At Beit Assaf, Young People are Transforming their Lives

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Beit Assaf pre-military academy, which trains disadvantaged young adults, settles into its permanent home in Mitzpe Ilan, thanks to the support of Friends of KKL France.

The Beit Assaf pre-military academy is named after IAF Captain Assaf Ramon, who died in action in 2009. Its new building was inaugurated on the twelfth anniversary of his death, in a moving ceremony. Mitzpe Ilan – the northern Israeli village that Beit Assaf calls home – was named after Assaf’s father, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the fatal 2003 Columbia mission.
Beit Assaf is an offshoot of One of Us, a network of pre-military academies that offer training for social leadership and accept “at risk” youngsters whom the army would normally be reluctant to draft. Beit Assaf welcomes young people from all over Israel and prepares them for meaningful military service and life as active and contributing citizens. The academy guides the youngsters through an individual and group process that helps them consolidate their personal, moral and social identity and acquire tools and skills in preparation for military service and life as good citizens.
“We develop the mental and physical skills of our students in order to prepare them for both military service and life in general,” explained the academy’s director Dor Elizov. “Our objective is to help them understand that real change can begin only from within themselves.” He expressed heartfelt thanks to KKL-JNF’s Friends in France: “Thanks to them we finally have a permanent home that suits us, meets our needs amazingly and gives us the strength to succeed.”
This year’s intake of students arrived at Beit Assaf for the first time just a few days before the inauguration ceremony, after a long hike that was sprung upon them without warning or preparation – and, indeed, without any information as to where they were headed. Along the way they got to know one another, coped with difficulties together, engaged in team-building and connected with the Israeli landscape. After three days, they reached their destination. They were immediately impressed by their new premises, and were excited to learn that they owed them to the close relationship with KKL-JNF’s Friends in France. “KKL France is one of us,” they sang at the top of their voices as they entered Beit Assaf, expressing their appreciation and gratitude in traditional academy style.
Yiftah Ramon, Assaf’s brother, took part in the inauguration ceremony, during which he told those present: “The establishment of Beit Assaf is for us the realization of a dream. Today, alongside our sadness and yearning for Assaf, we also feel very proud that this institution will provide so many young people with an excellent education.”
Orna Saban, who chairs the Ramon Foundation and has accompanied the establishment of the academy, recalled how she had visited the site with Rona Ramon when it was no more than a desolate, rocky hillside. “Rona looked around and began to describe the building, and where everything would be, in great detail. And now, today, her vision has come to fruition.”
Hadas Shaked, community manager of Mitzpeh Ilan, described the special relationship between the community and Beit Assaf: “The academy adds new life, and the students offer the young people an example of giving and volunteering. For us, the establishment of Beit Assaf is a dream come true.”   

Watch video of the ceremony [Hebrew with French subtitles]

Meni Zakshbar, a student at Beit Assaf, explains what made him sign up: “I decided that I didn’t want to dive headfirst into the army immediately after high school. I took time out to understand who I am and what I want out of life.”
“For me the academy is a place to develop, and be who I am, with no regrets,” added Ofek Cohen, a graduate who completed the course last year and decided to stay on and volunteer for a few months as a mentor to new students.
“This building is an expression of human power and the ability to overcome hard knocks,” said Minister of Culture and Sport Hili Tropper during the inauguration ceremony. “Beit Assaf represents love for humankind and the provision of opportunities. It reminds us all that we must never give up our dreams,” he said.
Menashe Regional Council Chairman Ilan Sadeh added emphatically, “The academy encourages young people to embark upon a new chapter of their lives, contribute to the State and become part of a better and more moral society.”
Naftali Dayan, a graduate of the academy who today is an outstanding combat soldier in the paratroopers’ brigade, moved his listeners when he recounted how, as a teenager, he had lived on the streets and sunk to petty crime before turning his life around and joining Beit Assaf. “I decided to fight for my life, and here I found a home, friends and a family. For the first time in my life, I felt I had something to lose. When people care about you and you know that you’re a part of something, you have the strength to cope with anything.”
The guests at the ceremony, who were given a tour of the new building, expressed their admiration for the spacious dining room, the classroom, the accommodation for students, graduates and staff, and the clubhouse, which is well equipped with games.
After the tour came the unveiling of the plaque that expresses appreciation for the two KKL France donors whose bequests made the building possible: Anne-Marie Vallade and Ella Fersztenfeld.
KKL-JNF representative Sariel Gon explained to the guests that both women were Holocaust survivors who had made their way to France, experienced the joy of seeing the Jewish State founded, and bequeathed their estate to educational activities in Israel. “This amazing place that can transform lives was established thanks to Friends of KKL-JNF in France,” said Gon. “It is a wonderful example of the shared destiny of the Jewish People, of French Jewry’s warm relationship with Israel and of shared concern for the generation of the future.”