Students take social action to new level in rough Israeli neighborhoods

When Shmuel Boanish pops his head into the learning center where he mentors underprivileged kids in Beersheva, he’s greeted not just with hellos or nods, but with wild, unbridled enthusiasm.

Eran Zeltzer

“Shmuely! Shmuely!” they scream, their high-pitched voices disrupting the quiet of arts-and-crafts time. A few children bolt out of their seats and grab Boanish, pulling on his arms and hugging his waist. One girl jumps on his back, wraps her hands around his shoulders and gets an impromptu piggyback ride.

It’s a reaction that Boanish, a junior at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, has become accustomed to since he started living among the children and their families three years ago as part of the university’s Open Apartments program.

“I’m helping to make a better life in Beersheva,” said Boanish, who studies politics and philosophy at BGU. Of the university’s 19,000 students, some 40 percent are active in community service. “It’s not an easy job for a student, but the ones who get in [the Open Apartments program] are really into it.”

Every year about 300 apply for 100 spots to live rent-free in some of Beersheva’s roughest areas. In exchange, the students actively support and assist in the overall development of their neighborhood through mentoring, community programs, classes and field trips. The participants, who make a minimum program commitment of one year, also receive scholarships.

Shmuel Boanish

“It takes a lot of motivation,” said Ilan Kalgrad, coordinator of Open Apartments. “In many of the neighborhoods, there are economic problems, drugs and crime. But we still want our students to be involved.”

Students are placed in one of 65 apartment units throughout southern Israel’s largest city, where they devote at least eight hours a week to involvement in the community, using their apartments to host a wide range of activities.

Some live in the same complexes, where they teach children sports, music, dance, math and computer skills, and supervise outdoor games. For adult residents, the students offer free Hebrew and English lessons, along with computer training, fitness classes and workshops on issues such as health care, conflict resolution and the environment.

The students also help neighbors fix up their homes, fill in government forms and establish housing committees. Sometimes they just listen to people’s problems.

Children in Beersheva play a video game in one of the Open Apartments learning centers.

For Boanish, that last task carries the most weight. Paired with a family with eight children whose mother is sick, Boanish has transitioned from mentor into big brother.

“I’m giving them the help they would never get,” he said.

Some 2,000 children and adults benefit annually from the Open Apartments program, which was created by BGU’s community action unit, a task force focusing on some of the economic and social challenges in the Negev, such as poverty, unemployment, divorce, domestic abuse and lack of education. Often, children are caught in the middle of conflicts at home.

The task force is one of the most significant and visible ways the university reaches out to surrounding populations.

When Eran Zeltzer’s parents helped him move into his Open Apartments housing more than two years ago, they were surprised by what they saw. Zeltzer admitted he was scared at first.

“My apartment was run-down, and my dad saw someone shooting up,” he recalled. “It’s a little shocking the first month, but it’s not as bad as it looks.”

Zeltzer runs an afterschool program of activities for about 20 children, often receiving help from social workers and soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces. He and other students also operate a children’s club with arts and crafts, a library with computers and a store with free secondhand clothing.

Students live in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Beersheva and work with local residents. photos/amanda pazornik

But Boanish said it’s not enough. He’s spearheading efforts to work with the city on getting more funding for the Open Apartments program, to supplement the existing financial support from local companies.

He’s already helped push for improvements in his neighborhood. Speed bumps and signs reminding drivers that children are present have been added since he moved in.

And then there’s the essential companionship he provides, as witnessed by the joyful reaction from the children when he popped into the learning center.

“We’re taking kids from divorced or abusive families out of the house to be with us,” Boanish said. In Israel, the program “is unprecedented.”

Amanda Pazornik recently participated in the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Murray Fromson Media Mission to Israel, where she reported on the latest news, research and community service projects to come out of BGU’s campuses.