Yosef Naite: Working With Wood and With Kids
Many young B’nei Menashe in Israel have been unable to gain a foothold on the ladder of economic and social success. They remain stuck in the same low-paying jobs, and with the same limited horizons, that were the lot of their immigrant parents. Yet a growing number are now beginning to move ahead. This is the first of a series about some of them.
(March 10) When our Newsletter phoned him at 8:30 in the evening, Yosef Naite had just returned to his home in Kiryat Arba from the community center where he works with adolescents from the B’nei Menashe community. “Tonight was eight-graders,” he told us. “I meet with kids of different ages on different nights of the week. This week we’re planning next week’s Purim party. The eight-graders were given the job of choosing the music and the DJs, and we’ve just spent two hours discussing it.”
Together with fellow youth worker, Ruby Gin, Naite deals with some 60 young junior and senior high school students in Kiryat Arba, a town of 8,000 on the outskirts of Hebron in the south Judean hills with one of the largest and oldest B’nei Menashe communities in Israel. “Ruby works with the girls and I work with the boys,” Naite explains. “The center has three such groups: one for religious boys and girls, one for secular ones, and one for B’nei Menashe. The B’nei Menashe kids were either born in Israel or came here at a young age. Many have trouble communicating with their parents, who may not speak a good Hebrew and who they feel don’t understand them. That makes me an important adult in their lives. I sometimes tell them that I’m not there to be their father, or their mother, or their big brother. I’m there to be all three in one.”
But what is the point, we asked, of creating a separate group of B’nei Menashe youngsters if one of the goals that needed be set for them was their successful integration in Israeli life? Doesn’t this accomplish the opposite?
Naite agrees that there is a seeming contradiction. But such social segregation, he observes, isn’t created by the community center, because it already exists. “Young B’nei Menashe in Kiryat Arba,” he told us, “hang out with each other. They live in a bubble of their own making; it’s a comfort zone that they’re afraid to leave. Although it’s like that everywhere in Israel, it’s made worse in Kiryat Arba by the physical isolation of the place. Some of the more successful B’nei Menashe kids manage to escape this closed circle, but many don’t. They’re friends only with each other at school, they’re friends only with each other while they’re in the army, and they stay friends only with each other when they get out of the army and end up working in factories or as security guards because they have no one to motivate them to go any further.
“It’s my job to help them break out of this circle,” Naite continues. “But you can’t just throw them all at once into a group of Israeli kids and expect them to do well. I don’t think it’s a question of racism in young Israelis. It’s more one of low self-esteem in young B’nei Menashe. They don’t think they can do better than their parents. Many of them drop out of school and begin to drift. They give up the religious observance they were brought up with and have no compass. Some develop alcohol problems. They need to believe in themselves, to dream, to have ambitions. But they have to build themselves among themselves before they can have the confidence to integrate with others.”
Naite’s own youth, as he describes it, was different. The son of a B’nei Menashe father from Manipur and a mother from Mizoram who joined the B’nei Menashe community after her marriage, he was raised in village near Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital. In 2001, when he was eight, the family came to Israel and settled in Kiryat Arba. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he reminisces. “Maybe because there weren’t that many B’nei Menashe in Kiryat Arba at the time, I mixed with other kids from the start. Many of my good friends weren’t B’nei Menashe at all.”
And so, when he reached adolescence and felt the need for greater independence, Naite chose to attend a religious boarding school on the Golan Heights where he was the only B’nei Menashe student. “It was a good experience for me,” he relates, “even though I wasn’t a good student. In fact, I was rather wild. That’s something that helped me afterwards to be a youth worker in Kiryat Arba, because I did many of the things that I see young people doing now.” From there Naite moved to another boarding school in Kfar Hasidim, southeast of Haifa, and then to a military preparatory academy near Karmiel, in the central Galilee. He did his military service as an infantry soldier in the Golani Brigade, fought in Israel’s 2014 operation in the Gaza Strip, and was discharged a year later.
“I was confused about what to do next,” he says. For a while, he lived in Jerusalem. There were some B’nei Menashe boys from Kiryat Arba, childhood friends, who had moved there too, and they formed a group. “It was a nice period,” Naite recollects, but it ended in 2017 when his grandmother arrived in Israel from Mizoram and was given an apartment in the Jezreel Valley city of Afula. She was all alone there, and Naite moved to Afula to be with her and found a job at Beit-Uri, a boarding school for youngsters with special needs. It was the start of his career as a youth worker – and as a carpenter, the trade he has chosen for himself.
“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he told us. “I’ve always been good with my hands and Beit-Uri had a carpentry shop. I worked in it with the children, helping them to make simple things like wooden trays and cutting boards, and when the shop wasn’t in use I began working there by myself and learning to master the different tools. I picked up a lot from watching others and a lot from the Internet, and I realized I could make a living from the two things I liked doing best: working with kids and working with wood.”
In 2020 Naite returned to Kiryat Araba after an absence of nearly 15 years. “I didn’t actually intend to go back there to live,” he says. “I wanted to spend some time with my family – my parents, my brother, and my two sisters, all of whom live there. But one of my sisters has a small daughter, and the first time I visited her, her daughter asked, ‘Ima, who is this man?’ That hit me hard. My own niece didn’t know who I was! I had wanted to get away and be on my own, and I had succeeded, but I now realized that it was time I came home.”
Naite stayed in Kiryat Arba and opened a woodworking shop. “I don’t go in much for ordinary carpentry,” he says. “Things like closets and kitchen cabinets – they’re not for me. There are carpenters who do them better than I can. I like making things that have a more decorative or creative aspect: coffee table, cutting boards, mezuzot – things whose form I can feel free with.”
He also likes to work a lot with epoxy. “Combining it with wood appeals to me,” he told us. “Wood is one of the oldest materials and epoxy is one of the most modern, and I enjoy both the blend of them and the contrast.” Among woods he is partial to olive wood;
among epoxies, to shades of blue, which he adds to the transparent resin before pouring it.
“It’s like an island in the sea, isn’t it?” he asked over the phone as we looked on our computer screen at a photograph he had sent us of a coffee table with an olive-wood center and blue epoxy flecked with white around it. It was indeed like looking from an airplane at a land mass surrounded by water floated over by light clouds.
His work has an artistic, sometimes playful flair: an olive-wood-and-epoxy mezuzah that looks like an oyster. A tricolor clock, with an orange-stained panel of olive wood flanked by red and blue panels of epoxy into which were pressed real flowers as the resin hardened. A carom board – a popular Indian game similar to billiards but played with finger flicks rather than with a cue stick – that could double as a serving tray. A Hanukkah menorah, shaped like a bench. The functional blends with the imaginative.
Does he make a living from it? “I’m trying,” he says. “Some things, like the religious items, sell well. I have customers in Israel and even in America. And there’s income from the community center as well. To tell you the truth, though, the real pay-off there is the kids. They’re worth much more than the money.
“As a carpenter, I’m still learning all the time. I don’t want to be just a carpenter. I want to be the best there is, even if I have a long way to go in order to be it. I like being competitive. I demand more from myself than I do from others. You have to have a passion for what you do if you’re going to do it well -- and I have it.”
He is trying to instill it, too, in the young B’nei Menashe he works with. Anyone wishing to visit his carpentry shop, or to view or purchase his work, can contact him at 054-642-6757 or email@example.com.