(Originally appeared at the Jewish Advocate)
Chaim Peri has made it his life’s mission to keep kids from slipping through the cracks. Peri is director emeritus of Yemin Orde Youth Village, where he has worked for the past 30 years. Founded in 1953, the Mount Carmel community provides a home, a family and education to 500 at-risk immigrant children from more than 20 countries.
In the last few years, Peri has been expanding Yemin Orde from a single program to a nationwide educational initiative serving Israel’s marginalized communities. He stopped in Boston this month to promote his new book, “Teenaged Educated The Village Way,” and to meet with Friends of Yemin Orde, a nonprofit that raises money for the village and its graduates.
In an interview with The Advocate, Peri talked about education and social division in Israel. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. You say “Israel is not a perfect country.” How are you addressing that?
A. There is a lot of poverty and there are too many people left in the gutters, and this is to me inconceivable, we didn’t go along for 2000 years to create a country just like any other country. My focus is on the thousands of at risk youth who are left in the gutter, and they could be the stars of Israel. We don’t give up on a Jewish child. The kids I work with are largely first-generation Israelis who the system has failed, high school dropouts.
Q. Ethiopians and Russians?
A. Exactly. They don’t know what the average Israeli knows to succeed. We take kids who come from brokenness, and we give them years of wholeness, of cohesiveness. They walk out different menschen; we have a method of doing that. The African proverb, it takes a village, we take the village system of Israel, and we replant it in devastated schools, chaotic environments, in the margins of Israel.
Q. What are the margins of Israel?
A. First of all, first generation Israelis, people who are confused about their identity. If you come from Russia and your mother isn’t Jewish, but you’re eligible to be an Israeli because your father was Jewish, your grandfather was Jewish, whatever, and you’re told you’re not Jewish, you’re not kosher, you grow to hate Israel. You say what do you want from me? They want from them to get converted, but then these conversions are almost impossible.
Q. It’s much harder to get converted in Israel than here?
A. Yes, because a kid doesn’t convert out of conviction. He converts because he feels Jewish, because in Russia they told him “you are a Jew.” So what does Israel want from him? I mean these are marginal kids, sometimes they form gangs. They hate Israel, the religious people, because they don’t include them. Then there are those who are poverty stricken, and dysfunctional life is transferred from generation to generation. Then there are those who had a very significant protest [last summer], the middle class, who said, “We did everything the book says. We work hard, we have degrees, and we cannot raise a family.”
This is not why we went through so many sacrifices to have a Jewish state.
Q. What of the Russian Jews who may come from backgrounds not viewed as halachically Jewish?
A. They’re welcome at Yemin Orde. I am Modern Orthodox; we are shomer Shabbat and everything. We have Muslim kids in our programs, Muslim kids from Darfur, and they survived genocide. They ran to Egypt, were subject to human trade, ran for freedom to Israel, and in Israel they are jailed! It’s unheard of. It’s a very controversial point in Israel, people say if you embrace them, millions are going to pour in. You can’t block the borders, so what’s going to happen to the Jewish state? It is not my concern; I am not in charge of the border guards, I am in charge of education.
We were attacked: How can you put Muslim kids in a shomer Shabbat school? I said, this is my Judaism.
Q. Who’s making these attacks?
A. People who are intimidated by it. I really believe if you are not generous to your guest residents, what you say is I did not make the transformation from a ghetto mentality to being the master of the land. The master of the land must be generous to those who come; if you are not generous, if you are suspicious, your mentality is of a besieged human being.
There is a problem with cohesiveness in Israel. Before the state was established, you had the revisionist wing, the labor wing, but there was the shared goal of Jewish sovereignty. Today, there are so many camps: having a small state, giving land back; having a big Israel. Left, right – there’s no coherence.
I don’t define myself as any camp, I am K’lal Israel. We don’t have to be based off divisions. Just be a Jew. Take terms like “light unto the nations” seriously. If Rwandans come to us to learn how to transform kids who are genocide survivors, this is “light unto the nations.” So Yemin Orde is like an educational laboratory, a grassroots movement of educators. If you look at countries like Finland and South Korea, places with [high] scholastic results, educators are respected. It used to be like that in Israel, but it’s fragmented now.
Q. It must be fragmented with the multiple school systems, too.
A. We are approaching Arab schools, and they are approaching us. They’re Israeli citizens, they’re 20 percent of our population, and we have to communicate with them. And we have to show that whatever we offer, we offer it to them too.
Q. How is Yemin Orde dealing with last December’s Mount Carmel fire?
A. Israel was not prepared. We lost 22 buildings in the fire, we were safely evacuated. For four months we were living in a military installation in Hagira. It was a trauma for kids who are homeless and then they lost everything. The good news is, first of all, we are raising the funds to rebuild the village. Second, we got a lot of attention in Israel. The ministry of education has come out with a statement to all the school systems in Israel, which says look beyond the fire, what this village Yemin Orde stands for, its spirit, its leadership.