Youth Futures is an ambitious project of the Jewish Agency which is empowering and giving hope to thousands of disadvantaged children in Israel’s peripheral communities / By akin ajayi
The primary focus of Youth Futures -which started in 2005 as a pilot project in six communities and has since expanded to 32 cities and towns, mainly in the Negev and the Galilee - is to tackle the rise in the number of children and youth at risk within these communities. As Elisha Hosman, Director of the Youth Futures Division, explains, most of these children - estimated as up to a third of the entire youth population of Israel - are not afforded similar opportunities as their peers elsewhere in the country. Without targeted support and intervention, they will always struggle to break the repetitive cycle of disadvantage and marginalization. Of particular importance are children in the early school age range. “What struck us was that there were few programs aimed specifically at children in elementary schools,” Hosman explains. “These children were consistently falling in the gap between the education and social welfare systems.” What makes Youth Futures an exemplar is the emphasis on two key priorities: partnership and empowerment. Hosman explains how these objectives connect with the broader objectives of the Jewish Agency as a whole. “One of our three key objectives is connecting the Jewish Diaspora with Israelis, for the purpose of empowering Israeli society as a whole. Children, especially children at risk, are obviously a high priority; what we needed was something that reflected these objectives, and at the same time benefited the communities as a whole.” Jane Sherman is the Chairperson of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors Governance Taskforce and the immediate past co-chair of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors Israel Committee. It was under her watch that Youth Futures first gestated. “We had been thinking for some time about something concrete that we could do for the benefit of youth at risk in Israel,” she explains, “as well as working productively with the socalled ‘new communities’.” One early insight was the availability of a significant, albeit largely untapped, resource stream. “We knew that there were young men and women, fresh out of the army and keen to dedicating a part of their lives to effecting social change. It was clear to us that we had a duty to make use of this social capital, these ‘pioneers’,” Sherman says.
These young people - ‘trustees’ as they came to be known - form the backbone of Youth Futures. Working with children in the targeted age range who have been identified as being at risk, the trustees act as mentors and are in constant contact with the children’s teachers, parents and social workers. They work with each child for a period of three years, from 3rd through 5th Grade, developing a tailored individual program for each child based on his or her needs and strengths, and working towards developing each one’s personal, learning and social abilities. The goal is to bring out the full potential of each child in every sphere: academic, social, behavioral and cultural. The role of the trustee is pivotal to the success of the project.
They engage with the children and their families and, through the intimate relationship formed over a period of time, become effective advocates for the needs of the children. It is a delicate balance; the role of the trustee is not to replace the parent or parents, but rather to provide an adequate role model in terms of behavior and engagement, a role model admittedly with more resources and connections at their disposal, but with the right balance of commitment and availability to show a path to the future. Whenever possible, trustees are recruited from the local community.
Not only is it a means of ensuring that they have the right ‘feel’ for the families that they will work with, but it also ensures that their commitment to revitalizing the disadvantaged communities and cities yields fruit close to home. Yifat Cohen, 28 and married with two children, is starting her third year as a Youth Futures trustee at the Rambam School in Beersheva’s “Hey” neighborhood. She grew up in Beersheva, actually attending Rambam herself, and returned to the city after taking her degree in Education from Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University. Her enthusiasm for the role can be gauged by the passion with which she talks about her charges, 16 children in the 5th Grade whom she has mentored for the last two years.
“Sometimes, when I talk about ‘my kids,’ my husband asks whether I’m talking about our (biological) children or the children in my Youth Futures group,” she claims. Cohen works five days a week and spends the mornings at the school, making sure to talk to each child every day and to solve any problems they may encounter. She’s in constant contact with their teachers as well, and twice a week she visits the children’s homes in the afternoons, maintaining very close contact with their parents and other family members. She sees her role as a facilitator, encouraging the children and their families to fulfill their potential, with her role being that of guiding them appropriately in the pursuit of their own solutions. “Just as a traveler takes a bag and fills it with things he needs for his journey, I see my role as filling the bag for these children,” she says.
Like a big brother
Shulamit is a 44-year old divorced mother of six from Safed who works as a part-time librarian but is struggling to meet her family’s financial needs. Three of her children are currently participating in the Youth Futures program, with the youngest, 9-year old Yaakov, having joined this year. Each child has his own trustee who is “like a big brother, a friend he can confide in,” Shulamit explains. “Sometimes they have a serious conversation, and sometimes they just talk and have fun. It’s great that there is someone else who cares about the child, not just his mother,” she says.
Beyond the motivational support and building connections with welfare and support mechanisms, the trustees can be a source of unexpected, invaluable practical support. Shulamit relates how her 10-year old daughter Rachel’s trustee, Michal, helped resolve a seemingly intractable domestic problem. “Until recently, we lived in a tiny threeroom apartment, and Rachel didn’t have any space of her own, not even a bed. Ever since she was a baby, she had always slept with me,” she tells.
Michal recognized the impact of the cramped surroundings on Rachel’s social and emotional development, and determined that a solution to this problem was key to resolving other issues, particularly Rachel’s introversion and lack of self-confidence. “The apartment next door became available, but I couldn’t afford it. Michal talked to Rachel’s teacher, principal and guidance counselor, and they all agreed that I had to find a solution. When my aunt visited, Michal spoke with her and explained that the situation was now urgent.” Shulamit’s aunt and other family members agreed to help and they secured loans to purchase the adjacent apartment for Shulamit, allowing her to merge both properties into one larger apartment. “The kids now sleep two to a room, and each one finally has his own bed. Rachel even has her own closet and desk.” Shulamit knows where the credit lies: “Michal helped me throughout the process,” she says. In fact, thanks to her devoted trustee, Rachel has succeeded in overcoming her extreme shyness, and her social demeanor has improved dramatically.
Youth Future trustees develop an individual program for each child and the goal is to bring out their full potential in every sphere: academic, social, behavioral and cultural
Jane Sherman notes that the program looks to the long term, although on an individual level, both short-term and longterm goals are set every year for each child. “The point is that even if evaluations show that positive engagement occurs over a relatively short time span, say a couple of years, if the children are returned to an unchanged personal environment, then all the good work will be undone pretty quickly,” says Sherman, noting that the key is to looking to the future. “What we are thinking about, what we aspire towards, is creating a generation of parents that will work with their children to become independent and empowered citizens in their own right,” she states.
Youth Futures operates in coordination with the Partnership 2000 initiative - the ambitious long-term project of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod to twin individual Jewish communities in the Diaspora with cities and regions in Israel. The funding model for Youth Futures, Hosman notes, is based on this premise of partnership, but with a unique hook; the program is funded by a three-way commitment between the three principals: Jewish communities in the Diaspora, Israeli businesses and philanthropists, and the Jewish Agency. Philanthropic activity and fundraising have struggled significantly over the last two years, a result of the contraction of the global economy, but Hosman notes that this funding mechanism has insulated Youth Futures to an appreciable degree.
“If a Jewish Federation -or, for that matter, the government or an Israeli contributor - proposes to cut a single dollar from their contribution, they understand that in fact, they’ll be depriving the project of not one but three dollars, because of the matching funds principle,” he explains. This model explicitly rewards commitment, as an increased financial engagement from one arm of the funding triangle effectively serves as a challenge to the partners to match this contribution.
Hosman notes that creative fundraising - he mentions Yeruham and its mayor, Amram Mitzna, in particular - confers a significant benefit to the broader community. “It paves the way for creative fundraising by committed partners,” Hosman tells me. “We have a lot of needs, but also a lot of answers within Israeli society. The task is to tap into this effectively.” Architect for change “Today, we have more than 200 children in the program. It is expensive, but I can sleep easier at night knowing that we are doing everything we can to ensure that children do not ‘slip through the net’,” says Amram Mitzna, mayor of Yeruham. A small city in the heart of the Negev, Yeruham is populated mainly by the descendants of immigrants from North Africa, Persia and India, and is distinguished in the public imagination mainly for its remoteness. Mitzna, a retired Israeli Army General, former leader of Israel’s Labor Party and a much respected mayor of Haifa, asked to resign his Knesset seat in 2005 to take up the vacated position of mayor of Yeruham. After four years in the post, Mitzna is widely recognized as an architect for change in the city, with much of this positive evolution hinged upon the specific ambition of harnessing and developing the internal potential of the city and its citizenry. He is an unequivocal advocate of the Youth Futures program. “Just a month ago, they staged a play, and all the children in the program participated.
Many of the parents were surprised to see that their kids were able to do this; it did wonders for the kids’ self-confidence,” he says with a smile. Mitzna is clear about his hopes for a lasting legacy from his tenure as mayor. “If I have had one success here, it is that many people here, potential leaders of the future, now understand that they can take their future into their own hands.” He points out a significant corollary effect of this growth in self-belief. “Now, young people consider remaining here after completing their military service and university, committing themselves to strengthening the community. It’s something that I think any visitor to Yeruham would sense: the commitment across the board, from municipal employees to school teachers to volunteers, a sense that they are committed to the growth of their community.” All this, from harnessing local potential through programs like Youth Futures - a shared commitment indeed.