Desert school uses legacy of Israel's farming pioneers to instill values
'We need to be self-sufficient and provide food security for our country,' says Amit Meir, founder and principal of Leaders of the Land High School established five years ago at Moshav Hatzeva by a grassroots movement helping Israeli farmers and ranchers
Known today as the high tech-oriented “Start-Up Nation,” Israel was originally known for its farming, says Amit Meir, founder and principal of Leaders of the Land High School, established five years ago at Moshav Hatzeva by Hashomer Hachadash, a grassroots movement helping Israeli farmers and ranchers safeguard their land.
“Before the founding of Israel in 1948, (residents maintained the) borders through agricultural settlements, with the moshavim and kibbutzim,” Meir says.
“Today that sounds like a very small part of society, but it is not,” he goes on. “We need to be self-sufficient and provide food security for our country. But it is not only about food. It is about our values. It is (teaching) youth to do something that isn’t easy, something that is very hard every day, and to get dirty and sweaty.”
In Israel, the average farmer is 65, notes the 30-year-old Meir, who grew up helping his father cultivate vegetables and dates on the family farm at Hatzeva in the southern Arava Desert region.
“I think this experience connects young people to the land,” he says.
Another young Israeli with farm roots is Yoel Zilberman, founder and CEO of Hashomer Hachadash. At 34, he is following in his father’s footsteps and establishing his own cattle ranch in the Golan Heights.
“Not only in Israel but all over the world, the number one tragedy for (the current young) generation is that they are searching for meaning,” Zilberman says.
“Most… get into college or the army without ever having built anything with their own two hands.”
While some 50 of Israel’s traditional youth agricultural villages begun during the pioneering days still exist, students there are no longer involved in daily agricultural work, Meir says. It’s different at Leaders of the Land, where students are exposed not only to the physical aspect of farming, but to innovative techniques used by Israeli farmers to increase their yields.
“There has to be innovation for them to succeed. The students see that and learn it, and it is amazing,” he says.
At the start of the 2019-2020 academic year, Hashomer Hachadash will open two new branches of the high school in the north, one in the Galilee, the other in the Golan, with 50 students at each school. Later in the year, the flagship school at Hatzeva is expected to complete construction on a new campus.
The Hatzeva facility started out with 15 students and today has a student body of 65, says Meir, who hopes the number will double by 2022. So far there have been two graduating classes.
A cross-section of Israeli society is represented at the school, with about 70 percent of the students coming from secular families, according to Zilberman. They come from large cites and small agricultural communities, and from everything in between, and are right wing and left wing in political outlook.
The students at Leaders of the Land wake up early every morning to begin work with local farmers. In the afternoon, there are three hours of academic instruction covering all the courses required by the Education Ministry.
Extracurricular activities include music, art and Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art. The young people also have opportunities to meet with segments of Israeli society they otherwise might never cross paths with, notes Zilberman.
“It is important to connect them to the land, to Zionism,” he says.
“They don’t know anything about the Middle East,” he explains. “They have never met with Arabs…. We are creating a platform for them to meet with other populations, also with the ultra-Orthodox, so they know more.”
Leaders of the Land is supported by the Education Ministry, a stipend paid by farmers who employ the students, a partial tuition paid by parents, and through private fundraising.
Shiri Milo’s son Erez is starting 11th grade at the Hatzeva facility. Living in the neighboring town of Zukim, she says the school provides a social environment more suited to his personality and will help him develop a sense of responsibility and self-confidence.
“He is a serious boy,” Milo says. “He loves getting up early independently and going to do physical work. The whole topic of values and responsibility really speaks to him.”
Eighteen-year-old Ziv Ivri, a senior from the upscale southern town of Omer, says that at other schools, she felt she was wasting her days despite having a large group of friends.
“I didn’t want to spend the best years of my life facing a blackboard and cooped-up by four walls,” she says. “I want to do something with meaning.”
Ivri says she belongs to a “generation of instant gratification” and wants no part of that.
“We won’t always be able to get things that way. The people who founded this country worked hard so we could live here. We have to appreciate it and not always run to search for the easy way out,” she explains.
“With every drop of sweat, I feel a sense of satisfaction,” she continues. “We all sweat, but when I see the smiles on the faces of the farmer and my friends, I know we are doing something important.”
Zilberman is hopeful that 80% of the students at Leaders of the Land will find careers related in some way to agriculture, with perhaps 20% becoming farmers. Yet Ivri says that, for now, she wants to study the Middle East and international relations.
“Agriculture is a tool for gaining life skills,” she says. “When I learn that I have to work hard to get things and not just press a button, I can use these lessons in everything I do. But there definitely will be a garden at my house.”
Article written by Judith Sudilovsky. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line