Before dawn on the day before the harvest festival of Sukkoth, a dozen and a half teens are crouching in the vineyards of Meir Shfeya Youth Village, picking the best purple clusters. Their classmates are already on holiday vacation, but they have volunteered to stay behind to help with the grape harvest of the ripe carignan grapes that will be used for the village winery. This fieldwork will also help compensate the Village for their participation in the forthcoming educational trip to Ethiopia in November. Most of the students come from Ethiopian backgrounds—they were either born in Ethiopia or are children of immigrants from Ethiopia. Others are non-Ethiopian Israelis who were chosen for outstanding citizenship in the village.
(They're all under 18, so we can only use initials for their names.)
"I'm very excited about going," says J with a buzz cut. "I've grown up on a lot of disconnected stories of Ethiopia, but don't feel I really know much about my Jewish ethnic group. I'm looking forward to putting it all together."
Youth Aliyah villages provide a safety net of services—food, shelter, education and love—to immigrants and at-risk Israeli children from poor or abusive homes in Israel. With guidance, nurturing, and first-rate instruction, students learn the skills they need to succeed in modern-day Israel.
"From our preparatory sessions about the Jews of Ethiopia I've already learned a lot,"said S, who comes from a non-Ethiopian family. "Not only about the culture. I didn't know that M has a father still there and that O has a mother who never came to Israel."
Although the Meir Shfeya village is in the heart of Israel's wine country in the Carmel Coast south of Haifa, none of the students had ever picked grapes before. Hand-picking ensures that only ripe,luscious grapes are picked.
"I love it," said Y. "I'm tired, but it's a good kind of tired."
The morning's pickings yielded 3000 pounds of grapes which will yield 1200 bottles of Shfeyah Wine. The grapes take hours to pick, but after being transported by truck to the winery at the village, feeding them into an auger which crushers and destems them takes only a few minutes. Waiting at the winery is a team of three Shfeyah students from the Na'aleh program on which teens come themselves from the former Soviet Union. They are part of the winery student staff. All Meir Shfeyah students do a form of farming as part of their agricultural program. Said S, from the Ukraine, "I love the combination of physical work and quiet atmosphere that prevails at the winery." S. volunteered to stay at the village DURING the Rosh Hashana holiday break so that he could stir an earlier batch of grapes fermenting. 24-hours after harvest, yeast is added to the grapes. They are later transferred to vats and still later to barrels where they can age for ten months.
Israel's most popular website ynet ran a column featuring ten recommended wines to bring as gifts for Rosh Hashana. Shfeyah's 2012 blend was in second place, and the winery sold every bottle. All the profits are, well, poured back into the student business.
Among the visitors at today's harvest is Joan Cohen of Long Island, a former member of Junior Hadassah who worked at Meir Shfeyah in the 1960's and who has continued to support the village.
Photo: Drinking L'chaim and celebrating Joan Cohen WITH an aged bottle OF Shfeyah's first 2005 vintage, Joan Cohen and devoted Shfeyah teacher Lauren Stern Kedem.
Documenting the event was filmmaker Shlomo Afriat, a Shfeya graduate. Afriat, one of ten children from a Kiryat Shmoneh family that had immigrated from Morocco, came to study at Shfeya in 1981 to get away from the shellings. "I learned to work and to love work at Shfeya," he said. He, too, worked in this vineyard, but he most fondly remembers long days in the cowshed. "I come back to Shfeya because there's no place like it. It's not a school, it's a life-mission!"