At-Risk Children Launch a Business and a New Season of Life
By: Annaliese Johnson, ICEJ Publications and Events Registration
In May an ICEJ delegation was invited to take part in one of the most anticipated life events of every Jewish youth—their bar or bat mitzvah. This important rite of passage grants recognition to Jewish boys and girls that they are now responsible members of the Jewish community. For eight young Jews in the Beit Appel Youth Village, a home founded in 1954 for youth from troubled backgrounds, this was a special achievement. Known as the Kvutzat Dekel (“Palm Tree Group”), the young teens could not contain their excitement as they looked forward to this next stage in life.
Much of the excitement was due to a joint ICEJ-Beit Appel project at the Youth Village that started last year. The project aims to bring to fruition the dream of launching a youth-operated bakery in the village. In the confectionery kitchen funded by the Christian Embassy, children from the home have been working hard to not only learn how to bake but get the business off the ground. They have spent countless hours in the kitchen and the classroom learning how to bake, prepare packages for sale, and run their own business. Each village event, including this group bar mitzvah, provides an opportunity to showcase their new skills.
As our ICEJ team entered the gate and waved to the security guard on duty, we were instantly immersed in a haven filled with greenery and colorful artwork. We made our way on a dirt path through a jungle-like nature area until we found the celebration under a partially covered patio. There were decorated tables, scrumptious-looking desserts, Israeli pop music, a slideshow, and about 150 excited guests ready to celebrate with the eight youths.
The children, thrilled with their major achievement, smiled and whispered among themselves as they laid out delicate and delightful desserts on the tables. As part of their training, they baked gooey brownies, carefully frosted cakes, and creamy custards—perfect treats for the sweet celebration of a key milestone. We watched as they pulled older siblings to the dessert table and eagerly pointed out which desserts they had shaped. One mischievous three-year-old boy with his hair tied in a bun raced around the center collecting desserts with pride for his mother and grandmother.
Maya Cohen, director of the youth program, beamed while explaining the success of the bakery project and how proud she was of the children’s dedication. Whereas just a year prior she knew none of their names due to being brand new on staff, she joyfully exclaimed: “Now, they are my children! You can see [the exuberance] on my face!”
Maya says that moving forward, she hopes to operate the baking classes multiple times weekly and open sales to not only the village and staff but also the surrounding community.
Besides Maya, we also meet Oly Kenneth, ecological director of the center, as we admired the workmanship displayed on the dessert tables. Seven years ago, this part of the village was the garbage dump, complete with trash, broken dishwashers, old washing machines, and stench. However, volunteers from the village turned it into an oasis of 350 hand-planted trees, mainly organic fruit trees that offer free produce for all who enter the complex.
Oly shared, “For me this is the dream! The dream is here! It is their home! These same kids planted the trees here, and now they are having their party here! It came full circle.”
ICEJ staff member Irene smiled and referenced Isaiah 61:3, which eloquently describes beauty replacing ashes for troubled hearts. And for ICEJ AID staff member Jannie, “the icing on the cake” was when each youth was recognized on stage and the support system they shared. Dressed in white, they stood bravely in front of 150 family members, counselors, and role models and sang a beautiful song. When one nervous boy struggled to get the words out, the other seven crowded around him, linking arms and smiling in genuine love.
When Jannie was asked to address the gathering, she said that she was reminded of Psalm 92:12, which mentions the righteous flourishing like a palm tree, befitting for the “Palm Tree Group.” In addition to creating delicious desserts, she noted that they made lasting memories and gained valuable skills that will be very beneficial in their future lives. As one speaker at the celebration expressed: “The beauty has no end.”
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