Among rolling green hills and mere minutes away from a pristine Mediterranean coastline, lies the Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah youth village. But it’s not only the scenery that is remarkable: While long-time English teacher Lauren Stern Kedem takes a reporter on a tour of the expansive grounds, high school students on their way to class smile and wave. Kedem, who calls them by name, asks, “How’s the leg doing?” Or, “How’d you do on that test last week?”
Clearly Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah is not your run of the mill high school.
Located just north of Zichron Yaakov, Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah was established as a village for the advancement of Israeli youth nearly a century ago. In 1923, the village’s founder, Baron Edmund Rothschild, donated the grounds to Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America founder Henrietta Szold. Since then, the Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah youth village has helped some of Israel’s most vulnerable young adults become tomorrow’s leaders.
From refugees, new immigrants, and Israeli adolescents who are at risk, Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America has, over the last century, helped provide a safe home as well as education to these youth in need. In partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Education, which runs the school, Hadassah provides the expansive grounds, and in addition, also funds the youth village’s various facilities and special programs.
The 300-strong student body is diverse, including native Israeli Jews, Bedouin, Arab-Israelis, Ethiopians, and Russians. Most of the students living in the youth village are coming from the margins of society. Many of the young adults, ages 12-18, who live and study at Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah have had trouble with their studies in the past. Some hadn’t attended school at all.
“These are kids who have not been empowered, who have been failures in many other educational environments, whose families aren’t necessarily the most successful,” says Kedem. ”What we want to do is create leaders who are confident in themselves, and who will give back to their families, give back to their communities, and give back to the country. And this is how we are building a better Israel.”
To that end, the youth village uses a holistic approach to help students acquire the tools they need not just in the classroom, but also in the real world.
During Israel’s early years, the study of agriculture was almost universal, practically synonymous with Zionism itself. But over the years, the country’s educational focus has shifted away from farming and more towards security, academia, and finally, the high-tech sector.
Here in Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah, however, educators continue to use that early agricultural influence to inspire confidence in students who can apply – and see the results of — the talents they possess outside the classroom. Here students work in a prizewinning dairy, a chicken farm, an organic greenhouse, vineyards, and orchards.
In addition to two school buildings, dormitories, computer and science labs, the dining room, and synagogue, there are sports facilities, including a swimming pool, a music amphitheater, and a center for educational enrichment.
“Everything we do here is therapeutic, down to the super-friendly guard at the gate,” Kedem says.
“We’ve got 100 prizewinning cows, which get milked three times a day – and the kids get up at 4:00 a.m. to milk them,” she says. “This is really significant, because they say that what really affects the quality of the milk is how the cows are treated. And these kids, who so many of them have been subject to violence or abuse, are truly caring for these animals. They’re not perpetuating the cycle of violence, as so many kids do.”
Standing outside the dairy, 25-year-old Kassem Amoun greets Kedem. Upon arrival at the youth village 13 years earlier at age 12 from the village of Deir El-Assad, Amoun didn’t speak a word of Hebrew.
“When I first got here,” says Amoun with a flawless accent, “I was a bit troublesome. I didn’t speak the language. But the love and attention they gave me made me realize that they weren’t giving up on me – it really changed me.”
When he graduated 12th grade, Amoun went on to the Rupin Academy to study agricultural engineering, before returning to Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah to manage the dairy.
“We love those cows, and we work hard. Today, I work with some of the youth who remind me of myself at that age, and we get along unbelievably well. They look at me and realize there’s hope,” Amoun says.
Today, Amoun has some bittersweet news. He tells Kedem with a sad smile that he will soon depart to begin a detective course with the Israel Police. Kedem is surprised, but congratulates him.
Walking away, Kedem turns and says, “Kassem used to be trouble on wheels. He had this cute and innocent face, but he was always getting up to something. It took some time, but he really turned around and now he’s a phenomenal example for the students here.”
Ellen Hershkin, National President of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, says the organization is “proud to support the life-changing work taking place here every day. The unique combination of hands-on agriculture with serious high school classes provides the tools and confidence for success in life.”
Hershkin continues, “The creation of a positive community of teenagers from all over the world — be they from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia or from the periphery of Israel — is an expression of the values of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
“Many of the students come from challenging backgrounds, but you wouldn’t guess this from the outstanding graduates who have also imbibed the spirit of giving at the village and are empowered to go forth and volunteer with other youths at risk in addition to their military service. Over the decades, tens of thousands of responsible and creative citizens owe their life turn-around to their experience at Meir Shfey,” says Hershkin.
The dairy isn’t the only exceptional agricultural resource the school offers. Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah recently sent 10 students on a groundbreaking trip to the international Sima Agra-Business Conference in Paris, where they represented Israel via the youth village’s winery. The visit was the first of its kind in Israel.
Ruti Baruchel, an Italy-trained master sommelier who runs the vineyard and winery here, as well as mentors students, says she ended up teaching at Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah quite by accident.
“I can’t say I had much teaching experience,” she says. “Though I had been involved in education before.” When Baruchel was brought on board, the village was producing 4,000 to 5,000 bottles of wine per year.
“I loved the wine,” Baruchel says. “And more than the wine, I loved this place. And though I just came for a day, I’m now here for six years and counting.”
Baruchel says the team saw the potential to take something a little “outdated” -– agriculture –- and rebrand it as “super progressive, super cool.” But for Baruchel what’s most unique about the program is it’s a combination of life sciences and agriculture.
“We’re also learning biotechnology here. And the idea is to give them tools for life — through the wine, agriculture, the marketing, the science, all of it,” she says.
“And that’s why when it came time to select who would represent us in Paris, it was important for us not just to choose the students who got the best grades,” Baruchel says. “If a student was up milking the cows at 4:00 a.m., it’s okay if she doesn’t get the top grades in math – to me, she’s a leader.”
Two such leaders are able to take a moment out of their busy day and describe their experience at the youth village: Mor Schwartz and Orly Bareno.
Schwartz decided on her own almost four years ago at age 13 that she was going to leave her home in Kiryat Atta to pursue her studies at Hadassah-Meir Shfeyah.
“It was exactly what I needed: a place that was going to believe in me,” says Schwartz, who now volunteers in multiple leadership roles, and even took it upon herself to care for the village cats. After each meal, Schwartz encourages students to put any appropriate leftovers aside, which she takes and feeds to the felines.
“I first got here and fell in love with the view,” Schwartz says. “We’ve got all these animals here, which I really love. I’m in charge of feeding the cats, and I work in the vineyard, and I volunteer in the dairy – and I’m just so happy.”
“Not me,” laughs Schwartz’s classmate, Bareno, who came to the village as part of a Youth Aliyah program. “When I first got here, I cried. I didn’t want to come at all. But you know, ever since I got here, I’ve been learning and excelling. This is really a place that gives us a chance to succeed.”