Most teens in boarding schools have gone home in the shadow of the coronavirus epidemic, but Simon Solomov, age 16, can't go home to see his mom this Passover. She's in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and he hasn't seen her since last summer.
Like his fellow high-school students who have come from the former Soviet Union to study in Israel, he has had to remain in their adopted home of Hadassah’s Meir Shfeya Youth Village.
“Right now, the coronavirus situation is actually not that bad in Kazakhstan,” Simon relates, “but it is expected to get much worse than it is in Israel. Of course, my mom would like me to come home, but I know I'm safest here on the Meir Shfeya campus. The staff are looking after us, and we are cocooned, away from the virus. And I’ve got a huge pile of schoolwork to get through.”
Simon notes, “It was my mom's idea that I come to Israel on the Naale Program because she felt I’d get a better education here than at home.” The Naale Elite Academy, an international program of the Jewish Agency, enables Jewish teenagers from the diaspora to complete their high-school education in Israel for free.
“Of course, I was nervous about leaving home at 14,” says Simon. “I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. At first, those of us who spoke Russian studied together as we learned Hebrew. But we learned Hebrew quickly and were soon integrated with everyone else. It was easy making friends. I caught on to the language and fell in love with Israel.”
Three years later, Simon is doing extremely well in his studies and is majoring in agriculture and biology.
The coronavirus came along at a bad time for the students, Simon comments. “Many of us were supposed to take matriculation exams this month,” he explains, “while others face national achievement tests in May and June.”
Formal classes have been suspended, but Simon and some 60 other stranded youths are studying privately and helping on the village farm, tending to the animals and weeding herbs. They live in the dorms, enjoy the bucolic campus, and get three wholesome meals a day.
An only child, Simon misses his mother and his grandmother, who lives with them in their home in Kazakhstan. But he is still planning his future in Israel.
“I want to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier, though my mom isn’t too keen on that idea,” he says. “I understand her concern and will respect her wishes. One possibility is that I’ll try for the Home Front Command. Maybe the high-level biology courses I've taken at Meir Shfeya will be useful in protecting the Israeli home front from hazardous attacks.”
Watch below as our youth village students participate in a national Israeli effort to honor the country's medical staff. Meir Shfeyah is one of several Hadassah-supported youth villages, including Ramat Hadassah Szold and Hadassah Neurim, which provide education, housing, counseling, and a family environment to underserved youth from Israel, Africa, and the former Soviet Union. Many of the young residents come from troubled families in Israel; others are refugees or new immigrants with few or no resources of their own. Hadassah’s youth villages give these children and teens a new lease on life and a chance for a bright future.