By: Avital Stern-Buchnick
A weeks ago, I had the pleasure of touring Hebron and visiting several communities in the southern Hebron hills alongside CFOIC Heartland US Chairman of the Board, Margy Pezdirtz, and longtime friends and supporters of CFOIC Heartland from Wales,Brenda and Phil Lewis. One of the most memorable parts of our day together was visiting the Bet Hagai Youth Village. The day we visited was wet and dreary, but that did not take away from the wonderful impression of the amazing work being done in Bet Hagai for troubled children.
The Bet Hagai Youth Village is an extraordinary project that was undertaken by its pioneering founders as a way of strengthening Israeli society. The village provides loving group homes and house parents for teenage boys, many of whom come broken in spirit and from broken homes. Bet Hagai enables them to enter adulthood with hope and a healing of their souls. The youth village provides basic schooling and occupational training within a supportive, religious atmosphere. Mentored by rabbis, the boys study Bible and Jewish traditions to provide them with the spiritual tools they need to thrive. The youth village not only looks after the emotional and spiritual well-being of the boys, but also their physical needs. Some of the boys literally arrive with nothing but the shirt on their backs and are in need of the most basic necessities.
The day we visited was parents’ day at the village. The parents were welcomed with delicious soups, hot drinks, and pastries, all prepared and set up by the boys themselves. The boys and their parents had just completed wood shop projects together, making benches and planters to beautify the outside of their homes, and had gone down to the community auditorium for a performance when we arrived. Joe Burnley, the inspiring youth village director, welcomed us in the open living area of one of the six group homes. Sitting there in the comfortable and warm group home, Joe told us the story of a boy named Yaakov.
Many of the boys at Bet Hagai come from problematic homes and, as a result, have severe behavioral problems when they come. In order to encourage positive behavior, Bet Hagai rewards boys with vouchers which they can use at the school canteen to purchase sweets and snacks.
Yaakov came to the Bet Hagai Youth Village from a particularly difficult family situation. His father had been in jail for most of Yaakov’s life, and his mother was unable to provide for her children. Yaakov had been doing really well and, as a result, collected a number of vouchers, but, unlike the other boys, he had patiently collected his vouchers so that he could buy sweets for his entire family before returning home for the weekend. He explained to the head of the canteen that he wanted to bring the treats home to his mother who did not have money for food. What a sweet boy and what a hard life he had! But Yaakov is a success story. After finishing high school at Bet Hagai, he went on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, married and today lives in the community of Bet Hagai with his wife and children. This is but one example of the boys we are helping in Bet Hagai, boys who come from terrible circumstances, but who are working their hardest to overcome their situations and succeed in life.
Joe gave us a tour of the facilities, and showed us all of the wonderful ways CFOIC Heartland supporters have helped Bet Hagai over the years. Thanks to you and others like you, we have helped with vital therapeutic and vocational projects, including costly tools and work clothes for the boys’ woodworking and welding workshops, and a pottery wheel and large solid work table for the new crafts room. We saw the works of art that the boys build with recycled materials and some of the Judaica and pottery creations the boys formed from clay. These classes have become a significant part of the curriculum at Bet Hagai. They have added so much to the boys’ state of mind and they look forward to coming twice a week to the simple converted shipping container for hours of constructive recreation and relaxation.
Another project supported by CFOIC Heartland in the past is the educational and therapeutic greenhouse where these young men learn concentration, curiosity and an awareness of cause and effect in our environment. Many of these boys suffer from severe emotional and psychological disabilities, and sinking their hands into rich soil, taking part in the patient process of growth, and selling the fruits of their own labor, can provide intense satisfaction as well as a degree of healing. Joe also mentioned that Bet Hagai has turned this project into a career stepping-stone by allowing the boys to take a matriculation exam in agriculture which will allow them to specialize in this field.
Seeing the wonderful equestrian program was by far the most memorable part of our visit to Bet Hagai. This program helps provide a therapeutic outlet for these hurting boys as they learn to ride horses. The boys learn to take care of the horses and ride on campus, and every two to three weeks get to go out with the instructor and ride along the scenic Judean Hills. What a great feeling that must be for them! This part of the visit was especially moving for Margy who along with her children had donated funds to support this program in memory of her beloved husband David. Needless to say she was very touched to see the plaque in his memory posted at the entrance to the stable. Margy was impressed by what she saw and as we left she jokingly remarked, “Now we just have to get real Oklahoma cowboys out here to show them how it’s done!”
These boys come from unthinkable situations, but the Bet Hagai Youth Village gives them a second chance. Bet Hagai is miraculously giving these lost boys a sense of normalcy, a way of pulling themselves up with pride. By teaching them the joys of hard work and productivity, the youth village rehabilitates and nurtures them as they prepare for the future. When you connect with Bet Hagai you are helping broken, hurting teens become strong, upstanding young men. Your donation today is no less than an investment in Israel’s future!
Assistant Director, Israel Office