Circles of hope

Ma'agalim empowers at-risk students to serve in the IDF and stay in Israel, says CEO Assaf Weiss.

Assaf Weiss, the founder and CEO of Ma’agalim (Circles) (photo credit: KOBI KALMANOVITZ)
Assaf Weiss, the founder and CEO of Ma’agalim (Circles)
(photo credit: KOBI KALMANOVITZ)
Assaf Weiss, the founder and CEO of Ma’agalim (Circles), points to a recent survey indicating that some 40% of Israelis were thinking of leaving the country.
“If this survey was right, I say it’s a ticking bomb worse than Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas,” Weiss says.
“If Israeli society begins to implode and young people avoid the army and leave Israel en masse, what kind of future are we facing?”
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Weiss says, some 20,000 Israelis leave Israel every year. He and a group of friends founded Ma’agalim in 1998 after they had completed their army service to help reverse this trend.
Ma’agalim is “a national educational non-profit organization that empowers 11th- and 12th-grade at-risk youth from the geographical and social peripheries of Israel and helps them undergo a process of personal growth.”
Weiss and his friends decided it was time to establish a special program just for so-called youth at risk, who encountered a range of problems from poverty and depression to drugs, alcoholism and violence.
“We had all done mechinot [year-long army preparatory programs], then our military service and then studied at universities,” he says.
“We were all in our 20s and realized how important the mechinot had been for us on a personal level. But we also realized how many young people at risk were not so fortunate. They didn’t want to do the mechinot, and the mechinot didn’t want them. We thought, ‘Why should these mechinot be only for the good guys? Why shouldn’t they help kids with problems as well?’”
They began touring schools in peripheral areas in the North, and invited them to join the mechina.
“In the beginning, they said things like, ‘What, are you crazy? I don’t want to go to the army, never mind a yearlong mechina!”
Over the course of a few months, they realized this was a serious social problem, especially among youth in poor and undeveloped areas.
“It was then that we developed the idea of Ma’agalim,” he says.
“We began training mentors to talk to students at high schools around the country about their problems, so that in the last few months when they were making decisions about their future, they had a mentor to help them through the whole process.”
The main goal of Ma’agalim, Weiss says, “is to shepherd young people at risk throughout the country and prepare them for real life – the army specifically, but also for studies and other things. Ultimately, we aim to reduce social inequality.”
Weiss says that the “at-risk youth” that they target include youngsters with low self-esteem and low aspirations who could easily enter the world of crime, drugs and alcohol.
“They have an attitude of ‘I can’t do this’ when it comes to any future challenges,” he says.
“We tell the youth, ‘You may have come from a weak place or a broken home, but this doesn’t mean you have to stay that way for the rest of your life. You should be the best that you can be. We can break the cycle and help you change. We can provide you with hope and help you realize your dreams.”
Ma’agalim, Weiss stresses, enables young men and women to enter adulthood as individuals with strong Jewish and Zionist identities. Serving in the mechinot and the military strengthens these identities, and paves the way for them to be successful in Israeli society, he says.
“These young people are given a sense of responsibility to themselves, to their families and to society; therefore they are ready to serve their country and stay in Israel,” he says.
“We give them faith in themselves, first of all, and the belief that they can think big and go far. Just because they came from a certain place in the country doesn’t mean they have to stay there forever.”
As an example, he tells the story of Moti, a high-school student in Netanya with a criminal record who used to go to school only on Tuesdays when he could meet his Ma’agalim mentor. During the rest of the week, he ran his own restaurant and even boasted that he made double the salary of his 12th grade teacher. His Ma’agalim mentor was able to persuade him that if he wanted to have integrity and make progress in his life, he should graduate from high school, go to the army and study.
“Is money the only thing that’s important to you?” the counselor asked him. “This changed his way of thinking, he turned over a new leaf, and today he is a mentor at Ma’agalim in Hadera.”
On a personal note, Weiss says he grew up in Jerusalem and had no one to talk to about his personal problems during his school career. It was only when he did the mechina that he met special people who “opened up my heart.”
“That’s when my life changed and I started dreaming and planning my own future,” he says.
Weiss studied education in Rehovot and instead of going abroad as many of his colleagues did, he went on a tour of schools in northern Israel with several like-minded friends.
“You don’t have to travel to Nepal to find yourself,” he quips.
“That’s when I decided to establish what you can call an educational start-up. The idea was for us to send mentors to atrisk students in schools across Israel.”
The idea resonated with students and the schools. Within a year, he was approached by principals throughout the country asking him to send mentors to their schools.
“Our mentors began talking to the students about planning for the future, about their dreams and how to materialize them. They encouraged the students to talk about anything. They listen, help them cope with the problem, and if necessary, refer them to professionals. This was something that was never built into the school system before,” Weiss says.
The counselors, most of them in their mid-20s, are handpicked from hundreds of applicants and undergo intensive training. Today, Weiss says, Maagalim has 350 mentors for some 8,000 students at schools in 50 municipalities across the country. They give one-on-one counseling sessions as well as class counseling to 11th- and 12th-grade students.
“We try to keep the mentors as long as possible, and most of them are with us for three or four years,” says Weiss. “Some 35% of our mentors today are graduates of Ma’agalim.”
According to a survey of 200 students in 2015 conducted by Meida Shivuki C.I., 95% of Ma’agalim students said that they plan to stay in Israel, compared to 76% of students who hadn’t had Ma’agalim counseling. Similarly, 89% of Ma’agalim students enlisted into the IDF compared to 55% of other students. Within the IDF, 85% of Ma’agalim graduates take on commanding roles, compared to 68% of other students.
“We see an amazing difference between students who go through Ma’agalim and those who don’t. Our students are much more connected to Israel and understand why they’re here and why they plan to stay here,” he says.
“I just returned from a visit to Miami where I met with a group of young Israelis. I asked them why they were in Miami. They said the question should be the other way around: Why are you in Israel when it’s so much better in Miami?”
Ma’agalim operates on a NIS15 million annual budget, with half of it coming from the Education Ministry, 7% from school payments and the rest from private donors and philanthropic foundations, including the Toronto-based Friedberg Charitable Foundation.
Weiss, 44, lives in Lod with his wife and six children. Why is his organization called Ma’agalim?
“I have many answers. One is that in a circle, the distance to the center is the same for everyone. There is no one who is better or closer than anyone else. That’s our main message to our students. From the point of view of the NGO, we are interested in expanding the circles, and bringing in as many people as possible.”
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