I arrived in Israel for three weeks of volunteering. Soon, I found myself on what seemed to be a magical island of kindness that bore more than a passing resemblance to the 1960 Disney film Swiss Family Robinson.
I was at the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village, overlooking the Mediterranean.
Neurim may not be a physical island, but it certainly is magical. I spent my days gardening under the watchful eye of a cockatoo who enjoyed being pushed around in a wheelbarrow and eating bits of my breakfast. The cockatoo was adept at stepping around a surprisingly agile tortoise who was ambling about. Most of the teens who live and study at Neurim were away on their winter break, but a few had stayed at the village and were working nearby, tending the school’s organic garden.
I also spent some time at the school’s dog kennels, where the students work with formerly stray and abused dogs, rehabilitating them for adoption and learning about dogs, and themselves, in the process.
Acquiring the skills to connect with another sentient being – whether a rescued donkey, goat, guinea pig, cat or a randy emu (yes, those animals and many more have found a safe haven at Neurim) teaches the kids empathy and responsibility while emotionally nurturing them.
From time to time, more animals would appear in the Village, having been evacuated from the war zones in both the south and the north. The air was filled with a cacophony of squawking, quacking, braying and the prehistoric grunting of that emu, mixed with the sound of water splashing in the Village’s ponds and fountains.
To me, Neurim is an absolute paradise. But it is a paradise with a purpose.
At the start of the war, Neurim hosted 160 evacuees. While I was there, a group of Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers – only slightly older than the Village’s high school students – was staying at Neurim for a week. The soldiers had just finished their time in the army and had spent the past three months fighting in Gaza. After the trauma of warfare, these brave young people were hurting and needed time to process the horrors they had experienced, to try to heal before integrating back into civil society.
These young soldiers ate in the Village dining halls, spent time with the animals and surfed the waves at the nearby beach while simultaneously working with psychologists and social workers who specialized in treating trauma.
Students who have graduated from Neurim are bravely serving in the IDF. When I think of how difficult it must be to send a child off to war, I envision a never-ending embrace and saying, “I love you” and “Be careful” over and over, through my tears.
But many of the Neurim students are “at risk” youth who do not have a stable family support system. I saw how the nurturing teachers and staff become their support system. It is not unusual for the graduates serving in the IDF to call teachers with whom they had connected. These young adults want someone to know they are reporting for active duty. They want someone to be proud of them and to care about them. Neurim staff, teachers and administrators alike are filling those roles.
The Neurim community has suffered great losses. Alumni have fallen in battle as have family members of both staff and students. The grieving and traumatized students and alumni return to Neurim to be with the animals, to work with the therapy dogs and to feel safe and nurtured in this rare paradise in order to gather the strength they need to cope with an ever more dangerous world.
After each day of volunteering at Neurim, I would return to my friends’ home, where I was staying. We would turn on the television to watch the news and begin to weep. But I was fortunate because I knew I would be returning to Neurim in the morning. Neurim, my magical island of kindness.