Bakehila spurs success of low-income Israeli youth

Until a social action program called Bakehila (meaning “in the community”) placed Anayesh in an afterschool choir where she could hone her exceptional singing talent, she’d never achieved anything to be proud of. The future didn’t look bright to this Ethiopian Israeli preteen.

A faculty member of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance heard Anayesh sing at a local Independence Day ceremony last year, and now this formerly failing student from a disadvantaged Jerusalem neighborhood has completed her freshman year at the prestigious school on full scholarship.

Yair Zaafrany, CEO of Bakehila — known in English as JVP Community – has many similar success stories to share.

Erel Margalit and his wife, Debbie, established the organization in 2002 to empower children and parents in impoverished Jerusalem neighborhoods to be self-sustaining contributors to society.

Programs boost academic performance and confidence.

With funding from private donors, foundations and the city government, JVP Community operates in eight Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. It runs enrichment programs in the schools, one-on-one tutoring for 150 children, 15 learning-and-enrichment centers serving 750 kids, four youth clubs, individual mentoring, leadership training, volunteering programs, parental guidance and community events.

“Israeli society needs young people who have the vision and ambition to make society better,” Zaafrany said. “As Gandhi said, a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. So we invest in them.”

In participating schools, a teacher provided by the Ministry of Education mentors small groups of pupils who’ve shown interest in maximizing their potential. Activities include “learning marathons” and field trips, and the program culminates in a test of their knowledge and a party with their parents.

Zaafrany said the centers’ counselors — student teachers, licensed teachers and volunteers from the post-high school year of service — often discover deficits missed by overworked classroom teachers: a fourth-grader who can’t read, a fifth-grader who can’t multiply.

“We help them with their homework assignments and teach them new things in a fun way,” he said. “Next week, we will start teaching math using a very visual computer program from an Israeli startup, Eser Etzbaot [10 Fingers].”

The centers provide meals and activities such as civics lessons and public speaking, plus twice-weekly clubs in areas including sports, art, drama and cooking to bring out latent talents. “It’s all about self-confidence. If a child doesn’t succeed in school it may be for many reasons and the club helps him understand his strengths,” Zaafrany said.

Year of service volunteers also do individual home mentoring, each working with three to five children per year once a week. “They decide with the child what goal they want to achieve, whether speaking more confidently in class or finding more friends; it’s not just academic,” he said. “It’s also fun and exposes the child to a role model.”

Bakehila youth clubs aim to impart a sense of civic responsibility through planning and implementing activities. Last year, one group of teens organized a five-shekel movie night for children in their neighborhood.

JVP Community also offers parent empowerment workshops and events in cooperation with other communal organizations.

A new JVP Community initiative in the Arab sector prepares high school students for matriculation and university entrance exams, focusing particularly on spoken Hebrew, essential for advancing academically and professionally.

“Instead of paying, the participants volunteer with younger kids in our learning centers or in tutoring and summer activities in their own neighborhoods,” Zaafrany said.

A pilot program started in late April is introducing select JVP Community seventh- to 12th-graders to Jerusalem’s growing startup culture by way of four meetings at Siftech, a startup accelerator hosted at JVP Media Quarter, the technology incubator that runs JVP Community.

The pilot is led by Nitzan Adler, a Hebrew University business student and head of Simply Singing, a platform for Arab and Jewish artists in Jerusalem.

“Siftech is doing fantastic work giving university students the opportunity to be part of the high-tech scene in Jerusalem,” Zaafrany said.  “But there are children who can’t even dream of being part of this — children who have never met a university student. We’re giving these kids the opportunity to see how they can be part of the startup nation.”

Like many actual startups nurtured at JVP, Bakehila is geared toward achieving an exit — turning over responsibility for its programs to the communities in which they operate. That’s already happened in the neighborhood where Margalit began the initiative.

“Erel Margalit always says if he and his wife could take care of 2,000 children a year, the state can take care of [all] 1.5 million,” Zaafrany said.

JVP Community has started expanding beyond Jerusalem, recently opening a learning and enrichment center in the Arab village of Ein Rafa, about six miles west of the city.

Future plans include an alumni program to encourage former Bakehila year of service volunteers to help build up their own Jerusalem communities. Out of 360 alumni, 70 live in the city. A military “seed group” is in development so the volunteers can continue with Bakehila during their army service.

Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is associate editor of ISRAEL21c.