Moving on up

Jerusalem Venture Partners empower disadvantaged youth through their Bakehila program.

Headquartered in JVP’s Media Labs, the program works with approximately 3,000 schoolchildren each year. (photo credit: JVP COMMUNITY)
Headquartered in JVP’s Media Labs, the program works with approximately 3,000 schoolchildren each year.
(photo credit: JVP COMMUNITY)
Wonderment fills the fifth-grader’s eyes as the Ethiopian surgeon concludes his guest lecture.
“Wait, Ethiopians can be doctors too?” he asks. This is not an unusual question for an immigrant child living in Jerusalem. Within the city’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods, many students aspire to work remedial jobs.
Jerusalem Venture Partner (JVP) hopes to change that with its Bakehila program. The word bakehila means “in the community,” and as a nonprofit, Bakehila increases social mobility in underprivileged Jerusalem schools.
Headquartered in JVP’s Media Labs, the program works with approximately 3,000 schoolchildren each year. With learning centers in Pisgat Ze’ev, Neveh Ya’acov, Talpiot, Katamonim and Gilo, Bakehila aims to empower youngsters to stay in school. In 2012, Bakehila opened an education center in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. By integrating different cultures into Israeli society, these educational programs will gradually improve Jerusalem.
“I believe that if you want to make Jerusalem better, you need to invest in their [its children’s] education,” says Bakehila CEO Yair Zaafrany. “Our kids live in a little bubble. They think that since they grew up poor, they need to stay poor. Our job is to break that bubble. If you want to improve Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods, you start with the children. You start with the future.”
With a focus on fourth through eighth graders, Bakehila involves schoolchildren during their critical and impressionable years. Through in-school activities and field trips, JVP has been working closely with Jerusalem schools since its June 2002 inception.
JVP FOUNDER and current MK Erel Margalit and his wife, Debbie, established the social organization to help students academically, socially and economically.
In addition to the start-ups and media labs, Margalit wanted to invest in the future of Jerusalem through education.
“Change starts from one kid, then it grows to two and three and four. Before long, communities have been changed,” says Zaafrany. “We had one student named Anayesh; she had lots of focus problems and learning disabilities. We soon found out that she was musical. We created a choir in the school to showcase her music. She ended up getting a full scholarship to music school from a choir concert.
“Bakehila is a little program doing big things. Dr. Margalit is a dreamer; his dream is changing Jerusalem one student at a time.”
Before Bakehila, many children would roam the streets after school. With high dropout rates in lowincome schools, the learning centers provide each child with a nutritious meal and after-school mentoring.
“Bakehila had a close to 0-percent dropout rate among the pupils participating in the program,” says Zaafrany.
“When we started to work at junior high schools in Katamonim [a decade ago], almost 40% of the pupils didn’t continue to the high school. Today, every pupil in the program in the same neighborhood for the last two years continued to high school. Ninety percent of them are finishing high school, and around 70% are finishing school with a matriculation certificate.”
In addition, they hold learning marathons twice a year to narrow the education gap. These two-week events help struggling pupils improve their academic skills through one-on-one tutoring, learning games and individualized projects.
Learning Center participant Yuval said, “I used to go home to nothing. I would sit at home and watch television, and it would get very boring. Now, I get my homework done and spend time with my friends at school.”
Nine-year-old Denise adds, “Learning is fun because they make it fun.”
The leaders of the Bakehila program are their shinshinim, or emissaries. Every year, JVP selects around 50 Israeli shinshinim for a year of service. Generally between their high-school graduation and army service, the shinshinim become teachers’ assistants in the schools. From working one-on-one with pupils to planning their own lessons, more than 280 shinshinim have volunteered in one of the six Jerusalem neighborhoods.
“The shinshinim are not much older than the pupils,” says Zaafrany. “The kids want to grow up to be the shinshinim. Unlike the teachers, the shinshinim are cool. We’ve even had a few students become shinshinim when they became old enough.”
As a service year volunteer, 17-year-old Adi Gilboa works one-on-one with children in Talpiot. Throughout high school, Gilboa worked with autistic children.
With dreams of pursuing a career in education, she fine-tunes her skills by serving as a volunteer before her army service.
“I wanted to do something that I would look back on as a grandmother and be proud of,” says Gilboa. “My whole life, I have worked with children, but it was not enough. I’ve never been a leader before. In fact, being in front of a classroom terrified me. Suddenly, I’m the one in charge. I recruit children to participate, scold them when they misbehave and consult them about personal problems. This program has given me the confidence to pursue my dreams, while I try to help my students pursue theirs.”
WITHIN LESS than a year, Gilboa has seen changes among her pupils. While some children are easier to handle than others, she has seen dramatic transformations in many. Through positive reinforcements and alternative teaching strategies, she has broken down educational barriers.
“I have to share this one story. It is almost like a movie,” recalls Gilboa. “I have this one pupil who is 14 years old. He was 100% anti-school and anti-structure. Whenever anyone came to talk to him, he would shout ‘Leave me alone, let me be.’ We all thought it was because he was misbehaving. It turns out he did not know the language and did not know how to read.
“This is where I come in. I started to teach him through baby steps. We started with the letters and worked our way up. Last week, he got a 95 on his last reading test.”
In addition to motivating social mobility within schools, Bakehila aims to strengthen the relationship between the shinshinim and Jerusalem. With many youngsters drawn to Tel Aviv, Bakehila hopes to bring more of them back to the Holy City after their army service.
As such, the program houses all of the shinshinim together in their school neighborhoods. According to exit surveys completed by JVP, 89% of former volunteers strengthened their bond with Jerusalem, and 84% of students would return and live in the city.
“I lived in a house in Talpiot with eight girls and four boys,” explains Gilboa. “Bakehila prepares me for life. There is no mommy or daddy around to pick up after you. All of my neighbors are Ethiopian, too. By living inside the city, I have a completely new perspective of Jerusalem. I’m an insider. Before, I always visited Jerusalem. It was not enough time. Now, I want to live here when I grow up.”
“The goal of Bakehila is not to last forever,” says Zaafrany. “Our goal is to come into a neighborhood, give it the foundation it needs and see it grow on its own. We come into the neighborhoods with guidance. It is up to them to progress itself in the future.”
With new programs, Bakehila will outlast its service in the school. It has already let one school survive on its own, and it is thriving.
“One of our missions is to do an ‘exit’ from the neighborhoods and make the communities themselves take the responsibility for the projects that Bakehila used to manage,” says Zaafrany. “We accomplished this mission in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, which we worked in from 2003 till 2010. Now, even though Bakehila has not been there for four years, the learning centers are still existence in the schools.”
Zaafrany believes that the only way to solve Jerusalem’s problems with poverty is through education. But Bakehila just scratches a small surface of a nationwide poverty problem. As the education gap closes between high- and low-income schools, pupils will have higher chances of graduating and pursuing full-time careers.
“Israel feels that we do not have the time or resources to invest in education,” says Zaafrany. “Israel is wrong. It is crucial that we mold these young minds as we can. If not, we are stuck with vandalism, drugs and violence. Someone could be the next doctor or lawyer; we need to give them that chance.
“Empowering the youth is how we solve the nation’s problems. It is the most important investment we can make.”