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Op-Ed: Israel’s educational system needs a fresh start

Dr. Chaim Peri ()

Dr. Chaim Peri ()

YEMIN ORDE, Israel (JTA) — The wildfire that raged through Mount Carmel near Haifa in December 2010 was devastating for northern Israel. At Yemin Orde, the educational village for at-risk and immigrant youth that I ran for many years, the fire destroyed nearly half of our facilities. But when it came time to rebuild our cloistered safe haven for 500 youths, we had the opportunity for a fresh start.

On the eve of Israel’s 64th birthday, the nation’s whole educational system could use a fresh start.

The utopian ideals of Israel’s early days have been replaced by post-modern confusion, namely the worship of school scores and OECD rankings, while basic human values lag behind. Contemporary Israel struggles to piece together a fragmented social puzzle of extremes, with a staggering 15 percent of its children and youth physically and socially at risk, mentally impoverished and alienated. Undoubtedly this situation forebodes ill for the social fabric of a country.

There is an urgent need to "restart" the concept of education, to re-examine the connection between scholastic scores and the school culture. It is time to go back to the basics — to educational environments motivated by human values, not comparisons and numbers, but rather to healthy "sanctuaries" for children and youth.

At the Yemin Orde Youth Village, education transforms survivors into leaders. It is a microcosm of what the State of Israel had inscribed on its banner from its very onset — inclusiveness, tolerance, spirituality and benevolence. Its mentschen graduates from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union or the most impoverished neighborhoods of Israel are a living testimony to the validity of the village’s educational philosophy and methodology. Graduates find comfort knowing that the Yemin Orde community will always be there for them, much like in a functional family.

Current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was the first lady, made famous the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." The Youth Village educational concept as applied in Israel has been one of the building blocks of the Zionist ethos. It gave birth to the Village Way, which was designed to introduce wholeness and coherence to young lives that otherwise are bombarded by the chaotic onslaught of 21st century stimuli.

The Village Way is a blueprint that allows teachers to re-create their own version of the plan for their children, which incorporates cultural identity, pride, and having a sense of direction and security about the future. The children’s personal abilities and strengths are reinforced. They learn life skills that enable them to grow into successful, compassionate members of society, and they begin to heal wounds of the past and learn to give of themselves.

Celebrating cultural holidays geared toward a diverse population, community service, individual attention, positive role models and mentors as educators, and ongoing graduate support are core elements of the Village Way blueprint. Education will be empowered to provide an antidote to social alienation and helplessness among children and youth.  The Village Way can lead Israel back on track in terms of scholastic achievement in literacy and science — as in the days when learning and educating joined forces to produce Israel’s foremost leaders.

The Village Way allows Israel’s educators to again assume their rightful place in society — the status of nation builders (not unlike contemporary "educational stars" in Finland and South Korea, or America’s Teach for America and charter school movement).

In laying out a distinct blueprint for education, the Village Way offers the State of Israel not only a beacon of hope in the aftermath of flames, but also the means to achieve an educational environment or homeland in which every child deserves to grow.

(Chaim Peri, who served as director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village for three decades beginning in 1978, is the author of "Teenagers Educated the Village Way.")

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