We were in the City Hall in Jerusalem, and the Mayor was due to host the mayors of fifty cities from around the world that evening. “Who is Jerusalem twinned with?” I asked. “Jerusalem is unique”, our host replied. “It has no twin cities. But it does have partnerships, which are much the same”, she said. It was the answer I had anticipated, and it applied not only to the Holy City of Jerusalem but also to Israel as a whole – unique, but down to earth and pragmatic about getting things done. As we found out during our visit, this applied to services for children and young people as well as the country as a whole.
FICE – or the Federation Internationale des Communautes Educatives – is the biggest international professional association for people working with children and young people. Twice a year its Federal Council meets in a different country, so that regular delegates get to see quite a number of other countries.
The programmes obviously include business sessions to keep the organisation going, but – depending on the host – they also include day seminars, the participation of Council members in the country’s national events, lectures on services, the opportunity to meet government ministers and senior civil servants, visits to children’s services, together with a bit of tourism and a few social events. The Council business is serious, but that does not stop these events being relaxed social occasions as well.
The National Section of FICE in Israel is called the Israeli Residential Education and Care Association (IRECA for short), and in October they organised an excellent programme for the Federal Council – interesting, informative, enjoyable and challenging.
The meeting was held in Tel Aviv, in a hotel close to the beach, which stretches for five kilometres to the old city of Jaffa in the south. Any gaps in the meeting schedule were well used. Indeed, the beach and the promenade are well used round the clock. Tel Aviv never sleeps, and its citizens use the cooler hours of darkness to play football, have picnics and power-walk.
The last time that FICE met in Israel was in 1991, when an international workshop looked at the training needs of residential child care workers, and came up with the Hadasseh-Neurim Declaration. On that occasion, following the working sessions, the group had visited a kibbutz near the Egyptian border where there was a large group of young Russians, who had just arrived and were celebrating their first Shabbat in the country, and later went on to a Club Mediterranee village which was housing a number of Ethiopian Jews recently airlifted into Israel.
In the intervening sixteen years since that visit, Israel has seen massive growth. The population is now over 8 million, with over a million Russians having arrived in the last decade. The economy must be flourishing, as there are cranes poised over building sites in every city and town, and busy motorways now link all the major centres of population. Ben Gurion Airport has been totally rebuilt and is now suited to the volume of traffic. There is a strong impression that this country – though still young – is going places, and the energy being put in is enormous.
The Business – Papers, Projects and Proposals
The Federal Council business included the usual mixture of proposals to modify the constitution, plans for the next Congress in Helsinki, proposals for publications and reports from the President and other officers.
The meeting opened with an introductory talk by Dr Emmanuel Grupper, the President of FICE-Israel and Director of the Residential Education Department of the Ministry of Education, about the situation concerning children and young people in Israel. Out of a total population of 8 million, there are 2 million children, and of these 300,000 are in poverty, 250,000 being at risk. Of these, 50,000 are in care, 10,000 being placed by the courts and 40,000 voluntarily. A total of 300 residential programmes cater for 40,000 of those in care.
Arab and Jewish children have separate services, though FICE has members from both sectors. Provision includes boarding schools, religious youth villages, villages specialising in agriculture, the arts and sports, and residential centres for crisis intervention and treatment.
A recent report by Professor Kashti has suggested a more economical approach, recommending that residential establishments should review their philosophies of care, that staff should be better trained, paid more, managed better and inspected more thoroughly. Fifty per cent of staff already hold relevant degrees or diplomas, but a high level of pre-service qualification is planned.
Monika Niederle, the President of FICE-International, reported on the conferences and meetings she had attended, including that of the National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW) in South Africa. Attended by 1400 delegates, it had lasted a week, and sounded like a sort of party, with people dancing and enjoying themselves as well as sharing ideas.
One concept she had learnt from them was the provision of safe parks, where staffing permitted children – and their parents – to feel secure, enabling the children not only to play but to share their concerns informally with the workers.
Martti Kemppainen of FICE-Finland reported on a book to which he had contributed, Child Welfare in Europe and Russia, currently in Russian but due for translation, which promises to emerge as a thorough standard text about child care legislation and welfare services.
He also gave an update on progress in the preparations for the Helsinki Congress from 10-13 June 2008. The call for abstracts should have gone out by the time this report is published.
A Youth Congress for eighty participants is also planned, to be sited 80 kilometres from Helsinki, though its conclusions will be fed into the adults’ Congress. It is intended to make use of the natural setting to provide opportunities for adventure as well as arts, crafts and sight-seeing.
Zelijka Burgund reported on the most recent Friendship Camp, at which children and workers from Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia met near Lake Dojran. About 60 children had been involved, and for the first time the event had been run without support from FICE-Switzerland.
Karen Scott from Denmark described an educational project for untrained residential care staff, devised by Niels Peter Rygård, a Psychologist. The project was backed by the Danish Association of Psychologists, and starting from small beginnings, it now had Leonardo funding from the European Union and it was hoped that it would be developed world-wide.
Other projects in which FICE National Sections are involved included the preparation of a handbook for managers, a system for training teachers working with children with learning disabilities, a programme to train foster carers and the creation of an electronic data-base. All of these projects entailed partnerships between several countries.
Monika Niederle also reported on the implementation of Quality for Children. The standards book is now on sale, and two countries have already incorporated its approach in their law.
Among the dozens of other topics covered was FICE’s Constitution. There had been a Working Party, which now reported its findings. The details may be tedious to people who are not Federal Council members, but from time to time the Statutes have to be revised, and on each occasion the debate leads to further clarification of FICE’s aims and what it hopes to achieve. On this occasion the main proposal was that Congresses should be less frequent, allowing more time to focus international conferences and seminars on specific subjects.
The first evening, after the close of the meeting, the Federal Council was taken by coach to the north to visit Hadassim. This was our first experience on this visit of a children’s village. Set in lightly wooded countryside, Hadassim now houses two hundred and sixty children, and has a school for several hundred more from the surrounding area. The FICE working group had visited Hadassim sixteen years earlier, and there were 560 children resident at that time. Not only had the number of children resident been halved, but many buildings had been added or refurbished.
The high point of the evening was a brilliant concert. First there was the Symphonic Orchestra of Youth Aliyah, made up of about sixteen young people drawn from the children’s villages of Israel, and they played half a dozen pieces. We later learned that they were taught music individually in their own villages but prepared as an orchestra by coming together for a weekend’s tuition once a month at Hadasseh Neurim, another children’s village.
Then there were two lads from the Haddasim Youth Village Dancers who did some hip-hop dancing, which went down well with a section of the young people in the audience. They were followed by Boris Pigovat, a composer, who played his own very moving piano music, A Song of Ascents, which had originally been written for the children’s villages’ orchestra.
Finally, a group of Ethiopian young people, enacted a play without words, Ethiopian Sun, as a sort of ballet, about two sisters – one in Ethiopia and one in Israel, and the problems they faced. This clearly struck a chord with the Ethiopian young people in the audience, who were delighted with the performance. The troupe was about to set off for a tour of Germany, and we had been treated to a final dress rehearsal. Altogether, the quality of performance and the enthusiasm of both the performers and the audience were impressive, and made for a memorable evening.
Emmanuel Grupper missed the concert as he was attending the wedding of his youngest daughter at a kibbutz in northern Israel. At intervals during the evening, Zeev Tuito, the Director of the village, reminded us of the likely progress of the wedding – “They’ll be saying prayers / exchanging vows / eating / dancing now”. FICE events reach the parts of daily life that ordinary tours do not.
On the first day after the Council’s business was complete (which was the Jewish Shabbat), there was a trip to the north of the country. We started with Nazareth, a key point on the Christian tourist trail, where we visited the modern Franciscan Basilica of the Annunciation and an old synagogue associated with Jesus’s visit to the town during his ministry. As we left, the roads were being closed for a Muslim festival to take place. News items from Israel usually focus on Arab/ Israeli clashes, but what was most impressive was the extent of the co-operation and tolerance between Jews, Muslims, Christians and other religions, and among the many national groups which now make up the state of Israel.
From there we visited Ibillin, a children’s home founded in 1978 by the late Jawdat Nashashibi for Arab Israeli children, whether they are Muslim, Christian or Druse. When we called, the children had nearly all gone home for the weekend, but we were warmly welcomed by Ibrahim and Hischam and other members of the Nashashibi family, who still run the home. The point was made that although Arab children receive separate services from Jewish children, as citizens of Israel they have equal rights to services, and FICE-Israel includes both Jewish and Arab members. The home caters for 100 boys from broken homes and provides special education on site for those who cannot cope with ordinary schooling.
From there to Haifa, where we saw the magnificent sweep of the bay from the top of the formal gardens maintained by the Baha’i faith. Then on to a Druse village packed with shops full of tourist goods – the Druses being a religious group of one and a half million people who keep themselves distinct from other groups, though they do play a significant role in the Israeli Defence Force.
Finally to Neve Hadassa, another children’s village, where the whole group of about two hundred children and young people were gathered in the dining hall for the evening meal. It was now the end of the Shabbat and the house group whose turn it was provided a short concert of songs in Hebrew, including the village’s song. As elsewhere, hospitality was generous, with roses and presents for the guests and roast chicken for everyone.
he visit to Jerusalem next day began with Yad Vashem, the Museum of the Holocaust. It is laid out simply, taking the visitor through historically from the period between the two World Wars to the gradual pre-war repression of the Jews in Germany, to the development of wartime concentration camps and then to the “final solution” half-way through the Second World War, when mass killings took place.
The determination that such events must never happen again still provides powerful motivation to Israelis in working for the survival of their state. This is not simply a question of defence, but it permeates daily living. In services for children, for example, as one teacher explained, the first priority for people working with children is to assure parents that their children are safe.
Throughout the visit, the atmosphere was relaxed, and there were no more signs of security measures than in any large city in other countries. On the visit to Jerusalem, though, as a standard requirement of the Ministry of Education, we were accompanied by a guard, an affable young man whose grandfather had immigrated from the Yemen, but his real value was as an additional guide.
Next, on to the City Hall, with a magnificent panorama of the centre of Jerusalem and a chance for a group photo in the Council chamber, followed by lunch. Then, a tour of some of the main tourist attractions. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was interesting, as several Christian denominations had arranged to worship on the same site by walling off sections of the church to let each have their own niche. A time for shopping in the market, and then to the Western Wall – also known as the Wailing Wall, because of the tears shed thee. The concept of equal opportunities had not yet arrived at the wall, as the men had three times more space than the women to pray. Finally, out of the Dung Gate and back to the coach.
For the evening meal, we visited Havat Hanoar, yet another children’s village. This time the visit commenced with another concert, with an excellent young trumpeter, a skilled pianist and a brilliant singer from Russia, who should have a promising career ahead of her. Together with other young people, the performers then formed a panel of a dozen students from many countries, who explained in turn why they had taken up the offer of education in Israel and how much they identified with their new country. They were clearly using their educational opportunities to the utmost, working long hours and acquiring knowledge, skills and a strong identification with Israel, a real credit to the Director, Pini Cohen, and his staff.
It will be apparent from this account that children’s villages play a major role in Israeli child care. In a brief piece it is hard to do justice to them. They have existed for many years under the banner of Youth Aliyah, an organisation set up to integrate young immigrants to Israel. They have provided a home for children, a good education and training for a variety of jobs. They have also provided an introduction to life in Israel, teaching its language, religion, customs and way of life. They have successfully imbued values in their students, and have motivated them to become committed citizens, with many former students playing key roles as adults in the life of the country.
The children’s villages cater for children with a variety of problems such as disturbed family backgrounds or autism, but they also act as boarding schools for children with potential and with no significant problems. They have no direct comparisons in other countries. They are unique, and they are effective. People in other countries who are sceptical about the value of residential care would do well to study their model closely.
In summary, the visit to Israel was fascinating – the vitality of a young and thriving country despite the circumstances, the mixture of religions and races, the friendliness and hospitality of FICE-Israel, and the challenges posed by their unique models of residential child care.
Thanks are due to everyone in FICE-Israel, especially Emmanuel Grupper and Lia Meron, and to the enthusiastic guides who explained the complexities of Israeli history and the different religions that see Jerusalem as a holy place.
The high point of the trip, though, was probably when I happened on a bar in Tel Aviv where they had the World Cup rugby on television and, as the sole England supporter present, I had the satisfaction of watching England overhaul and beat France in the semi-final – a good way to end a very pleasant day.
And any criticisms? The horrendous amount of rubbish. It may represent Israel’s growing pains, but wherever one turns – in areas of development, at tourist sites, in between houses, out in the countryside – there are piles of rubble or old tyres or plastic bottles or sundry jetsam. Maybe they are so busy building that they have not noticed. A blitz on rubbish would make the environment a much pleasanter place, both for visitors and Israelis. Perhaps, if I visit in sixteen years’ time…