• By Pamela Deutsch reporting from the Ben Shemen Youth Village

    “My own children may currently be out of the country, but I am fortunate as I have 400 children to love.”

    Ilana Tischler, knows the name of almost every child in the village.  The names she doesn’t know belong to children who have been in the Village for less than a month.   When children of all ages see her, many coming running to her for a hug and a kiss. The children are not just files which cross her desk,  Ilana knows the story of each child who lives here.

    The Ben Shemen Youth Village includes a residential framework for children ages 6-12, a boarding school for youth ages 12-18, an elementary school, a junior high and high school, and an agricultural farm.  The Children’s Home, Hevrat Hayeladim, is home to 45 normative children who have been removed from their homes by the welfare authorities for a variety of reasons.  The children live in groups of up to 15 children with each group being staffed by a house mother and counselor.  The children attend the Hevel Modi’in Elementary School also located on the Ben Shemen campus.

    The boarding school is home to 350 youths between the ages of 12-18 who attend the 6 year high school located on the campus along with 100 day students.  All of the children attending the school take a 5 point matriculation exam in agriculture concentrating either on livestock or on vegetation,  and all of the students are responsible for 7 hours a week of practical work every week–  in the stable, hen house, cow shed, zoo, fields, plant nursery, kitchen,  or in the garage for agricultural equipment.

    Currently 60% of the children in each graduating class attain a matriculation certificate, an additional 12% are missing minimal points to receive their certificate.  “There are 25 students in each class and lots of support. Many of our students do not believe in their own abilities.  The school offers individualized instruction to anyone who asks for it throughout the afternoon and evening.   We are working on improving the childen’s self-esteem and their belief in themselves.”

    Ilana, born and raised in Netanya, holds a PhD in Educational Policy and Leadership from Ohio State University.  Before taking the position of CEO in the Village, she held the position of Director General of the Tarbut Jewish Day School in Mexico City for 3 years, the largest Jewish Day School in the city.  This was not Ilana’s first overseas position, Ilana also taught in Jewish schools in Orange County, California, and in Boston, Massachusetts and was a community shlicha in Columbus, Ohio for three years.  In between these posting, Ilana served as the principal of a Tali school in Netanya for 11 years.

    This is Ilana’s fourth year as CEO of the Ben Shemen Youth Village.  When I asked Ilana about the village she told about what a special place Ben Shemen is: “I have a good team – 30% of the people who work here are graduates of Ben Shemen…the deputy director who is responsible for logistics and more has been here for 30 years.  I am blessed with an excellent administration, maintenance people, chefs, you name it.  The village is like a big kibbutz, hundreds of people live here.  We have two nurses on staff, our own mail delivery, even our own cemetery.

    Ben Shemen operates on a 12 days on 2 days off schedule.  When the children go home for the weekend, 9 buses drop children off all over the country from Metulla to Eilat.  About 10% of the children, who are unable to go home, spend these weekends with host families.  In addition, Ilana has raised the funds for a “Beit Bogrim”.  This double size caravan is home to 7 graduates of the village currently serving in the IDF.

    As I was sitting in Ilana’s office in walked Daniel, a soldier who was drafted only a few weeks ago. Daniel, a handsome Ethiopian young man has lived in Ben Shemen since the age of 8. He requested a copy of his rental agreement, and then when asked about his service he remarked that it was cold where he was serving and that Shabbat in the army is just not like Shabbat in the village.  Ilana immediately offered to go up to her attic and dig out the long sleeve undershirts from her own son’s military service and set a date with Daniel to pick them up.  “The army gives Lone Soldiers a small sum to cover rent. We provide them with everything else…laundry service, meals, we even fill their fridge so that they don’t have to come home to an empty kitchen.”

    Ben Shemen’s annual budget is about $7 million, 10% of which has to be raised each year.  “However, this does not include capital improvements.  The village was built many years ago, beginning in 1927 and there is a constant need to renovate and upgrade all of our facilities, beginning with the infrastructure.”  As Ilana and I walked around the village, it was obvious that Ilana is constantly trying to upgrade the living conditions of all of the children.  Even more impressive was the pride the children take in their surroundings.  This is their home and it shows!

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