Meet our graduates
Moshe and his wife Rachel, and their two children, Talia and Shalev
Daniel and Moshe Szanders recall their adolescent years in Yiftach, and their accomplishment in returning to their family and community, to fulfill their potential.
“We grew up in an ultra-Orthodox household of American Ba’alei Teshuvah – returnees—who made Aliyah without any help to assist them in the difficult immigration,” says Moshe, a 33-year-old American Israeli from his home in New Haven, where he lives with his wife, Rachel, and their two children, Talia and Shalev. Their American parents, who returned to Judaism in the early 80s, went through “a Jewish evolution,” as Daniel, his elder brother, tells me from his home in Chicago. Daniel was the first among the four Szanders siblings who lived and studied in Yiftach’s first boarding school at Timora. Yiftach is near the Dead Sea, a haven for at-risk young teens. They both recall the complex process their family went through when they immigrated to Israel.
“Life for our parents wasn’t easy, especially with eight children. This affected all of us, especially the elder siblings. In the early years, our parents hardly spoke Hebrew, so we had to be translators, not only of the language but also of the culture and environment. As young kids, we found ourselves much more independent and experienced, with a better understanding of the difficulties of survival, than the other children in our community. We moved to a new place every year or two, a situation of constant chaos and conflicts. Like other young kids, we quickly found ourselves marginalized and outcasts from a stable society. Leaving home, we went to Jerusalem, living in the streets and hanging out with outcasts like us. We got involved in fights, drugs, alcohol, theft, you name it,” the two brothers continue.
Daniel was three, and Moshe was two when they arrived in Israel. The family moved from settlement to settlement: Mevo Horon, Kiryat Sefer, Beitar Ilit, and Matityahu, while the parents turned even more Orthodox. Eventually, they ended up in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood in Jerusalem, where they still live today.
“I studied in the Chassidic Amshinov Yeshiva,” says Daniel, “It was an experience that was not easy for me. The family was considered an outsider among the Haredim he studied with, and he felt disrespected and looked down upon. “I remember that when I played football with the secular kids in the neighborhood, they accepted me and treated me much nicer,” says Daniel. That’s how I was kicked out of school and in the streets at twelve when the Yeshiva decided I was unsuitable for their framework.” Adds Moshe.
“The norm at the time in the ultra-Orthodox community was that someone who did not comply with all the stringent rules and asked questions had to leave home and the Yeshiva,” says Moshe.
“I wandered in the streets of the city. I lived there, in Zion Square, experiencing smoking and alcohol. Anything to survive. I was a good kid but didn’t fit into the Ultra-Orthodox frameworks, ” says Daniel.
“The Admor, the head of my Yeshiva, recognized my rebellious nature and suggested I try the therapeutic, educational framework at Yiftach, the source of Timoras’ academic network. That’s when I met Ariel, who initiated and still runs Timora—from then on, my life changed significantly. When I decided to go to Yiftach, I wanted a place to sleep and eat. However, Yiftach allowed me to relax, to stop rebelling. I could make decisions out of my own free will. That’s the fundamental essence of Yeftach’s educational approach. The children coming to Yiftach don’t fit into the standard frameworks of their communities. They are brilliant people with a lot of questions. Not misfits as their society brands them. The rigid Ultra-Orthodox framework doesn’t suit them. Ariel understands that young teens will succeed when you allow them to be themselves. That’s what I experienced. I spent three years at Yiftach. I remember the feeling of unconditional acceptance in a place that allows you to be part of a family without depriving you of your own family. That’s what’s fantastic about Yiftach.
“When I graduated from Yiftach, I enlisted in the IDF’s Field Intelligence Unit,” continued Daniel. “After finishing my service, I studied business administration. After a year, I left my studies feeling that this learning context was too rigid for me. I found myself looking for development in the United States. Today I live in Chicago with my wife Leah, my two children, Noam and Eden, and a third on the way. My dream is to return to live in Israel, at Ovnat, preferably.
“I was at Yiftach for two years,” says Moshe, “It was a fantastic experience. I remember the meetings – once a week, sitting on the porch playing the guitar and singing songs. It was an Emotional time, a unique bonding with the small community. The weeks we had in nature, called Survival Weeks, taught us that if we can overcome obstacles in the wild, we will be able to overcome everything. We carried a backpack with weekly supplies: one kilo of flour, a kilo of rice, and a kilo of burghul. We had to hike in the high mountains, endless and difficult treks. Our counselors knew how to capitalize on our efforts, telling us, “You did it.” There was much learning through experience, a different way of solving problems and gaining valuable life skills. I remember how frightening it was back in the streets before moving to Yiftach; I was stabbed three times during violent confrontations. My brother Dudo had his jaw broken from the severe beatings he received. We played hard, street kids, talented young people without direction. Yiftach addressed these issues individually and gave us new coping mechanisms. While training to enlist in the army, aspiring for an elite combat unit, I ran with a 30-kilo backpack three times a week, with Ariel, along the shores of the Dead Sea. We would go down to the beach and run for 45 minutes, getting fit to prepare for the army.
Moshe reflects on Yiftach: “I remember vividly the supportive environment with a lot of caring, from the social workers to the instructors and coordinators, including the Shinshinim (young Israeli volunteers) who supported us in our studies. People with an open heart and mind”. He talks about belonging to a place that cares for one’s needs. “It is a shelter and a home away from home, and simultaneously, it demands your input and responsibility.” He says and continues: “All the young adults who were with us came from a similar story. They were at a crossroads in their life. One direction would lead to imprisonment; the other, Yiftach, allowed you to find your inner voice, get back on your feet, and have a healthy life. Most of the kids with me had good positive energy, with a need to direct them to a healthy place. Ariel’s thinking is non-conventional with impressive results.”
Three of the Szanders brothers established a security business in the United States. Today they have 250 employees, and the company operates in seven states. These days they are negotiating with a major company interested in acquiring their business, after which Daniel and Moshe aspire to return to Israel. “There’s nothing like Israel, and that’s where I want to raise my children.” Says Daniel. “With all the difficulties in Israel, it’s still the best place to raise children.”