youth age 12-18 who study away from home at all boarding schools, including youth villages, welfare residences, and religious schools, is still high – in fact, the highest in the world at 9 percent, according to the National Council for the Child. But that’s a drop from 14 percent in the 1980s.
“It’s very tempting, but it’s a very hard age to separate parents and kids,” says Sari Revkin, executive director of Yedid, an Israeli nonprofit that works with immigrants. Editor's note: This sentence has been changed to correct the spelling of Ms. Revkin's name.
Furthermore, she says the Israelis who enroll in the youth villages tend to have more learning challenges or troubled histories than the immigrants.
“They’re mixing with an Israeli population that is not pulling them up.”
But Kiryat Yearim student Adam Lopez, a rare Cuban emigrant, enjoys rooming with two Israeli students. Two years after a juvenile court referred him to the youth village, Lopez says the court's advice was good.
"It feels like a second family here," he says. "It's better here. There's no place to run from school."