Israel will continue playing catchup in educational achievements internationally until it places learning as a top priority, said Sam Katz founder of the Youth Renewal Fund and president of YRF Darca.
Katz, a US-based philanthropist, has been shaping the face of supplemental education in Israel for the past 25 years through the Youth Renewal Fund (YRF), a business-modeled philanthropy he helped found while in his 20s.
“In naïve exuberance we [my partners and I] realized we all came from modest backgrounds where education had been heavily stressed in our homes and were fortunate to have attended very good universities which were a springboard to career success – it was clear that social mobility was directly tied to education,” Katz recently told The Jerusalem Post.
“We were all in finance and we wanted to do a due diligence investigation of what are the opportunities and challenges for education in Israel and then implement and execute these in a very business-like manner,” he explained.
As with a business, the YRF’s efficiency is reevaluated constantly.
“It is a question of leverage, effectiveness, and scale – we are trying to be as effective as best we can,” Katz said.
Over the years, this unique philanthropic model has achieved pronounced results, drawing upon resources from a network of US Jewish philanthropists to assist underprivileged students in Israel.
Operating under what Katz calls “gray education,” the YRF invested funds in schools operating in underprivileged communities, enhancing their supplemental education programs and creating new learning opportunities that otherwise would have been unavailable to the students.
“We would provide two-tothree hours of additional math or English lessons in smaller learning groups, and with motivated children you can really see the achievements,” he said. “We tried to create an advantage – not just play catch up – through, for example, providing access to technology or through computer- based learning and focusing on English – a core and essential subject to success today.”
In addition, the YRF has focused on teacher training, improving the quality and effectiveness of educators in these underprivileged schools.
The success of its programs is clearly evident as some 80% of its alumni were eligible for a matriculation certificate, well above the national average of about 50%.
To date in the local system, the Education Ministry allocated base funding to each school and additional funds toward supplemental learning, which were distributed equally among all municipalities. Wealthier municipalities, however, provided additional funds to schools for extra hours of learning, while poor municipalities were unable to do so.
Last week, Education Minister Shai Piron announced a reform to this model, aiming to minimize the gaps evident in the Israeli education system, allocating funds toward supplemental learning in an effort to provide more assistance to “weaker” schools.
The YRF, which initially began with a contribution of $50,000 assisting six children in southern Tel Aviv, has donated some $35 million to the Israeli education system since its founding.
Earlier this year, it announced a new strategic alliance with Darca, a leading network of Israeli high schools established by the Rashi Foundation, in partnership with KIAH, the Israeli branch of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French organization founded in 1860 to safeguard the human rights of Jews around the world.
As part of the alliance, the YRF expanded its programing to operate within 23 schools and two centers, reaching more than 14,000 underprivileged students.
The Darca network, headed by Dr. Gil Pereg, chief executive officer, and Jimmy Pinto, chairman, takes over operation of a school, improving all aspects of the educational experience, with the aim of promoting academic excellence. In addition, similar to the YRF, Darca provides additional funding to the base government allocation for supplemental education.
Together, the YRF, Rashi and KIAH committed more than $53 million in philanthropic funds to the alliance.
“Our constant need to reevaluate and refine our base model led to the need to innovate,” Katz said, calling it “philanthropic M&A [merger and acquisition].”
Through its combination with Darca, the YRF will be able to expand its supplemental education programs and influence learning from within the schools with a like-minded partner.
“The lack of resources [in education] and prominence within the political sector is a major internal existential threat,” said Katz. “We have to raise the standards of education and the level of prioritization and not just continue to play catch up.”