Up the ladder

Sulam L’Atid is equipping Jerusalem’s socioeconomically challenged youth for a more solid future.

Gary T’har-Lev tutors a high-school student (photo credit: ZOHAR SHITRIT)
Gary T’har-Lev tutors a high-school student
(photo credit: ZOHAR SHITRIT)
Israelis pride themselves on the unparalleled growth and prosperity achieved by their society over the past two decades, and against tough odds. Yet while Tel Aviv aims for the clouds and the Jerusalem start-up scene draws global attention, a worrying number of families across the country remain on the socioeconomic sidelines.
Those who cannot afford the education necessary to equip their children with the tools for success in a 21st-century economy have difficulty lifting them out of the vicious cycle of poverty that will keep them on those sidelines indefinitely.
Here in Jerusalem, retired Magistrate’s Court judge Gary T’har-Lev discovered that an alarming number of families in the city’s poorer neighborhoods – particularly families with single mothers – have begun to send their high-schoolage kids to work in afternoon jobs just to make ends meet. The first to pay the price are, of course, the unfortunate teenagers, who spend up to 30 hours each week bagging groceries at the local supermarket while their better-off peers complete their schoolwork, seriously jeopardizing their own future in the process.
HAVING FIRST encountered one family facing such struggles in 2012, T’har-Lev soon learned the full extent of the troubling trend throughout the city. His personal efforts to provide financial aid for this teenage boy, on the explicit condition that he stop working and invest himself back in school, quickly unraveled into a full-fledged project appropriately named Sulam L’Atid (Ladder to the Future), the current momentum of which even he did not anticipate.
“I hardly had any clear vision in mind at the beginning,” T’har Lev recounts, “but the whole thing began to form a life of its own pretty quickly.”
Seeking out middle-school and highschool students of disadvantaged backgrounds, but with high motivation and potential for academic achievement that would otherwise be squandered on petty afternoon jobs, T’har-Lev began working with local schools to locate candidates – those, he says, who “would someday reach academia if only they were lucky enough to be born to a wealthier family.”
Over 20 teens are currently studying under the auspices of Sulam L’Atid, many of them from the Kedma School in the Katamonim neighborhood.
Perhaps even more significant than the scholarship the NGO awards these students are the private lessons it provides them.
In a show of community mobilization that is truly remarkable by any standard, T’har-Lev and his colleagues joined efforts with another NGO, Push for Success, to muster dozens of local volunteers willing to teach a wide range of subjects. Lawyers, teachers, social workers, PhD students and off-duty soldiers from around Jerusalem soon answered the call; each adopted a teenager selected by Sulam L’Atid, to tutor him or her in English, mathematics, history and other subjects on a weekly basis.
IT IS difficult to fully appreciate or quantify the impact of this endeavor on the lives of these teens and families, or on Israeli society as a whole.
For the students who have been touched by Sulam L’Atid thus far, it appears the project has been a true game-changer, “fundamentally shifting the vector of their lives towards a brighter future,” T’har-Lev says. Not content with merely providing these disadvantaged teens with the practical resources to succeed that their families could not otherwise provide, the organization’s aim is to motivate them to believe in themselves and work hard for the sake of their own future.
In the case of Maor and Rita, son and daughter of a single mother struggling to provide for her family, the NGO’s intervention has been nothing less than transformative. Generous financial aid and private lessons in English, mathematics and grammar have done much to turn around their performance at school, and the presence of passionate figures like T’har-Lev in their lives has armed them with confidence in their own potential.
If, prior to Sulam L’Atid’s intervention, these talented kids conveyed no ambition for the future beyond making do with chance local jobs, the two will now rattle anyone who cares to ask them about their personal dreams. Maor is already talking about studying economics and opening a real-estate business once he completes his army service, while Rita dreams of studying art and theater.
“I used to belittle myself and tell myself I wasn’t smart enough for school, so I didn’t bother to work hard. I never saw myself doing anything big in life,” she says.
Indeed, Maor was then on the verge of dropping out of school and working full time.
“But our teachers fought over us,” she goes on. “When Gary [T’har-Lev] came to our family two years ago and offered us help, it changed our lives. We felt like someone believed in us.”
What started with a set of donated coupons to help their mother put food on the table gradually grew to a longstanding relationship between T’har- Lev and the family that remains close to this day. Yet the tireless retired judge garners hope to expand this inspiring enterprise larger still, and extend its reach to hundreds of families in need across Jerusalem and, perhaps one day the whole country. The key to such an undertaking, he insists, is a greater involvement of the public in addressing community challenges.
“I am worried because I feel Israeli society becoming increasingly estranged from itself,” he says. “People shrug off the problems around them as somebody else’s, and keep their noses stuck in their own little niche. There needs to be an overarching partnership among Israelis – society’s problems are my problems.”
VIEWED THROUGH this lens, the work led by a single grassroots organization in Jerusalem becomes the symbolic spearhead of a much wider effort to turn Israelis into a proactive, socially-conscious people who take personal responsibility for the betterment of local communities without waiting for government legislation, or the Messiah, to solve problems. The simple, yet morally imperative, vision espoused by Sulam L’Atid – to ensure that disadvantaged youth receive the same educational opportunities as any young person – is therefore but a single piece in the grander challenge of making Israel a true light unto the nations.
“There are many good people out there,” Maor says with subdued emotion.
Turning to other teens his age who might be facing the same ordeals he faced a mere two years ago, he pleads: “Never give up, even when things at home are tough. There are many who are willing to help, but you must also help yourself.”