Thinking good thoughts

Opening a window to the world for Jerusalem's poorest children and their families.

watering hole 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
watering hole 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
For over three years, Machshava Tova, founded by an Italian hi-tech businessman, has been teaching children, their parents and needy members of the Jerusalem community how to use computers. An Israeli non-profit organization, Machshava Tova (loosely translated as "A good thought" and a play on the word for computers) seeks to provide a learning environment where children and adults from under-served communities have the opportunity to work with professional mentors. The centers serve the Arab, haredi, Ethiopian and other underprivileged populations in the city and classes are taught in Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, English and Amharic. Machshava Tova now has five operational centers in Jerusalem - Beit Lazarus in Talpiot; Shmuel Hanavi; Pisgat Ze'ev; Beit Hanina/Shuafat; and, most recently, Kiryat Menahem. The centers offer programs ranging from homework help for children to teaching adults how to use the computer to find work and build resumes. Hadas Zribi Bokea, a teacher at a computer center in Talpiot, explains her commitment to the work being done by the center. "Many of the kids that I work with here say that they were shy in school before they learned how to use a computer," says Bokea, standing in a small room filled with 13 Ethiopian children playing games on flat screen computers during free-time at the center. "Now, from using the Internet, they know lots of things that they wouldn't have been able to learn otherwise." The teachers have their work cut out for them. People who live in low-income communities are disproportionately cut off from computer training, marking them for low-paying, dead-end jobs in the future. While Jerusalem in particular, and Israel in general, are considered to be at the forefront of the hi-tech world, according to acting director of Machshava Tova, Daniel Weil, approximately 30 percent of all families in Jerusalem do not have a computer in their homes. And while much of Jerusalem is "hot-wired," providing Internet access, only some 20% of Jerusalemites are actually connected to the Web. Thus, according to Machshava Tova's staff, the technological and social gaps between the rich and underprivileged populations will persist and even grow worse in the future. In response, Machshava Tova not only seeks to provide computer skills - it is an organization that also uses these skills to further the goals of social justice and equality. Immigrant and underprivileged children pose special challenges, in terms of educating children and their parents about the use of technology. Bokea explains, as an example, that many of her Ethiopian student's parents do not speak Hebrew and that for many of the parents, adjusting to life in Israel has been very difficult. Underprivileged youth, alienated and excluded, are often attracted to the street and its dangers. Often, their families cannot offer them the support they need at critical stages in their lives. Machshava Tova provides them with an attractive, cool alternative to the street - and one that provides them with a skill, too. Weil, a tall unassuming young man, speaks with enthusiasm about the work that the organization is doing. "Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel, and the digital gap begins early, before kindergarten," he says. "There are over 800,000 people in this city and a quarter million children. Half the kids live under the poverty line and 30% don't have computers in their homes. There is a great need to teach these kids how to use computers. "Not knowing how to use a computer in this century is like not being able to read last century," he adds. The programs are as diverse as they are necessary. One new, D-J program, for example, is designed to teach teens how to use computers to make music, enabling them to have fun while learning. Personal programs encourage the children to chose a topic that interests them and then do Web-based research. For others, the centers are a safe and well-equipped place to do homework, which increasingly, even in the youngest grades, requires computer access. Many children learn to use "on-line encyclopedias" such as Google and Wikipedia to get information about what they are studying. Weil hopes that another program called "Drive Jerusalem" will be up and running in the next few months. "Drive Jerusalem" refers to a high-tech, wireless minivan fitted with 20 computers. The van will drive around to Jerusalem's less prosperous neighborhoods and offer classes, free time and other services to children, youth and adults. "We hope to reach at least 3,500 people this year with the centers and 'Drive Jerusalem'. The van will be able to access immobile populations," he says. "The range of people we can serve will be much larger because the centers can only serve people who live close to them." The programs are not free. Weil and Bokea speak about the need to charge at least a small sum for the services provided saying that "if people don't pay, they won't appreciate the programs. And when you do pay for something you demand good service and feel good about the service you are getting." Ten-and-a-half-year-old Or W. reluctantly leaves his computer to speak about what he has learned at the center in Talpiot. "I study new places on the Internet," Or says shyly as he looks at his bright green socks that contrast brightly with his red T-shirt and shorts. "I come here to do homework. I use Google a lot. I learn best on the computer." Smiling, Or thinks for a moment and then says confidently, "Now I am the best on the computer."