Village where teen gangsters come good

At a Galilee institution for the country’s most at-risk youth, almost all graduates will enter the army


More than one in four Israelis of draft age will end up skipping army service, but at a Galilee institution for the country’s most at-risk youth, almost all graduates will be putting on uniform.

The Nirim Youth Village is managing a feat that youth institutions worldwide might envy — turning teenagers who seem to be heading towards a life behind bars into young adults with “normal” lives.

More Nirim students receive a high-school diploma than Israel’s national average.

As Nirim’s CEO, Micha Simbalista prepared the graduation ceremony of this year’s 26 leavers, all of whom are going into the army. He said: “If our children had not come to an organisation like ours, most of them would be in prison.”

He added: “Many come with criminal records and accusations of violence.” The youngsters are commonly placed at the village by the courts.

The draft rate for Nirim youth has reached 97 per cent over recent years, and many graduates have gone into the most prestigious army jobs. “Most go to combat units and some even go to elite units. There are those who have gone on to become officers,” said Mr Simbalista.

The village has won the admiration of people around the world, including the British philanthropist Michael Gross. He is a trustee of the charity Supporters of Israel’s Dependants, which donates to Nirim. “I don’t think there’s anything like it in Britain,” Mr Gross said. He commented: “It’s remarkable that the majority of the kids there got to join society. Especially as many of them arrive with no formal education.”

The secret, said Mr Simbalista, is pairing educational programmes with a range of therapies, including some that set them extreme emotional and physical challenges. One is “wilderness therapy”, with hard outdoor activities. All students go through a five-day survival in a rough desert environment. Another focus is dialectical behaviour therapy, which helps with mood disorders and is said to improve self-image. “We make a lot of effort to enhance self-esteem,” said Mr Simbalista.

Youngsters who struggle most are given a stint in the countryside. Nirim in the Mountains is a working farm located in a remote spot of the Golan Heights for those who are in crisis and find that the “already extreme Nirim programme is simply not enough”.

The farm is run on a rigid daily schedule and youth there have no accesses to phone, internet or television, in order “to encourage peace of mind and a clear space for inner work”.

Mr Simbalista suggested that the combination of therapies, and the village’s “very tight model”, whereby every minute is planned with an end in sight, are unique.

The school teaches in small classes, of up to eight students per group, and relies on lots of volunteers to supplement classroom study with individual learning activities.

There is a lot of emphasis on geology and ecology, which are taught under the guidance of the Weizmann Institute.

Beyond the 110 residents of the village, Nirim works with 350 people in cities and towns across Israel who run, among other things, after-school programmes for children. Mr Gross is enthusiastic about this, as well as the work in the village, saying that it gives chances to youngsters “who otherwise would be lost souls”.

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