Beit Ruth Village (photo by Poole)
When boys are hurting, are at-risk or are vulnerable and abused, they act out. They join gangs, skip school and get into fights,” Danielle Burenstein, executive director of Beit Ruth, told the Independent. “But, when girls are hurt or abused, they disappear and become transparent; they hurt themselves. When the system identifies a girl who is at risk, it’s normally because she has disappeared from the school system, is living on the streets or tries to commit suicide.”
Beit Ruth, in the northern part of Israel, was founded by Susan and Michael Ashner, a philanthropic couple from New York who, in 2003, were in Israel to visit a project they were supporting – a program that was educating vulnerable boys. During this visit, Burenstein said, “Susan asked something that would change both of their lives forever: ‘What happens to their [the boys’] sisters? Where are the programs for the sisters?’ The answer, pretty much, was there is really no need for those programs for the girls, because we don’t have those issues with the girls.”
Nevertheless, said Burenstein, Susan Ashner researched more about the status of at-risk and vulnerable girls in Israel, and determined “that there was a need for programs and services in Israel for those girls.” Beit Ruth began as a hostel in Rishon LeZion in 2006, which housed 13 at-risk girls between the ages of 13 and 18. By 2014, a new location had started operating on the outskirts of Afula, in a gated village setting. Today, Beit Ruth Village in Afula houses 45 girls in three houses.
Recently, a new school building was completed. Next on the list of capital projects are two more homes that will allow the village to take in 30 more girls. Following this, the plan is to add five more homes, giving the village and school the capacity to help 150 girls.
“Beit Ruth is a long-term residential village for at-risk and vulnerable girls,” said Burenstein. “It is a learning, healing and caring community that embraces the whole child, emotionally, socially and academically. It gives girls who have been removed from their homes by the Ministry of Welfare – due to incidents of severe neglect or abuse … and, when I say abuse, I mean emotional, physical or sexual; in many cases, it is incest – it gives these girls a chance…. Most, for the first time in their lives, have the chance to receive therapy for this abuse.”
Beit Ruth also “gives them the chance to get a high school education and life skills, so they can be prepared for life outside the village.”
Walking into the village, she said, is “like walking into a gated community in Vancouver. There are homes, with between 12 to 15 girls living in each home. They are not dormitories. They are decorated like homes.”
Each house has a kitchen with a dining room, where the girls cook together, eat together, and have chores and responsibilities, and a living room. They have a bedroom they share with three other girls, and they can decorate it however they wish.
“We’re recreating that security and foundation that any child needs to have in order to be a successful human being,” said Burenstein. “I mean, to be able to have trust and respect, communication skills and a desire to learn, like most kids have.
“When our girls come to us in the village, I can tell you that, if you were to visit as an outsider, you’d probably be able to point out which girls have just come to us … because they are a shell of what a child should look like at that age – withdrawn, many sitting in a corner. You can tell that they are scared. They won’t make eye contact with you. They speak in a low voice.
“In a matter of weeks or few short months, you’ll see them start to smile, hang out with the other girls, talk with staff, engage, listen … some will laugh out loud.”
The girls who come to Beit Ruth have to choose to do so themselves, and they can choose to leave at any time. The purpose of the village gate is to keep out unwanted visitors, not to lock the girls in.
“The girls need to commit to the hard work it takes to overcome their trauma, to face their trauma through therapy, to listen to the values we instil in the village, which are all about teamwork, respect and trust,” said Burenstein.
Something that makes Beit Ruth unique are its guiding principles, one of which is creating the atmosphere of a home life – the kind of support a family should give a young child. Another guiding principle is therapy, which helps each girl face her own personal trauma, with the goal of overcoming it.
There are also enrichment programs, such as therapeutic art or music, sports and physical activities, all of which are mindfully selected and designed to help a young girl find her voice, passions and skills, to forge communication skills, trust and respect.
Many girls come to Beit Ruth with big gaps in their education. Some don’t know how to read or write at 13 or 15 years of age.
“When you’re hungry, when you’re scared, or when you’re in an abusive situation, school is not what you’re focusing on,” said Burenstein. “So, our girls are given the opportunity to have a high school education and we help instil a love of learning and curiosity that most kids have.”
Once at the village, each girl gets the support she uniquely needs. Beit Ruth does not go with one-size-fits-all programs, as each child comes with her own trauma, past and capabilities.
Beit Ruth’s educational programs, which were developed for the village, are trickling down into use by Israel’s Ministry of Education, to other schools around the country, and into hospitals.
“Each girl has her own journey to take,” said Burenstein. “It’s really hands-on for each one of the girls. They know it’s a place they can call home. They know this is a place where they are safe. They know this is a place that, no matter what … and, trust me, they try to test us … they know that we’re here for them and that we’re not giving up on them. That comes across loud and clear.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.