This post was written by Susan Weijel, Deputy Director of Yemin Orde Youth Village and Village Way Educational Initiatives.
“It takes a village.”
That well-known African proverb conveys the sense that an entire community is involved in nurturing its children. The expression has resonated for countless years among many cultures, and it is a central tenet of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, located on top of Mount Carmel in the north of Israel.
For the teens who come to Yemin Orde — immigrants who face challenging circumstances and native Israelis from disruptive environments — our Village is a surrogate community, one whose educators, staff, counselors, and peers help ensure they reach their full potential. As Deputy Director of Yemin Orde Youth Village & Village Way Educational Initiatives, I have seen the Village weather many different proverbial storms. The coronavirus pandemic, however, introduced a completely new set of challenges.
When Israel entered a Covid-induced lockdown, its lively cafes, bustling markets, and pulsating nightclubs were shuttered and its schools were closed. Because many youth at Yemin Orde have nowhere else to go, this situation was especially fraught. Thankfully, due to the Village’s unique status as a safe haven, it received special clearance to remain in operation during Covid. Social distancing and other guidelines, of course, were promptly put in place.
Large get-togethers are a meaningful part of the Yemin Orde experience, and for many students, a highlight of their time there. Assemblies celebrating Jewish holidays provide an opportunity for Village life to blossom. (Photo right: Volunteering to help others is part of the Village Way methodology.)
But one of the most unique and quintessentially Village Way events is the Etgar Challenge Hike — a 60 mile, four-day trek through the rugged terrain of the lower Galilee and Mount Carmel Forest region.
If Yemin Orde had a capstone course, the Etgar hike would be it. The excursion — a much anticipated event reserved for 12th graders — puts the students’ leadership and team-building skills to the test. It also reinforces a connection to the land of Israel and provides an opportunity for strengthening outdoor skills.
For most of the 2020–2021 academic year, it appeared the hike would have to be cancelled. But, as humanity made great progress against the pandemic, and virtually the entire student body and staff became vaccinated, the event was finally confirmed and the Village was abuzz. And because this year it happened to coincide with Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — the journey took on even a greater significance than ever before.
This was my first time participating in the actual hike, and I can tell you firsthand that the word “challenge” is an understatement. But, for a group that had just gone from a year of closed classroom-pods to climbing mountains, the energy was palpable. As some students understandably struggled to keep the pace, others were quick to lend a hand — even carrying their peers through muddy water. These teens had gone through amazing transformations, and to see them — once complete strangers with significant language and cultural barriers — having heart-to-heart conversations with each other was incredibly heartwarming. I almost forgot how sore my feet were.
Meanwhile, back at the Village, students gathered to mark the Shoah. It was the first significant Village ceremony in almost a year. Typically, on this day the community remembers not just the Holocaust, but also commemorates Hero’s Day, which celebrates the Warsaw Uprising and other efforts of Jewish resistance. Several students later recounted that as Yemin Orde director Boaz Schwartz spoke, you could hear a pin drop in the attentive and solemn auditorium.
“I don’t want to talk just about the Holocaust, but about the heroes of the Holocaust,” Boaz stated. “I want to talk about those who made Aliyah alone. They came to begin a new life. Even with the memory of what happened to them, they still looked to their futures.” I’m sure the significance of those words were not lost on the students, since they, too, are moving forward.
After Boaz spoke, the group watched a student-created video dramatizing Holocaust stories, as well as moving musical performances.
Meanwhile back on the hike, our 12th graders had their own discussions about the Shoah and what their very presence in the land of Israel meant to them. For many, it was a moving and cathartic evening.
Our final day of the Etgar hike was in many ways the most challenging, but as we finally made our way back to Yemin Orde, the sight of the enormous crowd of students and staff welcoming us back with a standing ovation was exhilarating.
See below for more exciting photos from this year's Etgar hike!