Life, Life, Life: Educating for excellence

Shula Recanati was raised by her Holocaust-survivor parents in Tel Aviv. She grew up imbued with the values of humanism and caring for those in need.

E4E RUNS 46 centers throughout Israel, serving more than 4,500 pupils who have the potential to shine, given half a chance. (photo credit: Courtesy)
E4E RUNS 46 centers throughout Israel, serving more than 4,500 pupils who have the potential to shine, given half a chance.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lately, each time I open my fridge I’m haunted by a scene in a book I recently finished. In To My Children’s Children, Sindiwe Magona describes bedtime in a shack on the outskirts of Cape Town. Deserted by her husband and with her parents out of town, Magona, little more than a child herself, needed to feed her own three babies and two younger siblings. Penniless, she had not even a cup of mealie meal to work with. So, after a trip to the communal tap, she put a pot of boiling water on a Primus stove and sat the children down on the floor. Lulled by the (false) promise of an imminent feast, one by one they fell asleep.
“Education, education, education” beat the mantra in her hungry brain. Only education can get us out of this mess.
In Israel, far from apartheid evils, one hopes that grinding poverty such as that is only found in books. But education, obviously, is always the key. In the Holy Land, where social gaps and unequal opportunities are far too prevalent, and too many children are hungry each day, it’s patently obvious that those with degrees and skills will be making exits and headlines, or even just making ends meet.
But how does a kid with potential, born into a poor family in the periphery, or south Tel Aviv for that matter, learn to fly? Who will help a student whose parents are uneducated and can’t help with English essays or algebra?
Enter Shula Recanati, in her chic burgundy boots.
Recanati, a slim, elegant clinical psychologist with a PhD in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University, who is a managing partner in a private hi-tech equity fund, seems about as far away as you can get from the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
Yet, raised by her Holocaust-survivor parents in Tel Aviv, she grew up imbued with the values of humanism and caring for those in need. Then, some 15 years ago, over lunch with a friend, she turned into an angel. At that time, a few university students, in return for a stipend, were working in a shelter in south Tel Aviv’s Tel Kabir neighborhood with a small group of kids of immigrants from Bukhara. The father of one of the students invited Recanati to join him on a visit to his daughter. “We walked down some dark stairs into a cellar with very little light,” recalls Recanati, “and we saw these kids with a sparkle in their eyes, loving the fact that they were learning.” There and then she undertook to expand the program and to run it.
According to Recanati, who has two children of her own, out of the two-and-a-half million children in Israel, a third live under the poverty line. That’s some 800,000 children whose dinner is not always assured. Nor, obviously, is their hope for a decent education.
Paradoxically, if a child really crashes out of the school system and winds up in trouble or in jail, there are NGOs to help them.
EDUCATING FOR EXCELLENCE, the model Recanati runs, targets the 30% of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in the school system with potential who can, with time and patience, be handed a lifeline to become productive citizens.
Today E4E runs 46 centers throughout Israel, serving more than 4,500 pupils who have the potential to shine, given half a chance. They are gifted with a super-intense opportunity: four weekly study meetings of four hours each of intense mentoring by university students, who volunteer in return for a stipend. Starting in elementary school until the end of academic studies, E4E accompanies its kids from the age of eight until 28.
The unique program is more of a way of life than just extracurricular lessons, although reinforcing educational skills is the first of its four pillars. Pillar One is that pupils are taught to think outside of the box and solve problems, alongside literacy, geometry, computer science and other core subjects. But that’s not all. Pillar Two exposes pupils to opera and museums, teaches them sport and music, and leads trips to sites such as the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, introducing them to the culture and ethos of the country. Pillar Three builds self-confidence and dares the pupils to dream; personal coaching and workshops empower them to turn these dreams into reality. And Pillar Four focuses on giving back: pupils in the program are expected to work with the sick or aged in their own communities, or help other disadvantaged kids. On top of all that, a parents program provides E4E parents with tools to nurture and support their kids.
It’s a pay-it-forward circle, and the impact is huge. Take pupil X., for example, whose name can’t be published. She came to the program destroyed. With a mother in jail for drug trafficking and a home that didn’t function, the youngster had no great prospects for life. Tragically, it is not unusual for kids such as these to end up on the street. But today, having successfully passed her matriculation exams, this same young woman is in the army, aiming to be a combat pilot.
Then there’s Y., another of the participants of the program. Growing up with a disabled father and a mother who didn’t work, his big dream was to own a kiosk. E4E scooped him up; soon he was excelling at school. Today, following his military service as an officer with distinction in the army, he is finishing his university degree in engineering and recently got married. His own children will not need Educating for Excellence, and that creation of upward mobility is the program’s biggest achievement.
“We have a moral responsibility to develop the potential of each child,” says Recanati, in her soft-spoken way that belies her powerful drive to propel the less fortunate onto an easier path. “But it is also a national need; the more people we can put into the productive workforce, the better off the whole country will be.”
ANOTHER ASPECT of this astonishing initiative is to build a shared society, where all segments of the population can meet and learn mutual respect. Almost a third of the participants are Arabs and Bedouin, many are Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and outreach efforts are being made to reach Druze and haredi pupils in the near future. Three of the centers are mixed; Arab and Jewish children study together.
Some 58% of the students are girls; gender inclusion studies promote confidence-building and leadership for women, offering an alternative to the early marriage and high-school dropout syndrome of girls from low-income and conservative/traditional communities.
Every successful student is a world saved, but there is so much more to do. Each year, new centers open. The government funds a quarter of the annual NIS 30 million budget. Recanati believes that if she can reach 10,000 students annually, the government will eventually be moved to take ownership of the program, catapulting the country forward.   
In the meantime, Educating for Excellence is trawling schools for more fortunate pupils. And, just like Magona, E4E knows that no one can study when the brain is begging for food. All activities begin with a hot meal that actually materializes.
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The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.