Moshe dropped out of high school when he was 15. For the next year and a half he worked a bit here and there — sometimes in the Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market, other times helping with renovations in peoples’ homes. At one point he tried attending a different high school, but that didn’t work out either. As it became obvious that he just didn’t fit into a high school regime, he lost confidence in the system, and in himself. Most of the time he sat at home, playing on his computer, basically doing nothing and feeling more and more useless as time went on.
Then someone suggested he look into Kaima – a non-profit farming work environment outside of Jerusalem — which subsequently turned his life around. Today he is in charge of planning the next season’s crops, takes classes at night school and can’t wait for the chance to join the army in a few months.
At any one time, there are more than 30,000 high school dropouts in Israel. Yet contrary to popular belief, they do not necessarily come from broken homes or “problematic” socio-economic backgrounds. According to Nadav Bensusan, one of the founders of Kaima, they simply weren’t able to fit into the standard educational system and over the years lost faith not only in the adult world, but in themselves. The result can be a very negative downward spiral.
Kaima (or “sustainability” in Aramaic) is not a solution to the problem of education in Israel, says Yoni Yefet-Reich, founding director of Kaima, who hated school with a passion as a child but managed to make it through to the end. Yefet-Reich, who was raised in an agricultural community, worked with high schoolers during his army service and has continued helping young people ever since.
Four years ago he got together with a group of friends, all of them with a burning desire to do something for youths who had left school and had nowhere to go and nothing to do during the day.
The group came up with the idea of a natural environment that they hoped would, little by little, restore the youngsters’ faith in themselves. Their unique approach is built around a concept which links skill acquisition, hands-on learning, hard work, self-determination, and, notably, financial remuneration to bring home the message that anything is possible.
Kaima is a working farm that is modeled on community supported agriculture (CSA), a system that connects local growers with consumers who buy their produce – seasonable crops — fresh from the farmer.
In America there are 4,000 CSA farms. When Kaima first started out there were only 12 CSA farms in Israel; now there are more than 20. Among them are three non-profit Kaima farms located in different parts of the country (with two more on the way). All five modeled themselves on the Jerusalem original whose staff visits once a week to offer advice.
In order to help them set up the Jerusalem Kaima, the founders were given a small parcel of land that belongs to the community of Beit Zayit just outside the capital. Every week Kaima sends the fruits and vegetables grown on the farm along with free-range eggs to 300 regular customers.
Kaima’s farmers have learned that Israelis are a special breed, that just can’t manage without tomatoes and cucumbers – even if they are off-season. So sometimes Kaima purchases tomatoes and cucumbers from farms that are able to grow them all year round and includes them in their deliveries.
Although they don’t spray the crops at Kaima, and use organic fertilizer, they can’t label their products as organic. The major reason is the expense: employing a regular inspector is way too much of a financial burden for a non-profit of this sort.
The money from Kaima’s regular customers accounts for 60 percent of its funding, and there are generous donors who help as well. In addition, the government comes up without about 10% of what Kaima needs. Yefet-Reich thinks the government should be helping a lot more, for if these teens were in school the government would be shelling out a great deal more money than Kaima needs for its working youths.
This season, Kaima is growing zucchini, corn, melons, peppers, okra, cauliflower, eggplant, mango, pumpkins, fennel, beets and a kind of cucumber called facus. Young people working at Kaima begin gradually, starting with two days a week and building up to full-time. And they are rewarded for their efforts, with pay checks that reflect their work. Most of the teens at Kaima take home about NIS 3,000 (about $830) a month.
An atmosphere of calm understanding
According to Bensusan, it isn’t just the money or the work they do that imbues these teens with a sense of worth, makes them proud of themselves, and helps them realize that they can, in fact, succeed. Rather, it is the manner in which the staff interacts with them, the lack of pressure, the calm understanding. Kaima staff believe that there are young people for whom effective learning is the result of interactive experience, not conventional classroom lessons.
Some of the teens that work at Kaima have spent years doing nothing at all, or getting into trouble. But at Kaima they come to understand that in order to make money, they have responsibilities, and must perform certain tasks. They arrive at 7:30 a.m, work hard in the fields, pack boxes, or deliver produce, and eventually begin to feel that they can actually do something right.
Remarkably, there are no discipline problems to speak of at Kaima. And that, states Yefet-Reich, is because there is no discipline. There is no rulebook and – other than the prohibition against alcohol and drugs – there are no rules. The teens are not told that using cellphones is taboo, and staff found that they know when to use their phones and when not to. If they do take a call, adds Yefet-Reich, it is always something important to them – and that is fine.
No one is turned away from Kaima. If they are late coming to work, notes Yefet-Reich, then they have a reason, or are in some kind of crisis. “That day, or the next, we will sit down with them and listen to what they say. What is important is the communication between us.”
Yefet-Reich believes that there is another secret to the lack of disciplinary problems.
“We adults made a calculated decision not to run after someone who seems unusually tired, agitated, or not motivated. We never pressure our youngsters. Indeed, if one of the teens connects with an adult at Kaima, it is not because we are the therapists and they are the patients. It is because here we care about each other. We are partners.”
“Should someone show up high on drugs, we talk about it,” he continues. “Communication is the key. And it usually doesn’t happen a second time, for we help the teen understand why he might not want to do it. We transfer the responsibility onto his or her shoulders.”
No one expects the youths at Kaima to become farmers, unless that becomes their goal in life. So Kaima also has an afternoon workshop for metal and woodworking, and another for teens who want to enter the world of industry.
Lunch at Kaima is a slow, relaxing experience and we accepted with pleasure when invited after our tour of the site. Together with both staff and the youths that work there, we dined on rice, tehina and vegetables straight from the fields. This is a special time for the team, which talks about the accomplishments of the morning, and, of course, simply shoots the breeze.
Each year the youngsters at Kaima take two trips into the desert where they test their survival skills and bond with the staff and with each other. At this time they are joined by staff and youths from Kaima’s second enterprise, a sophisticated hydroponic greenhouse, housed within the Jerusalem Botanical Garden. The greenhouse produces high-quality, insect-free and flavorful vegetables all year round, while furthering Kaima’s long-term economic target of securing 70% of its budget from the sale of the farm’s yield.
A whopping 80% of the nearly 150 teens that have come through Kaima return to the education system, reports Bensusan. Besides evening and matriculation classes, he adds, some even go back to high school. And when they reach 18, 100% of Kaima youths begin either army or national service.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.