A new Israeli yeshiva high school embraces young men who have dropped out of the conventional educational system – and brings them on the ride of their lives.
The school, called Yeshivat Lech Lecha (meaning ‘You shall go out’ –G-d’s words to Abraham telling him to sojourn from his birthplace to the Land of Israel) is based in Jerusalem’s Lifta valley - but is also on wheels. Twice a week students and teachers board Land Rover jeeps and embark to a different part of Israel for a study expedition.
“There are some people that just cannot be confined to the walls of a classroom,” says Rabbi David Samson, who is the founder of the innovative program. Four other frameworks for youth at risk are also run by Rabbi Samson as part of the Atid Institutionsnetwork. “Just being inside of a conventional classroom causes them to become depressed and they simply can’t learn. These youth cannot function in the conventional educational system. After being dismissed from their high schools, they often begin to view themselves as outcasts who cannot succeed.”
The program’s jeep trips are fully integrated into the curriculum. Geography, Bible and History are all taught in the Judean Desert. Students are also offered rappelling and other extreme sports to increase self-confidence and encourage exercise.
Daily classes take place in Lifta, the abandoned valley below the main entrance to Jerusalem. With old ruins and a large natural spring, the area suits the school perfectly. “It is a place without borders,” says Rabbi Samson. “People that have a problem with borders can feel at home there. Paths from the school campus gradually lead into orchards and then to the spring below, surrounded by a horseback-riding area.”
The students, twelfth-graders, study Torah subjects until noon, at which point they switch to matriculation-exam studies. In addition, students take time to rehabilitate the ruins in the area and even build additional rooms for the yeshiva – which is based in an old synagogue.
“It is excellent to be in a place that realizes that not just books are important, but also values, building and creativity, seeing and feeling,” says Aviv Ventura, who travels each day to Jerusalem from the southern Hevron Hills town of Maon. “Avoda Ivrit (Jewish Labor) is something that you don’t talk about, let alone engage in, in other schools.”
“Building is very much part of the curriculum,” says Rabbi Samson. He notes that students who were forcibly evicted from Gaza in the 2005 Disengagement Plan often take part in the construction with particular enthusiasm. “We had Gush Katif expellees who witnessed so much destruction, that they built with such fervor. One poured cement nonstop from morning to evening – constructing a beam for a roof alone. You could tell it was very therapeutic for them.”
The Idea is Born
Until about five years ago, Rabbi Samson was a pulpit rabbi in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. He also taught at the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva, founded by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi and the spiritual father of religious Zionism. “I discovered that there were a lot of youth in Har Nof who did not have an educational framework where they could prosper,” he recalls. “I left the pulpit and Merkaz HaRav and began developing programs to help these students at various Jerusalem schools.”
It was while running these programs that Rabbi Samson noticed a specific type of student who could not enter a school building without becoming depressed. “Lech Lecha Yeshiva is an answer for these kids,” he says. This year, the school consisted of one class of 20 seniors. Next year it will double, with a junior class added.
It is not that there is anything wrong with the students, Rabbi Samson says. He, himself had a similar experience – along with most of the teachers at Yeshiva Lech Lecha. “Any kid that leaves a normative school is so fed up with the system that he will simply no longer play ball.” Rabbi Samson sees great potential in these specific youths, whose personalities, he says, give them a propensity for greatness.
“These young men usually have a heightened stature, great stamina and chutzpa (audacity),” he says, “which if channeled correctly, can propel them to great self and societal achievement.”
Israel's National Nightly TV News program Mabat recently aired a short feature on Lech Lecha. While the reporting is in Hebrew, the visuals are powerful. Click here to see the 3-minute video.
Rabbi Samson's Atid Institutions also include 1) Maaleh Erev Evening Boys High School in Jerusalem, 2) Maaleh Erev Evening Girls High School also in Jerusalem and 3) the Eden Rehab Farm for high school girls located north of the Dead Sea. His newest framework is a Computer/Agricultural Vocational Training School opening in the Lifta valley.
"With boundless love and patience," explains Rabbi Samson, "our staff aims to create a positive, non-judgmental environment where each student is guided towards a renewed belief in himself, and his or her future. In contrast to being appreciated for academic achievement, the focus at Atid is on overall self-strengthening that is not dependent upon any variable. Faculty, staff, and fellow students become an alternative support group to the street, and the former dropout comes to feel at home in a learning environment where he feels accepted for whom he is."
Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist]