Minding the gap

Odelia Shpitalni's organization gives disadvantaged pupils a push in the right direction.

Odelia Shpitalni 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Odelia Shpitalni 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A lawyer by training, Odelia Shpitalni was troubled that all the children in Savyon where she was living were having private tutoring paid for by their wealthy families, while in nearby Or Yehuda the many immigrant families or just the hard-working sabras simply could not afford the luxury. "From the earliest age there is a gap, and if no one helps, the child will always be behind," she says. "It's about getting higher scores, getting to university and getting a decent career, but it starts in third grade where children who don't get the extra help fall behind and stay behind." So in 2002 she created Push, a registered nonprofit organization which brings volunteers into the schools of less affluent neighborhoods to tutor children. Shpitalni, tall and slim with raven black hair framing a perfect oval face, is sure that being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor mother was a strong influence in the direction her life has taken. "My mother was one of the Teheran children who escaped Europe to come here, but without any family. She had no opportunity to study and no one to tell her how important education is. She grew up a lonely child, living on a kibbutz, who became a worker for the Tel Aviv Municipality and always championed workers' rights. She would have been a brilliant lawyer. "She understood how important education was and my parents actually moved from Pardess Katz [a poor neighborhood near Bnei Brak] to Ramat Gan to get me a better education." Push has 650 volunteers in 110 schools in 17 towns around the country. Currently 1500 pupils aged eight to 18 receive private lessons. It started seven years ago after Shpitalni had spent a year in Boston, completing a master's degree at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "My kids attended Devotion School in Brookline and fell behind because of the language. I saw how one daughter in particular was taken out of class and given extra coaching. She gained strength, both from the tutoring and the fact that someone cared about her and I saw how her confidence grew." Back in Savyon, Shpitalni went to the elementary school in Or Yehuda and asked the principal, "What is your greatest need?" She was told that English was the biggest problem among the immigrant children. "What if I send you volunteers to help coach the weaker ones?" asked Shpitalni. "I could come with a few friends. We are not professional teachers but we can make a difference." It was agreed that they would try. She soon had eight volunteers, mainly women, mainly friends from Savyon. "The nonreaders started to read. We brought fun projects into the school, we taught with games, we produced a newspaper, 'Cool School.' The children loved the lessons and they blossomed. Everything we do is in coordination with the teachers." As demand grew, Shpitalni needed more volunteers outside her immediate circle. "Now I send out leaflets and flyers asking for people, but in the beginning I used to go to a class in my gym and ask for five minutes at the end of the lesson to address the women. I figured if they can come in the middle of the morning to take a Feldenkreis class, they've got time to volunteer." She acquired many volunteers like that or just by talking about her project to anyone she met. "I once went to a brit mila and ended up drafting my whole table," she says smiling. Once Push became established, Shpitalni gave up her work as a legal counselor in a major Tel Aviv hospital to run it full-time. She works tirelessly to raise money, as she now has two full-time secretaries. No funding has been forthcoming from the Education Ministry of as yet, although local municipalities help. Although all the coaching is done voluntarily, Shpitalni early on identified the problems that dyslexia creates, especially in the lower socioeconomic levels where Push operates, and to rectify these problems, money is needed. "In this sector, there's no awareness; they just think the kid is stupid," she says. "The volunteers are fine to teach English but not qualified for learning problems. So I gathered contributions from private people, friends, companies - anyone - and I was able to organize paid remedial teaching and assessment for these children. At present about eight schools benefit from this program." When you have created something as radically life-changing as Push and influenced the lives of hundreds of underprivileged kids for the better, the compensations are obvious. "Yes, I do have great satisfaction from seeing a child who was tagged a troublemaker change his image to a studious hard worker, both in his own eyes and those of other people," says Shpitalni. "But there are other compensations. I see the Beautiful Israel, people who give of themselves to make life better for the weakest segments of society. It's not about giving money or a one-off act - it's every week, every year, year after year to push them to success in their life." One day Odelia got a call from the principal of her old school in Pardess Katz asking for help. "I went there to talk to him, not revealing that I had been a pupil there. I said he could have all the professional help and volunteers that he needed. Then I told him that one of the school's past pupils was a Harvard graduate - me! It was a great moment." Odelia Shpitalni, 51 Founder and CEO of Push, a non-profit organization based on volunteers who tutor less advantaged children within the framework of the public school system Family status: Married, mother of three from Ramat Hasharon Profession: Lawyer First volunteerism: She was active in the Scouts movement as a schoolgirl, teaching voluntarily in schools in poor neighborhoods. Most meaningful moment: At the beginning of Push, Shpitalni was given a pupil to coach who had very low grades in English and was also a troublemaker, sitting in class with earphones, listening to music and singing aloud, disturbing the others. "I was helping the teacher both by taking him out of the class and by coaching him in English," she says. "He took the exam at the end of the year and got 85, the first time he had ever passed English. I will never forget the light in his eyes when he told me."