The Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Israel and Overseas committee helps make allocation decisions, utilizing funding from the Federation’s Annual Campaign. This year the committee decided to see for itself the effect our dollars have on the ground in Israel.
I had the honor and pleasure of visiting five grant recipients in Israel with Rabbi Hannah Wallick, Federation vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas, during an investigatory weeklong trip there in March. I’ve already reported my findings back to the committee.
The committee works in partnership with the Jewish Agency, and with Jewish Federations of North America to ensure the future of a connected, committed global Jewish people with a strong Israel at its center.
Here’s some of what I saw in Israel, starting with a focus on one program in particular, Youth Futures.
Children at risk
Youth Futures, a project associated with the Jewish Agency, receives private donations and infrastructure support from national and local governments. It was last funded by the Federation with $2,000 in 2016. The program is designed to provide children at risk with equal opportunity to develop their unique skills, both academic and social, to break out of the cycle of poverty and distress, which in Tiberias, our partnership region, is rampant.
Youth Futures operates in six different schools in Tiberias; each has one or two trained mentors who work with third graders identified by their teachers as needing services to address social, emotional, behavioral or family issues. Currently 160 children are enrolled in the three-year program, which requires parental participation.
We met with the program director, Nessya, the coordinator/facilitator Mor and Li’ad, an ebullient 9-year-old boy, plus his dedicated mentor, Hodaya. Li’ad shared with us that he’d been acting out in response to being taunted and ostracized by his peers for having dark skin; his mother is Ethiopian. Hodaya has worked with him to identify his social needs, build his confidence, find his strengths, give him tools to initiate and improve relationships. She has gone to Li’ad’s home to meet with his parents and establish goals for the family with the intention to improve carry-over of newly learned behaviors/skills into all aspects of his life. Li’ad said “Hodaya is like a nurse taking care of our society.”
In previous years, Youth Futures solely focused on the student during school hours, but it became clear that a holistic approach would be more effective. The result for Li’ad has been transformative. He is happy, well adjusted, and not just accepted by his peers, but they also seek him out for games and friendship.
There is no negative stigma associated with this program. On the contrary, the other children are jealous of the kids enrolled in Youth Futures.
Youth Futures also sponsors an eight-session woman’s support group designed to empower the mothers of children in the program, who may be victims of domestic abuse, suffering from the stresses of poverty and raising their families without spousal support.
We met Orit, mother of two adopted children. The eldest who was severely delayed when he came to them, has already graduated the program and is in seventh grade. During Orit’s participation in the program she learned to “polish the diamond” within her. Thanks to support from the group and facilitator, she allowed herself to step away from her family responsibilities, identify and pursue her dreams. She became open to the possibility of change, finding a job, and is forever indebted to the program.
In both cases it was clear how Youth Futures is working to repair the soul and simultaneously, the community of Tiberias. The children also give back to the community, volunteering time to visit local holocaust survivors. Additionally, the organization sponsors an eight-session father-and-son doubles tennis group, and a mother/daughter bat mitzvah/coming of age group. Both are designed to provide quality family time, improve relationships, communication skills and teach life skills.
Nessya and Mor told us that with additional financial resources they would offer psychological services for the children and families. Waiting for government support can take months or years. They would like to extend the program to the older grades and have a birth-to-3 program, to involve more schools, service the ultra-orthodox schools and provide summer programs.
Youth Futures evaluates each child and family before the program starts, two months in, and annually, acknowledging that there are some rough patches, mostly related to parents’ inability to commit but overall the program is wildly successful.
We were inspired by the dedication of the staff to the children and by the reactions of the participants we met. Our visit was well organized and seamless; an indication that Youth Futures will continue to demonstrate success in leveling the ground for the under-resourced and underprivileged families of Tiberias, as long as there is sufficient funding.
Other spots visited
We visited a several other programs and efforts, including some with a focus on religious pluralism, adults with special needs and revitalization of a distressed neighborhood.
We observed Torat Haim, an educational program sponsored by World ORT, a non-governmental organization. This was in the ultra-orthodox community of Bait Vagan in Jerusalem. The program teaches elementary school boys three years of basic science and technology, one-and-a-half hours per week, in select schools or community centers, with the goal to provide them with a “better knowledge of the world” outside their Torah studies.
In Tel Aviv we learned about “A Free Israel” and Ne’emanei Torah, an advocacy group, sponsored by iRep (Israel Religious Expression Platform of Jewish Federations of North America). Their focus is on marriage equality and religious pluralism, using specific strategies to evoke social change at the grassroots level. These strategies include:
- “Havaya,” a branch that provides information, legal counsel on and officiators of common law marriage, has performed 500 marriages this year.
- Activist training and support.
- Public advocacy including an educational outreach to the Russian community. These Israelis are most frequently affected by an allleged “non-status” as Jews.
We also visited grant recipients in our partnership region, Tiberias. This included the College of Life Skills, a privately funded work and enrichment day program for up to 32 special needs adults, housed at Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov. The committee donated $6,000 for musical instruments and equipment to enhance their private and group music lessons. It was evident that the program has utilized our funding well.
We also visited “Student Community Tiberias,” which employs a multi-tactical approach to revitalizing the distressed neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe. Our community provided scholarships to students at Kinneret College who function as a garin (feeder group planted in the community) with the end goal to settle in Tiberias. In exchange, these students volunteer to run community center activities for all ages. This program has reduced crime, violence and prostitution over the last five years as it gives people hope and opportunities to improve their status, with guidance from the mentors, many of whom grew up in the neighborhood.
The trip was amazing. It was a whirlwind of information and learning. I gained a lot and I’m so pleased that I now have a new perspective to share with the Israel and Overseas committee.
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Bobbi Rector visited Israeli grant recipients in March with Rabbi Hannah Wallick, Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas. Wallick recalls a noteworthy hot lunch program she saw during the visit:
“For two years the generous Milwaukee community has funded a hot lunch program at Branco Weiss, a high school for Israeli teens kicked out of their schools. One of the many reasons these kids have not been able to succeed in a traditional school environment is that their homes do not provide them with necessities, including food. On our visit to the Branco Weiss school in Tiberias, we witnessed the enthusiasm of the students over the hot lunch. The staff member serving hot lunch told us that when she was a student, she came to school without lunch and would sometimes take lunch or money from other students to combat her hunger. Seeing all students receive lunches gives her joy and helps the students focus on their studies.”