Chaim Peri understands that many of the at-risk children who land in the Yemin Orde Youth Village he founded 30 years ago in northern Israel probably hate God. Still, he wanted to give these once-abandoned children the opportunity to feel what he calls the sublime. So, in the trees all around the village synagogue, he set up bird feeders. And he told the kids if they didn’t want to talk to God, they could talk to the birds.
This sort of fearless thinking has made Peri something of a celebrity among those who know Yemin Orde. That adulation was clear on a recent Sunday in Pacific Palisades, when Peri addressed a small group of supporters at a brunch at the home of John and Vera Schwartz.
“Supporting Yemin Orde is my way of making sure there is a healthy, free, open, democratic society in Israel,” said Marcie Zelikow, a Los Angeles philanthropist who is the national campaign chair for Friends of Yemin Orde.
In December 2010, the largest wildfire in Israel’s history destroyed nearly half the village. While all children and staff were safely evacuated, the fire consumed 22 buildings, including the library, staff residences and children’s homes.
The village was functioning again within a month of the fire, and Yemin Orde devised a master plan that will update and improve the village. Organizers are working to raise the last $1.3 million to meet the $21 million construction costs. Building is set to begin this month.
For Peri, rebuilding also includes helping already vulnerable children recover from the trauma of displacement.
In fact, well before the fire, Peri built his approach on the premise that the children who arrive at Yemin Orde — mostly as immigrants, but also native Israelis from dysfunctional homes — should always feel a sense of security.
“We have to convince them that they can believe, ‘I was abandoned once; I will never be abandoned again,’ ” Peri told supporters.
To that end, Peri said Yemin Orde serves as a lifelong resource for alumni. Alumni often celebrate their weddings at the youth village, and administrators and teachers stay in touch with graduates, often signing mortgages and attending their military, educational or family occasions.
The village has alumni housing, but Peri said that only one in 15 students make use of it, because merely knowing they have the option to stay there gives them the confidence to move forward.
At the behest of the Ministry of Education in Israel, Peri is teaching this approach in five other youth villages in Israel, as well as at high schools for at-risk kids and teacher training programs. He has worked with schools in the United States and at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a village for orphans that is modeled on Yemin Orde. Peri has outlined this approach in his new book, “The Village Way” (This World: The Values Network Publishing Group).
In it he describes how to frame an educational program with the goal of bringing children to a place of stability, rebuilding their trust in humanity. “We take kids who think they are worthless, and we help them rewrite the narrative of their life,” he said.