Yes you can!

Many students from weaker socio-economic sectors lack the motivation to strive for success. That is where Ma’agalim comes in – to fill the gap and build self-esteem and self-worth.

Children 521 (photo credit: Avi Zangi)
Children 521
(photo credit: Avi Zangi)
The loud banter being exchanged by the 80 or so 12th-grade male students in the packed auditorium turned to a quiet hush when the four uniformed soldiers reached the front of the room. Capt. T. then took center stage with a video and slideshow presentation of his experiences leading IDF soldiers into battle in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The room remained quiet throughout the next 30 minutes or so, with the 17-year-olds, who are potentially part of next year’s class of IDF recruits, hanging on every word.
The scene described was part of a recent motivational talk delivered by an IDF commander and three paratroopers to a group of students at Kiryat Gat’s Gross State Religious High School, sponsored by the Ma’agalim organization. Founded in 1999, Ma’agalim’s mission is to motivate high schoolers from geographic and social peripheries to move away from a culture of “I can’t” to a culture of “I can.”
According to Ma’agalim founder and director Assaf Weiss, the organization has a staff of 250 paid counselors, with a presence in 72 cities and towns throughout Israel’s periphery, touching the lives of nearly 5,000 students in their school environments on a daily basis. The goal is to motivate students in grades 11 and 12 to think about their futures after high school, and not to let social, economic, or other factors which affect their lives prevent them from dreaming big.
Yanki Sofer, the organization’s director of development, says that for a lot of students from weaker socioeconomic sectors, the motivation and support from their families to strive for success isn’t always there. And that, according to Sofer, is where Ma’agalim comes in – to fill the gap and build selfesteem and self-worth.
Sofer says that trained Ma’agalim counselors are assigned to specific classrooms in at-risk schools, and conduct up to five hours of organized programming and counseling per week during regular school hours. For one hour a week, the classroom teacher leaves the room while a Ma’agalim counselor assumes responsibility for the group of students.
The other four hours are spent working with students on a one-on-one basis. Counselors talk with the students privately about some of the problems they might be trying to overcome in their home or school lives, and try to come up with solutions.
Ma’agalim’s counselors are mostly young adult student teachers working toward degrees in education or social work. Before being accepted as counselors, they are trained by licensed social workers or other clinical therapists.
ACCORDING TO Netanel Ovadia, who serves as a Ma’agalim counselor at the Gross School, his main responsibility is to serve as a role-model or “big brother” for the students as they decide what to pursue after high school. Ovadia says that his job is to build trust with the students and help them realize their potential.
“It is crucial to help direct these students toward a path which suits them,” says Ovadia. “Whether it’s going straight into the army, attending a mechina [pre-army academy] or, for religious students, going to hesder yeshiva, we advise them on their options.”
Weiss adds that “some of these kids grow up in an environment where army service or higher education are not priorities, and they would be satisfied being waiters for the rest of their lives. We want to change the mentality that because they didn’t grow up in the center of the country they aren’t as smart as the kids who did and are therefore doomed to fail.”
Weiss says the organization believes that encouraging army service is the first step in creating change. In fact, he got the idea to found Ma’agalim upon completion of his army service and returning to his hometown of Ma’alot, a town considered within the periphery.
“I wanted to make a difference for the children in Ma’alot who were in need,” he says. “We started with a small group there, and then it expanded to other towns in the North. Finally our model spread to places throughout the country.”
Lidor and Omer, both 12th-grade students at Gross, vouch for the program’s effectiveness. Thanks to Ma’agalim, Lior feels much more prepared and is motivated for army life. He’s also grateful that his counselor has worked with him to alleviate some of the sources of personal stress he has encountered growing up in a difficult environment. Omer adds that the program “gives us direction, a path for life,” and cites some of the inspiring programming both within the school framework and in after-school programs.
During the year Ma’agalim organizes special workshops and field trips where students are challenged physically and mentally in order to develop character and bond as a group. A recent IDF-themed field trip for the Gross students was dubbed “army day” and included rappelling and Krav Maga, followed by a visit to an army base where they were given a series of inspiring lectures.
As Capt. T. and the other soldiers neared the end of their motivational talk, teachers and students in the Gross auditorium start unpacking boxes of doughnuts for the group to snack on.
At the same time, Capt. T. shows the group a picture of his platoon preparing to enter Gaza for battle, and taking time out from their preparations to light Hanukka candles. Ma’agalim is optimistic that inspirational images such as these will remain etched in the minds of this group of high-schoolers as they make important choices for the next phase of their lives. ■