Empowering pupils and their parents

The Afikim after-school program for at-risk children works with the whole family to achieve a comprehensive change to improve grades.

Moshe Lefkowitz 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Moshe Lefkowitz 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
At first, you can’t tell the difference between an Afikim elementary school program and any other afternoon enrichment program. At the Geulim elementary school in Baka, third- and fourth-grade pupils sit around tables busily painting, sculpting, studying or doing homework in math or English.
But that’s only how it looks from a quick, cursory glance. Once you hear what it is about from Moshe Lefkowitz, the founder and director of the program, you may reach the conclusion that this is the perfect thing to do. Then you may ask yourself why this program isn’t compulsory in all schools across the country.
Lefkowitz, both a believer and an optimist, says this is his way of doing kiddush Hashem (God’s work).
“At one of the parents’ evenings that we organize from time to time, one of the fathers, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, was asked to address the parents and the staff,” recalls Lefkowitz. The man, who had been unemployed for a long period, told the group that for months he would watch TV while smoking and drinking beer and never bothered to ask his sons about their daily experiences at school. After his sons began to attend the Afikim program, he agreed to attend the parents’ meetings.
“At that particular meeting, he told us that after a while, he understood that he was living between four walls and not in a real home. Now when the kids come home, the TV is off, he has stopped drinking and has learned to ask them about their day at school. He is still unemployed, but he says that the four walls have become a home,” Lefkowitz recounts.
“When I heard that man, I thought to myself, ‘How much do I listen to my own children or ask them about their day at the yeshiva?’ That father made me think about the most basic things in my own life.”
Lefkowitz, 37, is haredi and a father of seven. He was born in Safed and moved to Jerusalem, where he served for almost 10 years as general manager of the Meir Panim charity and soup kitchen founded by well-known haredi publisher and social activist Dudi Zilbershlag.
“What we did at Meir Panim was amazing. There were times when we supplied thousands of meals per day, but above all we introduced a dimension of dignity through meals offered to the needy at regular restaurants or by giving families vouchers to buy food at the supermarkets instead of receiving food baskets,” says Lefkowitz.
But then he adds, “After a while I began to feel uncomfortable because I saw that despite all our efforts, people became used to receiving food and basic necessities instead of helping themselves to get out of that eternal cycle of poverty, and I knew that Maimonides taught us that the highest level of charity is to teach people a profession. “
It didn’t take him long to realize that it was time for him to move on to something different. In 2007 he created the Afikim program in collaboration with the Education Ministry. It gives elementary school pupils what they don’t get at home – learning skills, general knowledge, culture and learning support; everything they need to help them improve their grades and eventually obtain their matriculation.
In addition, parents’ involvement and participation is a primary requisite in order for the children to achieve a comprehensive change at home and in school.
Aimed to help at-risk children, estimated today at 330,000 across the country, with some 6,830 at very high risk in Jerusalem, the program focuses on children and their families. In fact, its full name is Afikim – New Paths for Children at Risk and their Families.
Basically, the program aims to provide children with the immediate needs of education and good nutrition while integrating them into a long-term program to develop excellence in education, values and character through learning enrichment and integrating the parents into the Afikim Centers for Parental Empowerment. At Afikim, the basic premise is that only through working with the children and their families as a unit can the family stability be achieved and thus advance the child.
The Afikim program runs throughout the year (including school vacations) from third to eighth grade (in all other afterschool centers, programs are only one year long) so the children are better prepared for high school and their future in general, with a special focus on giving them the best chance to obtain their matriculation. In this framework, Afikim plans to expand the program to include junior high schools.
The program also includes extracurricular activities such as workshops, theater and computer lessons to bridge the digital gap between children at risk, who are mostly from needy families, and other pupils. And it works in complete cooperation with the schools’ staff.
While the children spend up to five hours in the learning and enrichment centers – all located in their own schools – where they get a warm meal for lunch and a light meal at 6:30 p.m. before going home, the parents have an opportunity to develop skills for managing their homes and families. The activities in the parental empowerment centers are moderated by professionals, and specific courses are given by licensed teachers.
“The parents’ participation is a prerequisite,” emphasizes Lefkowitz. “It is the only condition we require in return for everything the children get from the Afikim program. We believe that only with the parents’ involvement and participation does this program have a chance to succeed.”
Afikim operates in six schools in the city, with two other centers in the North and the South of the country, and another center will open soon in Tel Aviv. 
The breadth of Afikim’s program is unique among the various help and enrichment programs provided by the state or NGOs in the country. At Afikim, children at risk and their parents are identified and helped on a daily basis by a staff of educators, teachers and counselors for a long and steady period of up to six years, from the moment school is over until late in the afternoon.
“What we aim for,” explains Lefkowitz, “is not just to be some kind of baby-sitter for the afternoon or to give some tutoring help doing homework. The children do their homework during their stay here, but that’s not the point. We want to provide a comprehensive program that includes studying, cultural enrichment and parents’ involvement – that’s Afikim’s specialty.”
One of Lefkowitz’s proudest achievements is the strong collaboration with the Education Ministry. Besides the ministry, Afikim’s other partners are the Baka-Talpiot local neighborhood council and the Roth Fund.
“I am a haredi. I have a beard, and I dress like a haredi,” smiles Lefkowitz. “When I come to a principal, I am aware that my look may raise some concern. I can read it in some of their minds. Questions like ‘What are this guy’s real intentions? Is he coming here to convince our pupils to become religious?’ I usually don’t say a word on that issue, but at some point I just suggest that the principal contact the Education Ministry and ask about our program and about us. In most cases, as soon as I mention the ministry, it’s enough. In other cases, principals do ask and come back to me totally relieved after they hear about me from the referent at the ministry. I’m not into pushing religion. I’m concerned about what is happening to our youth at schools, to children whose parents can’t or don’t know how to handle the situation,” he says.
“Afikim works exclusively in the secular state schools,” adds Lefkowitz. “That’s how I do my modest part to lower the barriers among us a little, whether we are secular, religious or haredi. Just to show that we can care about each other, no matter the differences.
That, in my eyes, is real kiddush Hashem.”
That said, Lefkowitz admits that things are not always easy or successful. “Yes, we have had cases of families that have not continued on that path with us. There are some disappointments and frustration, but I am realistic – there is no such thing as 100 percent success, but that doesn’t prevent me and all the wonderful people at Afikim from continuing. We have to do our best. Not everything is in our hands.”