A few months ago, a government ministry representative came to Ma’agalim for a routine audit. Standing in the doorway, he asked to view the organization’s books.
The association’s staff immediately complied with his request. But before he looked over the Excel files, he was asked to meet the people behind the data – the madrichim (counselors) and the students. He was present at the meeting between the counselors and their charges, and when it ended, he closed the laptop and asked the students, “What is the secret? How does the change take place?”
One of them replied, “It’s simple. The counselor relates to what’s important to me. I believe in him, and I want to be like him.”
This is perhaps the essence of Ma’agalim’s success: a team of dedicated counselors – and students who recognize that the staff members have their best interests at heart and heed their advice.
AT A recent Ma’agalim conference, the team examined what education will look like in a changing reality in the face of the epidemic and in general.
“Ma’agalim takes children from outside the mainstream of society and turns them into leaders,” says Assaf Weiss, founder and CEO. “In the end, it leads to a change in civil society. Instead of these kids being in the back, they become locomotives and drive the train themselves.”
Weiss founded Ma’agalim in 1998. Most of its activities take place for 11th and 12th-grade teenagers in Israel’s social periphery who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ma’agalim helps to guide them to success, acquire tools and deal with life’s challenges. The organization’s goals are integrating them into pre-military preparatory courses, significant enlistment in the IDF, developing a profession and higher education.
“I do not use the term ‘youth at risk,’” Weiss says. “In my opinion, everyone is at risk. A child in Herzliya is also at risk, just as a child in Sderot. It is a concept that labels negativity. I prefer to define it as an unsuccessful environment. We work in broad social and geographical peripheries with teenagers who have not experienced success in their lives. Do you know how a child feels to constantly hear the term ’at risk?’ I say to a child like this: ‘You have not had any positive experiences, and I will help you change this.’”
Weiss lives and breathes the organization, and it is hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm and passion. The idea for Ma’agalim began when he met with youth from Hatzor and Tiberias.
“I attended a mechina (pre-military preparatory school), and there I began to discover myself. I started working in Hatzor and Tiberias and met teenagers who did not intend to enlist in the army. My friends and I thought about how we could change that. We developed a pilot program and sent counselors to 12th-grade classes. Soon, we were flooded with requests from school principals. They were happy that there was someone alive and young here who could speak their language.”
THE ORGANIZATION’S activities take place as part of the curriculum. Students are given tools for the decision-making process: What will they grow up to be? What do they want to achieve? The idea is to contribute to the shaping and formation of the personality leading to greater social involvement and enlistment in the IDF. Today, the organization operates three main programs from Kiryat Shmona to Yeruham. The program’s foundations are mentors in schools, a preparatory program for girls, and accompanying graduates after completing their IDF service.
“The first step is preparation for military service,” said Weiss. “Will army service be easy, or can they make a significant contribution? This is a phenomenon that exists everywhere in Israeli society. Students complete 12th grade and want to perform their military service close to home. Part of the process is to fulfill your potential – to learn what is best for you and not give up yourself. We conduct regular activities in the schools, have personal conversations, challenging, value-based activities, all accompanied by the school staff. The girls’ preparatory program is accompanied by girls who have chosen national service far from home, and in the alumni program, we assist our graduates who have completed their IDF service in choosing professions, academia, and dealing with other challenges.”
The operative principle of Ma’agalim is to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. In this way, the children adopt a different framework – one in which they realize that the apparent disadvantage is often their most powerful tool.
“We develop individual pride. Pride in one’s self – not in the flag, or a country or a neighborhood,” Weiss continues. “A lot of kids don’t have it when they get here. Because they have a minimal background in math, or because their parents work in sanitation and are not taken seriously, or because of the city in which they grew up. If the child continues in this way, he will ruin his future. We say, ‘Take your reality and make it your biggest advantage. For example, use a trait like boldness and self-assurance in a positive way. These kids decide for themselves and are independent. I tell them, ‘Because you are this way, you are unstoppable.’ That’s our goal.”
Ma’agalim operates in 90 schools, and runs 330 different groups for about 6,700 students. Before corona, there were 8,200 students. One of the challenges in this year of social distancing was enabling continued participation, even when there is no obligation to attend a Zoom.
“Our mentors develop personal empowerment through face-to-face, personal connection. When corona arrived, we wondered how we would connect with them. We switched to a virtual connection, and their mentors accompanied them on Zoom. The educational staff had to reinvent itself on WhatsApp groups, with activities, live and online broadcasts, and even with ‘Good morning’ messages essential during this period of social disconnection. We used new platforms to reach their hearts. It is much more difficult to reach a child remotely. Without a staff that knew how to bridge the distance, we would not have survived this year. In my eyes, they are the heroes of the year.”
How difficult was it to recruit donors during a worldwide economic crisis?
“It was very hard at first. Most of our donors are from abroad, and when the skies closed, it was difficult. But, we trained ourselves very quickly. We contacted them and were interested in their well-being. Today the relationship has even strengthened and is closer than it was before. In the first three months of 2020, we almost suffered an economic collapse, but the year ended like 2019. The fear is actually of the future consequences of the crisis, but there are many good people and organizations who believe in us, and I believe things will be okay. The successes speak for themselves, and everyone understands the importance of what we do.”
This week, a Ma’agalim conference was held under the banner “Education in a Changing Reality.” Among the attendees were President Reuven Rivlin, noted educator Miriam Peretz, Rabbi Shai Piron, MKs Ayelet Shaked, Yifat Shasha-Biton, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, as well as businessmen such as Rami Levy, Ofer Yanai, and others. The conference examined educational and social issues alongside corona realities, and was broadcast live on social media.
“The conference was attended by businesspeople, people working in the field, and colleagues. We discussed three main topics: ‘soft’ drugs and their impact on teenagers, the bagruyot (matriculation certificate) and its importance, and whether socio-economic background can predict success in life.
“These are major topics for professors in academia, but for teens, this is their daily routine. We wanted to create a dialogue between them and the conference participant.”
For three months, Ma’agalim collected questions and answers from 3,500 students who answered a survey on Zoom and WhatsApp. The goal was to learn about their difficulties, about coping during this period, and their opinions regarding the conference topics.
“Regarding bagruyot, we asked them whether the system should be changed, and if so, how it should be done. Will matriculation lead to greater success in their lives? They said that this was the first time they had been asked for their opinion on the subject. It gave them the feeling that their opinions were important. Another issue we looked at was cannabis and ‘soft’ drugs. We asked if they have been exposed to them and if they felt cannabis should be legalized. We brought in experts in the field to discuss their answers. The third and perhaps most significant question was whether socioeconomic background can predict success in life. Fully 50% of them answered unequivocally, ‘Yes.’ This is a stomach-turning number. We analyzed this number and explained how a child in Hatzor and Sderot perceives himself and his future. He was born there, and this is the consciousness with which he was raised. In the end, this will be his reality because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the survey, we asked the child what he thinks of himself, and it is essential that decision-makers hear them.”
Which panel particularly moved you?
“There was a fascinating interview with Rami Levy. He said that in fourth grade, he was held back a year because he had to work and help his family, and he told what it did to him – the shame and the feeling that the system marks you as unequal. He said he had to start over. No one considered social and business skills that might lead to greater success than grades. After eighth grade, he said farewell to the educational system.
“At the conference, he said, ‘Imagine what would have happened if the educational system had succeeded with me, and I hadn’t dropped out of school. I wouldn’t be Rami Levy today.’ He is not suggesting that students drop out of school, but is telling the educational system, ‘Even if your students only receive a grade of 50, they can still become Rami Levi.’
“Another statement that greatly strengthened me was when Ofer Yanai, founder and CEO of Nofar Energy, who grew up in Yavne under challenging conditions, was asked about the source of his success. He replied that he felt obligated to prove to his parents that he could succeed despite their origins. It was fascinating to hear about the source of his motivation. At the end of the conference, I thought about the cliché of turning lemons into lemonade. How can I take these children’s backgrounds, that is not Herzliya and Ra’anana, and show them that they can succeed? How do I make them proud of their origins and realize that this so-called disadvantage is what gives them relative advantages? That is the goal of Ma’agalim.”
Perhaps the greatest success of all is when those trainees who were nurtured in Ma’agalim grew up and became mentors for the next generation?
“Most of our mentors are alumni,” Weiss concludes. “These are students who have gone through a process, become mentors in the organization, and come back to teach and mentor. It’s a stunning circle that speaks to the concept. You return to where you came from and set a personal example. It is moving to see how our graduates lovingly return to the neighborhood and want to give back. It is a closing of the circle that conveys our vision.”
This article was written in cooperation with Ma’agalim.
Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.