Men­tors making a dif­fer­ence for Jewish and Arab youth

Jewish Agency ‘Youth Fu­tures’ pro­gram bridges gaps in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - TOUR ISRAEL - • ALAN ROSENBAUM

“Our work is to teach them to dream.” For tens of thou­sands of at-risk Is­raeli chil­dren, the abil­ity to hope for a pro­duc­tive fu­ture is no small feat. For th­ese chil­dren, many of whom come from homes with so­cioe­co­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties and have ex­pe­ri­enced per­sonal and fam­ily crises, self-con­fi­dence and aca­demic suc­cess can be elu­sive.

Youth Fu­tures, the Jewish Agency’s pi­o­neer­ing na­tional pro­gram, is de­signed to ad­vance chil­dren and families at risk who live in Is­rael’s geo­graphic and so­cial pe­riph­ery, and teach them to dream. In­tro­duced in 2006, the pro­gram be­gan as a pilot pro­ject in six towns. To­day, it ranges across 36 lo­cal­i­ties through­out Is­rael, 160 schools, and serves 12,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing chil­dren and their families.

More than half of the bud­get for the Youth Fu­tures pro­gram is pro­vided by the Jewish Agency, Jewish Fed­er­a­tions of North America, foundation­s and pri­vate donors, with ad­di­tional fund­ing pro­vided by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry.

The frame­work of the Youth Fu­tures pro­gram largely rests upon men­tors, trained pro­fes­sion­als who serve as role models and lead­ers in the lives of the child and his fam­ily. As Ruthi Shen­feld, direc­tor of Youth Fu­tures ex­plains, the most im­por­tant thing that men­tors pro­vide is con­fi­dence. “Ev­ery child needs an adult who be­lieves in him. The men­tors believe that ev­ery child has the po­ten­tial to grow and look to find their strengths.”

Each men­tor works with 16 chil­dren and their families for a pe­riod of three years, to cre­ate and es­tab­lish pos­i­tive change within the lives of the chil­dren. Men­tors de­velop an in­di­vid­ual work plan for each child and, work­ing to­gether with par­ents and the ed­u­ca­tional team, in­tro­duce goals and ob­jec­tives for each child. The ac­tiv­i­ties of the Youth Fu­tures pro­gram are cen­tered from sec­ond grade through ninth grade.

Men­tors work in­di­vid­u­ally with chil­dren dur­ing school hours, as well as in groups, meet with families, and visit their charges at home. Spe­cial ac­tiv­i­ties are de­signed dur­ing va­ca­tions to keep chil­dren active and en­gaged. In ad­di­tion

to work­ing with the chil­dren, the men­tors spend a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time work­ing with par­ents, help­ing them im­prove their par­ent­ing skills and relationsh­ips with their chil­dren.

Men­tors are adults – usu­ally from the same geo­graphic area as the Youth Fu­tures pro­grams they serve – who are spe­cially se­lected and trained for their full-time po­si­tions.

Says Shen­feld, “We are very se­lec­tive and choose only qual­ity peo­ple who have had ex­pe­ri­ence in the field.” The most im­por­tant qual­i­fi­ca­tion, she says, is that they “have fire in their eyes, and a great soul” to work well with the chil­dren.

The Youth Fu­tures pro­gram spans all sec­tors of Is­raeli society – sec­u­lar, re­li­gious, haredi, Arab, Be­douin and Druze – and can be found in Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, Arab vil­lages, and mixed lo­cal­i­ties as well. Shen­feld says that while they usu­ally ar­range for a cul­tural match be­tween men­tors and their chil­dren, the over­all ac­tiv­ity is sim­i­lar in all the dif­fer­ent lo­cal­i­ties.

Shai Eglit­sky, 38, is the lo­cal direc­tor of Youth Fu­tures in west Jerusalem. There are 128 stu­dents in his pro­gram, with most ac­tiv­i­ties con­cen­trated in the Har Homa and East Tal­piot neigh­bor­hoods.

He says that the men­tors per­son­al­ize the pro­gram for each child. “We give them tools for each in­di­vid­ual’s needs.” If a stu­dent lacks self-con­fi­dence and self-es­teem, he notes, “we give them ad­vice on how to raise their self-con­fi­dence. Th­ese chil­dren lead ac­tiv­i­ties in or­der to raise their self-es­teem.” If a child has difficulty or­ga­niz­ing his work, “we cre­ate a ta­ble that shows him the most im­por­tant tasks on which to fo­cus.”

“Most of all,” he adds, “we pro­vide a sym­pa­thetic ear, take them se­ri­ously, and pro­vide so­lu­tions that help them believe in them­selves.”

Eglit­sky notes that the pro­gram cannot suc­ceed

Ev­ery child needs an adult who be­lieves in him

with­out full par­tic­i­pa­tion from the chil­dren’s par­ents, who are the most im­por­tant adults in their lives. He adds that “for­mal ed­u­ca­tion re­quires some­thing ad­di­tional that com­ple­ments what chil­dren are learn­ing. Youth Fu­tures pro­vides a vi­tal con­nec­tion be­tween for­mal and in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tion.”

SHADI ABU JABER, 42, is the lo­cal direc­tor of Youth Fu­tures in east Jerusalem. Abu Jaber, who has worked with Youth Fu­tures for six years and him­self served as a men­tor in the pro­gram, says that while there is poverty and vi­o­lence in east Jerusalem, “it doesn’t mat­ter if you are in east Jerusalem or west Jerusalem, or New York – ev­ery place has its is­sues.”

He ex­plains that what makes Youth Fu­tures spe­cial is that “you are work­ing with par­ents and chil­dren to­gether. You are help­ing the par­ents to learn to work with their chil­dren.”

The pro­gram in east Jerusalem has 160 chil­dren, but Abu Jaber notes that in re­al­ity the men­tors end up work­ing with the other chil­dren in the fam­ily as well.

He notes that with large classes, teach­ers cannot at­tend to the needs of all of the stu­dents. Some stu­dents are for­got­ten. Youth Fu­tures helps the for­got­ten chil­dren.

The Youth Fu­tures pro­gram in east Jerusalem has re­cently be­gun a pilot pro­gram for pro­gram grad­u­ates to de­velop lead­ers and “com­mu­ni­ties” of grad­u­ates, who will be able to serve as ex­am­ples and give back to the com­mu­nity. Agency of­fi­cials hope that this alumni net­work pro­gram will trans­form the stu­dents from re­cip­i­ents into val­ued re­sources for their com­mu­ni­ties.

Abu Jaber em­pha­sizes the need to ex­pand the goals and hopes of the stu­dents in the pro­gram. “I asked a child in our pro­gram, ‘What is your life’s goal?’” Abu Jaber says that the child replied that he wants to be­come a truck driver like his father and his un­cle. “There is no shame in be­ing a truck driver,” he says, “but this is all that they see from their sur­round­ings.” The next day, he took the boy to visit the univer­sity, to meet stu­dents, and to show him what he could be­come. “The visit changed the way he viewed his stud­ies,” says Abu Jaber. “He is still in school, he is work­ing hard, and he will suc­ceed.”

To­day, the Youth Fu­tures pro­gram has 300 men­tors who ef­fect change in the lives of many peo­ple. Haim Moyal, the direc­tor of the di­vi­sion for ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren and youth at risk at the min­istry, says, “Youth Fu­tures pro­gram is a unique and sig­nif­i­cant pro­gram for ed­u­ca­tion, and pro­vides care for chil­dren at risk. We at the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry sup­port it and see it as a pro­gram that com­bines per­sonal contact, holis­tic treat­ment and a so­cial and scholas­tic net­work at the high­est level.”

For Eglit­sky, the pos­i­tive im­pact of Youth Fu­tures can be un­der­stood from the fol­low­ing story. “One of the girls in the pro­gram had so­cial is­sues, and did not have faith in her­self and her abil­i­ties. Her men­tor helped her re­al­ize her strengths and what she was ca­pa­ble of con­tribut­ing. Grad­u­ally, she be­gan to believe in her­self. To­gether with her group, they led a pro­ject ren­o­vat­ing the school li­brary, added new books and, in ad­di­tion, taught reading skills to first-grade stu­dents. Lead­ing this pro­ject en­abled her to un­der­stand her strengths. Her friends be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate her, and she found her place both so­cially and aca­dem­i­cally. Work­ing on this pro­ject, to­gether with her men­tor and the rest of the group, helped po­si­tion her in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion for a suc­cess­ful fu­ture.”

Abu Jaber adds, “When I look at chil­dren who have ex­pe­ri­enced so many dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, and I see the light in their eyes, it gives me the feeling that I am do­ing some­thing worth­while.”

East and west, north and south, the agency’s Youth Fu­tures pro­gram is help­ing stu­dents re­main in school, ex­cel and be­come pro­duc­tive mem­bers of society. And that’s no pipe dream.

Youth Fu­tures pro­vides a vi­tal con­nec­tion be­tween for­mal and in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tion

(Pho­tos: Youth Fu­tures)

SHADI ABU JABER (right), direc­tor of Youth Fu­tures in East Jerusalem, and Shai Eglit­sky, direc­tor of Youth Fu­tures in West Jerusalem.

CHIL­DREN PAR­TIC­I­PATE in the Youth Fu­tures pro­gram.

RUTHI SHEN­FELD, direc­tor of Youth Fu­tures.

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