Updated: Sep 7
Over the course of July and August, Eitan Goldstein, a Dror Israel educator, organized a summer program for 30 teens who have recently arrived from Ukraine and Russia. Three days per week, the teens met for programming put on by Dror Israel’s educators’ community in Be’er Sheva.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, hundreds of Ukrainians have arrived in Be’er Sheva. Eitan explained that “their statuses vary and so do their plans. Some are here as new immigrants. Some are refugees. Some are Jews. Some aren’t. Some intend to return to Ukraine soon. Some are waiting to be reunited with their parents who remain in Ukraine.”
They join the steady flow of Russian immigrants who have recently arrived in Be’er Sheva, many also fleeing as a result of the war.
Each year, the Be’er Sheva municipality’s aliyah department runs a summer program for teens who are Russian-speaking olim chadashim (new immigrants). In light of the ongoing war and refugee crises, the department’s staff understood that this summer needed to be different because these youth face new challenges on top of the usual challenges that arise around adolescence and being in a new country. And so the Department asked Dror Israel to put on the summer program, in light of Dror Israel’s experience running complex educational projects.
Eitan and other trained educators from Dror Israel understood the immense potential of such a summer program, and began creating an innovative, adaptable curriculum to meet the changing needs of the refugee youth. They created a program which, in addition to the regular fun and creating new friendships, focused on engaging Hebrew language learning, helping the teens get to know their new city, instilling in them a sense of belonging, and empowering them to be active members in their local community.
The activities ran at the local HaNoar HaOved youth movement branch from 2pm through 8pm and welcomed teens from seventh through tenth grade. The program was made possible through collaboration with UJA- Federation of New York.
The teens learned Hebrew through games and activities, cooked together, did team-building exercises, and went on outings throughout Be’er Sheva. One day each week, they went on a fun day trip to attractions including a theme park, a jeep ride in the desert, rock climbing, and more. “We did all sorts of activities, from laser tag to rappelling in the desert. It was a bit scary, to be honest, but it was also so fun,” shared participant Anabelle, 14.
A team of mental health professionals came on occasion to run interactive workshops that offered the teens tools to deal with what they have encountered during these hard times. The teens even took part in a carpentry workshop where they got to build functioning furniture! They painted a beautiful tri-lingual mural together to mark the last day of the program. The participants even had their first taste-tests of Bamba and hummus throughout the summer, with mixed reviews.
“Several of the teens spoke some amount of English, but we insisted on speaking with them in Hebrew for the most part,” Eitan shared. “We had Russian-speaking counselors who translated when necessary. In a matter of days, teens who were embarrassed or reluctant to utter a Hebrew word started to toss words and phrases into their conversations. Hebrew could be fun and exciting. I don't think that's the case most of the time for new olim, unfortunately. For many, Hebrew is the language of bureaucracy that is impossible to understand, of an impatient business clerk, of the hourly news segment on the radio that leaves you feeling in the dark, confused, like you don't belong,” he continued.
“But something here was different. Hebrew was the language of connection with their first role models in Israel, and of games, beautiful sites, group building, and self-expression.”
Looking back on the experience, Taya, 13, said “When we came and met all of the other kids, it was hard to imagine that we would become friends. But now, we’ve become more than friends. We’ve become like family.”
As the summer program ended, the participants were invited to continue together in HaNoar HaOved’s youth movement programming, which will also be adapted and made accessible to their unique needs.
Eitan concluded, saying that “over the course of the summer, the HaNoar HaOved branch building became a new home for them. I hope that the youth movement programming will become a part of their sense of home over the course of this upcoming year.”