Israeli youth villages raise kids from troubled homes

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GAN YAVNE, ISRAEL — Arriving at Bet Apple Children's Village can be a bit intimidating. A tall metal fence surrounds the grounds. A man with a long goatee and a walkie-talkie stands guard at the front gate.

Immediately inside the gate, however, the perception changes. Tall pines, wide lawns and a basketball court come into view. A few minutes later, the air is filled with the sounds of children laughing and playing.

Gadi, a slim 13-year-old boy with freckles, dark wavy hair and bright hazel eyes, has just finished lunch in the communal cafeteria. He chats freely about his six years living at Bet Apple. But when asked why he's here, he clams up.

A social worker later explains that his father is in prison for drug-dealing and that his mother, who has dabbled in prostitution, just cannot cope.

Gadi, not his real name, is one of 165 native Israeli children growing up on Bet Apple's nine acres in the town of Gan Yavne, about 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.

The children in the village are not orphans or juvenile delinquents, but they share a common characteristic: They come from troubled families. Some of their parents are abusive or negligent. Others are drug addicts or alcoholics. Some are coping with physical or mental illness. Still others, like Gadi's father, are in prison.

"Our kids come with problems," Bet Apple social worker Linda Avitan said. "But we can work with them."

About 18,000 children live in some 60 youth villages scattered throughout Israel, said Heidi Goldsmith, executive director of the U.S.-based International Center for Residential Education. Five percent to 7 percent of Israeli children live in such villages.

The villages don't all serve children from troubled families like those of Bet Apple. Some work primarily with immigrants, handicapped youth or gifted children from development towns.

"In all cases, Israelis say the best thing is still a family," Goldsmith said. "But their philosophy is when a family cannot care for the child, the community will."

In the United States, foster care is the main conduit for such children. Americans tend to react warily to the idea of institutions that house large numbers of children — recalling images of sterile, Dickensian orphanages from the 19th century.

But in Israel, the stigma attached to group homes doesn't exist, Goldsmith said. "They're viewed as communities and not institutions," she said in a telephone interview from her office in Washington, D.C.

Two-thirds of the children come to Bet Apple because their parents are convinced it's best for the family, Avitan said. The rest are taken from their parents through the court system. Their ages range from 2 to 15.

In the early afternoon, the older children return from public school in Gan Yavne. The small children awaken from their naps. Inside one bedroom with bright-blue curtains, stuffed teddy bears and penguin sheets on its four twin beds, a worker plays tic-tac-toe with 2- and 3-year-olds.

Outside on a playground shaded by pines, other youngsters ride tricycles and Israel's equivalent of Big Wheels. Nearby, older boys are caught up in an informal wrestling match on a sloping lawn studded by stout palm trees and cream-colored buildings with red-tile roofs.

Clad in a navy jogging suit and sneakers, Gadi is ready to join his friends for soccer. For now, he dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.

After living here for six years, Gadi said he still likes Bet Apple. Other than playing soccer, he spends his free time playing computer games and watching the American TV sitcom, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

Gadi's brother, now 5, joined him at Bet Apple three years ago. Gadi finds time to visit him every day.

In fact, the only part of Bet Apple that Gadi doesn't appreciate is bedtime. Like most children, he'd rather stay up to watch television.

Still, Gadi wishes he could live at home.

"I miss my dog Sandy," he said, quickly adding that what he misses most are his mom and dad.

"I love my parents," he said.

Chances are, however, Gadi will never live with his parents again. The vast majority of children at Bet Apple stay there until age 15, when they move to similar villages for older teens.

But that doesn't mean he has no contact with his parents.

Like most of the other children, Gadi is able to see his mother on a regular basis. Parents can visit on Shabbat, though not all of them show up. Depending on the family situation, some children also are allowed to visit home once every three weeks and for a summer vacation.

"It's important that the parents stay in touch with them," said Avitan, who is acting as the youth village's spokesperson. "We can never take the place of parents here."

Like Gadi, other children at Bet Apple appear carefree on the surface. But Avitan said that many of them have "development gaps" — they haven't learned to shower daily or eat three meals a day. Or they think constantly about their parents.

"They worry about 101 different things," Avitan said.

If their parents are drug abusers, she said, the children will wonder if their mother or father has eaten lately or is even awake. To deal with such problems, children meet in groups for therapy.

Bet Apple has been helping children like Gadi for more than 40 years. Founded in 1954 with a donation from Americans Max and Eva Apple, it is one of five children's villages administered by the Mishan social welfare wing of the Histadrut federation of trade unions. As with other youth villages, the government also oversees Bet Apple's operations and covers about 70 percent of its budget.

The history of such villages dates back to the early 1930s when Zionist pioneers were trying to rescue children from Nazi Germany.

At first, kibbutzim absorbed the young refugees. But as the hundreds became thousands, Henrietta Szold — best known as a founder of Hadassah — and Recha Freier began setting up a hybrid of European boarding schools and kibbutzim.

The youth villages were the result.

As the country's needs changed, so did the villages. In the 1940s and 1950s, they primarily absorbed immigrants. From the 1960s to the 1980s, they mainly took in children from abusive or negligent families.

Today, Goldsmith said, about half of the children are immigrants and half come from troubled families.

One long-term study in Israel supports advocates' contention that the youth villages create a positive influence.

The study, which tracked 268 residents of youth villages from 1973 through the late 1980s, found that "those who had continued in residential group homes were functioning better than those who had gone home or who had moved into foster family care."

Goldsmith, who founded the International Center for Residential Education four years ago, advocates starting a system of youth villages in the United States based on Israel's model.

"It's what we need to do," she said. "It would help a lot of young people."