When 16-year-old Idan’s parents got divorced in Holon, Israel, five years ago, he began to get into fights at school. He got suspended, was arrested for and charged with assault, and spent some time in a juvenile detention centre.
Seen at the Neri School in Jerusalem are Harry Bloomfield and his sister, Evelyn Bloomfield Schachter, whose family foundation funded the new building.
Then, five months ago, his social worker applied on his behalf to the new Neri School, an alternative education centre for youth at risk, located on the lush open-air campus of the Ein Yael Living Museum in southwest Jerusalem, a 40-acre archeological park that dates back 4,000 years to the Middle Bronze Age.
“Idan has very good potential,” says Hanan Barzilay, principal of the Neri School. “We hope his time here will help him to stop being violent and change the route of his life.”
“I am very happy here,” says Idan, one of six students at the school who also live at the centre’s affiliated Yaelim Hostel near the school. “The students here get a lot more attention and more freedom.”
Idan is one of 17 youths from across Israel, ages 14 to18, of different backgrounds – secular and religious, Jewish and Arab, new immigrants and Israeli-born – who began this school year at the newly constructed Neri School, a unique facility catering to students who suffer from severe learning and behavioural problems and chaotic home environments. They share only one thing: the Neri School is their last opportunity to complete their high school diploma and get their lives on track before they turn 19 and no longer fall under the state’s jurisdiction.
“It’s like planting a tree,” Barzilay says. “When you plant it sideways, it’s very hard to fix. But that’s what we are doing here: trying to straighten out these trees and give them a last chance to grow straight and tall.”
The school’s curriculum, the Yaelim Program, was established four years ago, before there was a school facility. It is sponsored jointly by the Ministry of Welfare’s Einav Organization for the Advancement of Youth, the Ministry of Education, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ein Yael Museum, the Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Ashalim Association for Planning and Development of Services for Children and Youth at Risk and Their Families, Etgarim (an organization for youths with special needs) and the Jerusalem Foundation, and is unique in Israel.
“There are many other services for youth at risk, but none like this one,” says Dr. Adit Dayan, project co-ordinator for welfare and community programs at the Jerusalem Foundation.
The program’s uniqueness stems from its small size, the balance of its student body, the close relationship it aims to strike between students and staff, its attempt to bring parents into the educational fold, and its flexible and highly individualized instruction.
The curriculum combines subjects like mathematics, English and computers with individualized life skills training, practical vocational training and therapy.
“The Neri School is not first and foremost an academic institute,” Barzilay says. Most students have to iron out some basic life-coping skills – patience, self-control, self-reliance, co-operation, responsibility – as a precursor to succeeding academically. “We work with very complex cases and our primary goal is rehabilitation, not good marks.”
They use many of the resources at Ein Yael to their advantage: the Shvil Center for Therapeutic Riding; the on-site petting zoo, where students look after the animals; the greenhouse and gardening projects; and the Etgarim Park, an obstacle course where companies bring their staff for group-building exercises and students from the Neri School work as guides.
Their success has been overwhelming so far, with graduates going on to complete their high school matriculation, join the Israel Defence Forces, get jobs and become productive citizens. “More importantly,” Barzilay says, “they leave with more self-confidence, belief in themselves and their future. That’s the greatest measure of our success.”
If he had to point to the program’s “secret ingredient,” Barzilay says, it’s that so much of it takes place outdoors. “It’s fresh and calming here, and the students feel that.”
Every Wednesday is dedicated to nature hikes, and at the end of each school year, students participate in a two-week nature survival trip.
“At this age, this is exactly what they need… to get out into nature, get their energy out and exhaust themselves,” Barzilay says
This “outdoor” philosophy appealed to the the Bloomfield family of Montreal, who funded the construction of the new school. After visiting the Ein Yael Museum campus, Harry Bloomfield pledged the funds to build a new facility.
“We are delighted to be a part of this project,” says Bloomfield, whose family’s charitable fund, the Eldee Foundation, has subsidized several projects in Israel since it was established in 1961.
The new school, which can accommodate 30 students, is named after Harry’s mother, the family matriarch and chair of the Eldee Foundation. Born in 1924, Neri Bloomfield served, among other positions, as National president of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (1972-76); national president of the Canadian Zionist Federation (1984-87); and president of the Jewish National Fund of Canada (1988-91).
“She is a leading Canadian Zionist,” says Bloomfield, whose family received the Jerusalem Foundation’s Teddy Kollek Award in May, for its outstanding contributions to the development of the city.
The Neri School was built to compliment the Yaelim Program’s nature-centred philosophy. The one-floor building, made of Jerusalem stone, features four small classrooms with large, open windows.
“It was extremely important for us that the new building wouldn’t seem like a building,” Dayan says. “We didn’t want it to look institutional or be confining or interrupt the landscape, but instead to flow organically into the nature that surrounds it.”