Thursday, November 12, 2009

20 Years to "Yatka"

I had the tremendous privilege yesterday to travel, Erev Parshat Chayei Sara, to Kiryat Arba to visit the Yeshiva High School of Kiryat Arba, nicknamed YATKA.

The Yeshiva, standing in walking distance to Me'arat HaMachpela, is now celebrating its 20th birthday. Created to build young men with a love of Torah, nation and Eretz Yisrael, YATKA is exceeding all expectations, even those of the yeshiva high's founder HaRav Avinoam Hurwitz. Four hundred boys from seventh through twelfth grade learn in the yeshiva - 250 in the high school division alone.
While it began with truly courageous young men studying and sleeping in a caravan cluster at the edge of Kiryat Arba, it has grown into a magnificent and immense educational campus of multi-level buildings. The main Bet Midrash (pictured above) is gorgeous with new furnishings and boys studying all around.
In the front of the room was a group of young men learning with a rav in a special "Extra" learning lishma (for the sake of learning) program. Around the room sat boys, including Bnei Menashe and Ethiopian students, pouring over their gemoras.
Menahel (Principal) HaRav Roni Lottner led me on a tour throughout the school from the beautiful dormitories to the giant dining room, from the library to the science and computer labs. We peeked into some classrooms and watched a few ping pong games throughout the school.
Hundreds of computers are installed throughout the buildings and offices, and they're all maintained in a central "brains" area so that everyone has connectivity. The school is connected with Internet Rimon, so there's no worry about improper usage of computer technology.
Students can do research, check their grades, or communicate with their rabbis and teachers on line. In fact, connectivity and connection is one of the main characteristics of Yeshiva High School of Kiryat Arba.

HaRav Avinoam has created a school wihere connecting takes priority - connecting between the students and teachers; connecting between the students and one another; connecting the students to their families; connecting between the students and Am Yisrael - each connection fostering a love of Hashem and His Land. Rav Roni Lottner said that Yatka is "a yeshiva with neshama."
Students & Teachers: I have never heard of a school that includes in its teaching plan eight hours a week for teachers to communicate with their students - in either one-on-one discussions or group shmoozes. But Kiryat Arba believes that if young men can feel comfortable asking their rebbies anything, discussing any topic or problem, they will build stronger young men who are more connected to Torah and mitzvot and with a clearer vision of life.
Students & One Another: Kiryat Arba students are taught to relate to one another as brothers and teammates. Their school trips mix up all classes and grades so that all students came become close to one another. They team up students in buddy systems so the stronger can help the weaker students. And they teach all their students to respect and appreciate the traditions of all their varied students. With a studentbody and staff from all over the world, it is a tenet of Kiryat Arba that instead of changing students from different lands into pure Israelis, students should learn to appreciate the culture and customs of their fellow students. In fact, today, as I write this, the Ethiopian students at Yatka are preparing a giant exhibition of Ethipion music, dance, history, food and culture for all students, teachers and parents to enjoy. The occasion is the upcoming Ethiopian holiday of “Sigad”, a holiday celebrated in Ethiopia signifying the yearning to return to Zion. The boys were so proud of this project.
While walking through the yeshiva yesterday, we bumped into several groups of Ethiopian students at work on Sigad - creating power points, painting giant Ethiopian landscapes, choosing Ethiopian music, and getting their Amharic Ulpan lesson for students.
An entire class of Ethiopians learn in Yatka. When they entered the school, they were on fourth grade learning levels, but they have improved tremendously, and some are even learning several subjects in mixed classes with Israel. The Ethiopians will be in Yatka for several years until they come up to grade level. It is an educational challenge that the school adopted with love.
Students & Families: Every Thursday night yeshiva fathers are invited to learn with their sons in a mishmar session that lasts several hours. Fathers come from all over the country, some driving as much as two hours, for this special time together with their son. HaRav Avinoam said that this project has changed the family dynamics in many homes for the better. The boys have become more communicative, and more involved with their families. It is, what HaRav Avinoam calls, one of his secret weapons.
Students & Am Yisrael: His second secret weapon is his Quiet Revolution Project. Every Tuesday, every one of his seniors travels with two rabbanim, the project coordinator and often himself to Beersheva where the boys volunteer for the community. Eighteen pairs of boys split up between more than a half dozen schools, ganim, senior centers and centers for the disabled and they worked at these institutions every single week. On Mondays they receive their lesson plan, the ideas they will try to convey, and the best way they can reach "their pupils." Through games and stories and projects, the students of Beersheva learn about Jewish values and principles and some Jewish heritage too.
The children at the religious and secular schools absolutely adore the boys and wait at the school gates for them to come each week. In the afternoons, all the teams work together in Afternoon Clubhouses throughout the city. In these clubhouses are children of all ages who cannot go home for any reason - their parents work, their family is dysfunctional, etc. The Yatka boys students with them, play games with them, shmooze with them, and become big brothers who become their role models.
This project is indeed making a silent revolution in Israeli society as another 70 schools now participate in day or half-day volunteering in Development Towns throughout Israel. The best part about the growth of the Quiet Revolution is that now secular schools are involved as well.
HaRav Avinoam commented that he told the Misrad HaChinuch (Ministry of Education), that while they might call themselves the study ministry, they cannot be called the Education Ministry, because they are not educating students for life. They might be learning math and science, but they are not learning the secrets of creating a full and whole individual - chesed (lovingkindness) and giving to others. B"H, many schools are not depending on the Ministry of Education for this, and adopting chesed programs like the Quiet Revolution and educating their students to give to others.

HaRav Avinoam not only looks toward his student's educational future, but his personal future as well. In so doing, he has created a kollel neighborhood next to the campus of the school, a YESHIVA UNIVERSITY in the full sense of the word - where students who graduated high school, completed the army, and hesder, can live in a young family's building complex, have the husband learn Torah for half a day, learn in a university for half a day, and interact as big brothers for allthe students in Yatka.
Right now the Yatka Kollel has a minyan of young men living in the beautiful new buildings with the families. HaRav Avinoam is hoping to add about 45 new couples in the three buildings that are currently under construction next to the school.
Avishai Adler, 23 years old, is Rav Avinoam's assistant. A graduate of Yatka, Avishai came back to be part of the school's administration. Avishai said that he had the opportunity to move into the new buildings, but he and his wife preferred to living in the caravan area below the school. There's a cozy close-knit bungalow feeling among the young caravan couples, and that suited the Adlers just fine. Avishai told me, "Right now, my family and I are living in the same caravan that I lived in when I was in ninth grade."
It really seemed that no one was eager to leave Yatka - the kitchen head has been on staff for seven years; the head of the Tuesday volunteer program said, "This is my home, and you don't leave home."; the Av Bayit (maintenance head) said that he's proud to have been at his job for seven years; and the students are eager to come back with their families. Each feels part of the Yatka family, and part of the greater mission of building a better Am Yisrael.
There can be no higher testament to the success of HaRav Avinoam's 20 years. Mazel tov.
Voices will be uploading a video on YATKA in the next week. Stay tuned to

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