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June 4, 2013 12:22 am

At-Risk Settler Youth Find Hope in School

avatar by Anav Silverman / Tazpit News Agency

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Settler youth, part of the Tzur Yisrael program. Photo: Tzuri Cohen-Arazi, Tazpit News Agency

If you would have asked Boaz Kashi as a teenager what he would be doing in the future, operating a school for at-risk youth in Samaria would not have crossed his mind.

“I was kicked out of six different yeshiva high schools growing up,” says Kashi, who is the co-founder and principal of Tzur Yisrael in Psagot, a last-stop school for religious youth who have left or have been kicked out of the traditional educational frameworks in Judea and Samaria. “I was always an outsider to some degree. I couldn’t focus on studies and the teachers never knew what to make of me.”

Kashi was born and raised in Psagot, an Israeli settlement community that his parents helped found in the heart of Samaria, adjacent to Ramallah. He describes a phenomenon that is not uncommon to a number of youths from religious settler families in the region.

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“There are youths who simply don’t fit the religious educational framework. The yeshivot and ulpanot [religious Jewish academic institutions for boys and girls] cannot meet the needs of such youths who rebel and get lost in the system,” explains Kashi, 40, a husband and father. “The traditional religious frameworks put too much pressure on them.”

Consequently, 12 years ago, Kashi and his neighbor from Psagot, Rabbi Hanania Tzur decided to establish Tzur Yisrael for at-risk settler youths who could not find themselves within the traditional educational systems and religious social circles.

“We wanted an alternative framework, where these students could complete their matriculation exams and stay on track,” explains Kashi.

“Many of the students that come to us have been on the other side,” says Moshe Ben David, a teacher at Tzur Yisrael. “They’ve quit school and spend their time partying, drinking, doing drugs, and wandering around. They work in bars and pubs in downtown Jerusalem. Some can get involved with criminal mischief. Others have no contact with their parents.”

“When they come to Tzur Yisrael, it’s because they want to,” Ben David says. “They realize that if they want to get ahead, they have to study and pass the matriculation exams, which determine where they serve in the army and what they will study in college.”

“As teachers and principals – no matter what sector of society you belong to – it’s always difficult to deal with kids who don’t go with the herd. They need a different kind of framework.”

“At Tzur Yisrael, we don’t judge them. We give them a lot of love and support, something that is critical for them. These teenagers arrive with little confidence in themselves, in their families, communities and faith,” explains Ben David.

Tzur Yisrael has a separate two-year study program for boys and girls in the eleventh and twelfth grade, uniquely combining study for the matriculation exams as well as vocational work in a variety of fields which enable students to earn a monthly salary.

Oriya,18, of Bet El, says that Tzur Yisrael’s program suits her. “I’m not the kind of person that can’t sit in classes all day. I need to learn in other ways,” says the soft-spoken teen who works at a pool after she studies at Tzur Yisrael in the mornings.

She still considers herself religious, but finds that Tzur Yisrael allows her to express herself more freely. “My ulpana was too strict. Here I can choose when I want to pray. I observe because I want to and not because everyone tells me to.”

For others, like Amichai, 17, from Kochav Hashachar, who is part of the Ofra branch of Tzur Yisrael, where students can work both in agriculture and at the local horse ranch, the program has given a different outlook. “Here, the adults just accept you for who you are and there is a feeling of family here.”

Tanye, with an eyebrow piercing, tells Tazpit News Agency, that she got lost in her former school. “I was one of 1,000 students and it was harder for me to study than other girls.”

“When I got to Tzur Yisrael, it was the first time that adults believed in me,” she says. Although she isn’t religious in practice, she says she still believes.

“I am a little bit of a youth at risk,” she admits. “I need this kind of program. It’s the only way I could have passed my matriculation exam.”

With 160 graduates from the Tzur Yisrael program, many have found their place in society.

“Our students go on to army and college, and have successful careers. They get married and raise families, with some returning to the communities they grew up in,” adds Kashi, who himself passed his matriculation exam at the age of 28 and went on to study social work at university.

“We know there will be a good ending and that’s what keeps us all going.”

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