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Yisrael Hayom: From Troubled Youth to Youth Village Prinicpal - Haggai's Story

Haggai Ben-Avraham was a troubled and violent youth who bounced around from one institution to another - until he was finally given a chance. Today he is achieving great results as prinicipal at WIZO's Nachalat Yehuda Youth Village. Yisrael Hayom, Israel's most widely read daily newspaper, shares his story.

March 14, 2019

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪Yisrael Hayom‬‏

Aliyat Ha’naar” (Rise of the Youth)

By Yariv Peleg - Yisrael Hayom

Translated by Yonatan Sredni

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Haggai Ben-Avraham did not believe what was happening to him. As a person who received so many rejections and slaps in the face in life, all of which he managed to rise up again from, he was now forced to absorb another painful blow from reality when his dream of running a boarding school was denied due to his late submission of the application forms to manage the WIZO Nachalat Yehuda Youth Village in Rishon Le’zion.

However, a higher power - or fate - intervened in this case, and about two weeks after he was told that someone else had been accepted to the position, Ben-Avraham noticed that the ad for the job vacancy had reopened. "It turned out that the director who got the job soon decided he didn’t want it," he recalls. “At that point I said to myself – this job is mine.”

In the three years that have passed since then, Ben-Avraham - a boy who was raised by a troubled single mother and who bounced around from one educational framework to another and was a violent youth who did not find his place – has run the school in the youth village.

Founded in 1922 as an agricultural farm, after the establishment of the State of Israel it became an agricultural high school and today has 400 students in grades 7 through 12, half of whom live in the boarding school. The school falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Rural Education and the Educational Ministry and is run by World WIZO. WIZO Nachalat Yehuda is also sponsored by WIZO Switzerland and WIZO USA

This is an educational youth village for all intents and purposes, and often students come here with very significant educational gaps, which we know how to address, to ensure that they complete 12 years of schooling with a full matriculation certificate," Ben-Avraham says.

Indeed, three years ago only 29% of the school’s students were eligible for matriculation, but the following year, Ben Avraham's first year on the job, the rate jumped to 60%, and in this past year it soared to 76%.

"Matriculation eligibility is not everything, it’s not even the main thing,” Ben-Avraham stresses. “We have a high percentage of students who do 4 or 5 units in English, and a very good percentage of students who do higher matriculation levels in mathematics. There is a biology track, agro-ecology and advanced urban agriculture with a special garden, and next year there will also be a cyber track. But the crowning achievement for me, the headline, is reducing educational gaps. That is the mission.”

World WIZO Chairperson Prof. Rivka Lazovsky added, “We are proud of the achievements of our students and of the educational approach implemented in WIZO Nahalat Yehuda, which continues, for the second year in a row, to produce results of academic excellence and social leadership. This approach is also applied in the rest of WIZO’s schools and youth villages throughout the country, where thousands of youth from all walks of life are educated.

The CHW Hadasim Youth Village won the National Education Award in 2018, A student from the WIZO Beit Hakerem Vocational School won Israel’s President’s Award, and second place for the national student film and art award was awarded by the Ministry of Education to the WIZO High School for the Arts in Rehovot. It’s important to us that families and youth be exposed to the youth villages and boarding schools as a system in which a youth can grow as a person and as a student.”

Ilana Nudelman, Director of the Education Administration for Rural Education at the Ministry of Education, said "The Nachalat Yehuda Youth Village is inspiring. The unique model of a youth village that combines both a school and boarding school enables us to to provide a holistic educational framework, educational reinforcement, enrichment activities and enrichment activities not only during school hours, but in the afternoon and in the evening, with the close guidance of the educational and training staff 24/7. The model has proven itself as a tool to reduce educational gaps, and the percentage of students in boarding schools eligible for matriculation has doubled in the last five years from 36% in 2013 to 70.4% in 20018, higher than the national average.” 

When he speaks about narrowing the gaps, Ben-Avraham talks, perhaps, about himself. "I grew up without a father, as an only child, and my mother, who is a charming person, struggled," he says. "She worked as a cleaner and returned home very late at night, so I actually raised myself. We lived in poor Tel Aviv neighborhoods that were filled with drug addicts and prostitutes, in a difficult and complex social reality.

"At the end of the first grade, when I spent most of my time outside the classroom, my mother was called to the school and told that I did not know anything and that I had to repeat the first grade again/ The next year I continued to walk around outside, and the social worker recommended that I move to a foster home. I moved to Karmiel to a foster family that had something like ten foster children together with their biological children.

But there too I did not study and I was very disruptive. They would call up my mother to come from Tel Aviv up to Karmiel once a week, and she came by buses. I transferred the frustration of my life onto the teachers and the school, and it was expressed in truancy, vandalism and violence."

"I grew up in a complex reality"

At the end of ninth grade, Ben-Avraham moved to Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz, where he studied at the Naaman educational institution. "Also at the kibbutz I was very disturbed, I didn’t get accustomed to kibbutz life of the Shomer HaTzair . The beginning of high school was one of the most difficult times in my life, and many times they wanted to kick me out because of severe cases of violence, and those who fought me were my adoptive family from the kibbutz.

At the beginning of the eleventh grade, after a violent incident against a member of my group, in which I threw a plastic plate that cut his ear, they also told me that in the next incident they would not be able to protect me anymore. After the difficult conversation that followed the incident, I went to my room and listened to Pink Floyd's “Final Cut” album, because music was always something that offered me release and that I could escape to.

I sat with the album and I said to myself, 'Aren’t you tired of being intolerable wherever you go?' And from that day on, I just changed my behavior: I started playing sports, writing about music in the kibbutz newspaper, participating in the community theater, and suddenly I felt that I had found my place - and that I was loved back.

"In the twelfth grade a youth group came to the kibbutz and they appointed me to instruct them how to acclimate. I felt tremendous pride, but then, at the end of the twelfth grade, they called me in for a talk and they said that despite the change I made, they did not want me to stay on the kibbutz after school. I asked in astonishment why and I told them that as far as I was concerned I found my place in life and that I was loved and that I was significant, but I was told that they did not buy the change in my behavior.

How did you feel in that conversation?

"It was one of the hardest hits I took in my life. I said to myself, it was one thing when I was disturbed, but even when I was good they were throwing me out? "I finished my studies without a matriculation certificate and in the three months until the enlistment I went back to live with my mother and just locked myself in my room. I had no one, so I just sat in the room and listened to music. I was depressed.

In the army, too, it was hard for me at the beginning, I would sit on the side alone with myself and the others thought I was arrogant. Only in the officers' course did they get to know me properly and then I was a recruits commander and there I felt significant. I signed on for an additional year of service to save some money and after my army service I finished my studies to earn a complete matriculation certificate."

"You have to become a principal"

After the completion of the matriculation exams, something opened up inside Ben Avraham. "I told myself that I would go study psychology in a course at the Open University. The course opened the dam and discovered that I really liked studying. In four years I completed my BA in psychology, sociology and management and went to work for two years as a therapist for schizophrenics at a hostel.Then I managed a human resources company and then head of security.

"In all these places I did not really find myself, so I turned to a friend who worked for The Rashi Foundation, who works with a lot of non-profit organizations, and asked him to connect me with one of them. He told me that there is an association that was then called “Tafnit B’chinuch” (Turnabout in Education), and today it is called "Abilities in Education," which works with children with learning gaps. I said, 'I want to!' But the Director of the association, Nissim Cohen, explained that he only works with the teachers of the children in the schools. I pressed and pressed, and he agreed to interview me. He accepted me and was the first one to give me a real chance. In my work at the association I came to the Ramot School in Bat Yam, where the principal, Dvora Kehat, very much believed in me and empowered me. She told me: 'Go get a master's degree, you have to be a principal.'

"I was married with two small children and a large bank overdraft, but she insisted, 'I just opened a fund, I'll give you 40,000 shekels.'" I did not take the money from her, but her statement kicked me forward. I borrowed money from the bank and from friends and I got further into debt, but I did a master's degree and then a school principals course. That’s when I discovered that adults also need significant adults in their lives. "

In Bat Yam, Ben-Avraham's educational career began. He worked at the Ramot school for 12 years, for five years as Kehat's deputy, while at the same time he was involved in other educational projects in the city. " I had a student there who came with very great educational gaps and today she is a lawyer, "he says. "Two years ago, ten years after she finished high school, her father suddenly calls me and says, 'I want to say thank you, because of you she is a lawyer, He told me, 'Listen, I'm not taking a step in life without stopping and asking what Hagai would do.' "I would go to her house, knock on the door and bring her to school. That’s the agenda, to see the children. Those who work on a mission do not look at the paycheck. "

But you can’t build everything on a sense of mission

"As a principal, both here in the youth village and in Bat Yam, I did not come across anything that I wanted and I did not get it. Obviously the resources here are not unlimited, but many times they do injustice and present the bad side of the education system, for example cases of extreme violence that do not occur every day. A few years ago they did a survey that showed that the public's attitude toward the education system was not good, but when they asked the parents about their child's specific school, most of them were satisfied. That same parent that sees a video of a student throwing a chair at a teacher says what a horrible educational system, but I’m lucky that my child is in a good school and he is happy there.

A lot of schools do amazing work, and there are a lot of teachers and principals who wake up in the morning out of a sense of mission, which also exists on a systemic level. In the end everything rises and falls on people, not on organizations. The teachers and the educators fight like lions for every child, we sit for hours in meetings over one child in order to give them the right response. As a school principal, the burden of proof is on me, and that means that when you see that you succeed, no one will tell you no."

"Tolerance Alongside Ability"

When he talks about the educational activity at the youth village and the school he runs, Ben-Avraham's eyes light up. "The goal is to bring the students to the highest and most quality level as possible. We have 100 percent enlistment into the IDF for the second year in a row and a lot of our students do a year of national service or preparatory army programs," he says. I hope and work towards that students will leave here as people who are good citizens and contribute to the state, who do not need any services from the government, but sustain themselves with honor, work and succeed.

"We tell students that the educational framework is a kind of bubble, that in the world outside there are gaps and inequalities, so it is important that they succeed here so that they go out and feel like equals. It is also important for us that the students come out with more tolerance, and because this is a youth village, there is more acceptance of others here. This value leads us, and the children here, who come from different sectors and communities, live together and accept one another.

The banner, as far as we’re concerned and as far as I’m concerned is reducing educational gaps. I believe that this is the most important goal of the Ministry of Education. The school and the entire system must do everything possible so that every boy and girl can recieve a matriculation certificate and become a part of society. To reduce educational gaps, a child needs significant adults, and we we work a lot around the fact that the educators and the instructors will be significant figures and give them a lot of tools to do so. This is reflected in the level of personal conversations, home visits if needed, etc. This is the heart of the work.

The child must understand that accepting responsibility and hard work brings results. That way values ​​can be taught, feelings of self-image rise, and the child knows how to maintain boundaries, order and discipline in order to be protected.We have almost no cases of violence here.

The youth village has amazing collaborations between the village’s Director, Galia Meron, the Director of the boarding school, Liron Rav, and the farm manager, Moti Hadad Levini, and all this synergy generates a warm and caring place for the benefit of the students. This partnership is critical to the success of the place - and it happens and leads to success. "

In the end, the child needs one adult to see him, but really see him. I wish the whole system would see him. We try to see all the children all the time, but if there is a significant educator, a class coordinator, someone who sees the child and cares for him, that means the word to the them and the parents.

By the way, this is also true in my case. After all, who saw me? All all my life, I was alone and survived except for those adoptive parents in the kibbutz who fought me and Nissim Cohen of Tafnit and Dvora Kehat, the principal of the school in Bat Yam. You need one adult to fight for you, and that's enough. "

To read the original article (in Hebrew) from Yisrael Hayom, click the link:

Photo Credit: Yehonatan Shaul (Yisrael Hayom)