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'I Know What It's Like to Feel the Pain of Not Having Parents'

June 30, 2005 By:
Yehoshua Halevi, JE Feature
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Oleg Shapira, 6, an orphan from the former Soviet Union, studies piano with his house mother and music teacher, Mila Binyanbaum.

Dr. Chaim Peri has 500 children - and a hug and a kind word for each one, every day. The longtime director of Yemin Orde Wingate Youth Village, Peri believes all of his children can be great. And he never tires of telling them so.

Nestled among the pine trees on a hilltop of the Carmel Mountains just south of Haifa, Yemin Orde is a boarding school that has been helping new immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Brazil and Ethiopia, gain a foothold in Israeli society and build productive lives since 1953.

Students at Yemin Orde, ages 6 to 19, come from 22 countries, and include children of American immigrants. Classified by Israeli social services as "at risk," half are considered "homeless within Israel." Many come from homes unsettled by poverty, violence and overcrowding. Seventy-six are orphans.

'Home Away From Home'

"Boarding schools are not the best place for children to be raised," said Peri, "so if there is any chance at all that they can remain with their families, we won't take them. What burns in our souls is the belief that immigrant youth carry the seed of the next revolution, the ability to bring about a great tikkun olam - repairing the world. We don't have a nation without these kids."

In support of the work of Yemin Orde, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has granted $50,000 this year to fund a learning center for disadvantaged students at risk of academic failure. The grant will pay for a staff of 10 professionals who provide private tutoring to 250 teens. This one-on-one supplemental learning is a vital component in boosting self-esteem and closing educational gaps that have resulted from aliyah.

Philadelphians Mark Solomon, Paul Silberberg and Bob Landman have spearheaded local and national support for Yemin Orde. Solomon is national chairman; Silberberg the campaign chair of Friends of Yemin Orde. Recently, Solomon endowed a dormitory in the center of the campus known as the "home away from home."

Yemin Orde combines multiculturalism with building a connection to Israel and Judaism. Students celebrate the Ethiopian festival Sigd just as their ancestors did for 2,000 years, and observe Russian Heritage Day, which marks the Russian army's defeat of the Nazis.

"Children are taught that the cultures they came from are very meaningful," said Yemin Orde Outreach Director Susan Weijel. At the same time, students are given positive Jewish experiences, and shown the value of contributing to one's country and community, including the importance of army service and participation in volunteer humanitarian projects.

Israel's first Ethiopian lawyer was a Yemin Orde graduate, Weijel said, who has founded a nonprofit group that provides legal aid to poor Ethiopian immigrants.

Arieh Friedman, the first Russian student at Yemin Orde, came to Israel from Kiev at the age of 8 and graduated in 1981. After a 12-year career as a policeman, he now runs a program at the school for 40 orphans from the former Soviet Union who live in the custody of Yemin Orde and are cared for by nannies who look after them as parents until they turn 18.

"I was just like these kids," explained Friedman. "I know what it's like to feel the pain of not having any parents. As a police officer, I couldn't educate people. If I can do something to help change the world, it'll be through educating children, and giving them some sort of normal childhood."

For more information about Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, call 215-832-0553.

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