By Robin B. Zeiger
Meuleh, the Israeli slang for excellent, is truly the best word for my experience at the recent annual Bar Mitzvah celebration at Ben Yakir. Ben Yakir caters to students with learning challenges and/or social and financial struggles. It is one of four youth Aliyah villages established by the Jewish Agency 1974 to assist Jewish teen Olim in their adjustment to Israel. These students come from many countries in Europe and Africa. However, in recent years the majority of students are of Ethiopian descent. Each year, the Bar Mitzvah students join with friends and family to mark their passage to manhood.
My regular readers may remember my first visit last year, in which I extolled the wonders of the facility. Ben Yakir is a hidden treasure in my K'far Haroe backyard. Literally a stone's throw away, the youth village is graced with trees, grass, flowers, horses, and a collection of more exotic animals. As a psychologist I am impressed. The students come to Ben Yakir form all types of challenging backgrounds. Here, at Ben Yakir, they are challenged and pushed to their limits. The majority of the boys not only finish school, but they graduate after finishing their bagrut (the Israeli exams required for a diploma) and most serve in the Israel Defense Force.
This year I was in for an additional treat. Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident, former Kenesset member, and current director of the Jewish Agency, delivered the charge to the students. He reflected back to his 13th year. Living in the former Soviet Union, he did not know of a bris, of Pesah, or of a Bar Mitzvah. He admitted to the students that he is jealous of their celebration, since he never had a Bar Mitzvah. He reminded the students of the power of their future as an adult member of our nation.
The night was beautiful. I looked out over the grounds and watched the sunset; I could not imagine a more fitting celebration for these boys. I enjoyed the food, the entertainment, and the speeches.
Yet the best treat was to come last. One of the parents sitting at my table spoke to me privately. She encouraged me to anonymously share their story. She said, "Besides the birth of my children, Ben Yakir is the best thing that has happened to us in the past 10 years." Their journey was not easy. As a family they came from Hungary to America to seek medical care for one of their children. They then immigrated to Israel.
For many years their son struggled with school and with other behavioral problems. He stopped attending classes. He would stay in bed. Mom was at the end of her rope. They went to several schools to interview. Her son did not do well. He did not take the interviews seriously. Mom "accidentally" happened upon Ben Yakir on YouTube. This interview was different. The staff had the capacity to look under the bravado and sense the gift in her son that had that had remained untouched.
In her words, "A year later, it is like a miracle. There is a good balance. There is tough love. But they love the kids like crazy." With pride, Mom tells me how she recently watched her son ride a horse at Ben Yakir. Mom holds up the beautiful framed Bar Mitzvah photo of her son. I gaze at a very handsome young man who looks poised for an important future. I would never guess he had any problems. Mom says, "His whole face changed. Before he was angry. He likes it here. It is truly a miracle" This story and Mom's gratitude made the whole evening worthwhile. .