The Rashi Foundation – creating opportunities in Israel’s periphery

An interview with Director General Michal Cohen

Michal Cohen, CEO of the Rashi Foundation, former CEO of the Ministry of Education (photo credit: Niv Aharonson)
Michal Cohen, CEO of the Rashi Foundation, former CEO of the Ministry of Education
(photo credit: Niv Aharonson)

What Israeli non-profit organization has its roots in France, is named after a famous Biblical and Talmudic commentator and works exclusively to create opportunities for the people of Israel’s periphery? The answer, of course, is the Rashi Foundation.  

The Rashi foundation was established in 1984 by French Jewish philanthropist Gustave Leven, whose grandfather was part of the group that founded Alliance Israélite Universelle, together with his nephew Hubert Leven. Francois Leven, Hubert’s son, serves as Rashi’s President today. Recently Shaul Shani joined Rashi as Chairman of the Board after years of engagement with its activities. Rashi promotes social mobility and equal opportunity in Israel’s geo-social periphery, focusing on education, employment and welfare of the entire family. 

The inequality of opportunity in many areas – from health care to employment – between Israel’s center and its periphery has long been a hot-button issue in Israel, and Michal Cohen, Director-General of the organization, is particularly sensitive to it. 

“If you take a child born in Ofakim and a child with the same abilities born in Tel Aviv, we can predict how each one will develop,” she says. “What we find most disturbing is the gap in opportunities between Israel’s periphery and the center of the country.”

Cohen, who served as Director-General of Israel’s Education Ministry for four years, explains that, unlike many other philanthropic organizations that provide financial grants to others, the Rashi Fund has “boots on the ground” in the form of its eight affiliated non-profit organizations that create opportunities for those living in Israel’s periphery. At the same time, the Foundation promotes policy and works to initiate and implement new services that have a national impact. “The Rashi Foundation is more than a philanthropic organization,” she explains. It is really a type of social fund.”

Creating opportunities in Israel’s periphery – the working premise by which the Rashi Foundation operates – requires cooperation with Israel’s national government, local municipalities, the business sector and other philanthropic organizations, and as Cohen explains, “We view ourselves as facilitators.” The definition of a project’s success, she says, is when government and local authorities adopt the models it has promoted as part of its sustainability of programs.

Learn more about Rashi Foundation>>

Gustave Leven, founder of the Rashi Foundation (Credit: Kafir Bolotin)Gustave Leven, founder of the Rashi Foundation (Credit: Kafir Bolotin)

Cohen joined the Rashi Foundation five years ago after spending her entire professional career working in Israel’s educational system. “I came to the Rashi Foundation for a simple reason,” she states. “Even during my tenure as Director-General of the Education Ministry, I was aware of the periphery and the research that shows that the educational system cannot break the link that exists between educational accomplishments and the socioeconomic levels of the students – the weak remain weak, and the strong remain strong.”

The Rashi Foundation is focusing on three areas in its efforts to improve the lives of those in Israel’s periphery – education, employment and the welfare of the entire family – in order to create opportunities for children and families. 

One of the methods that the Rashi Foundation uses to assess the needs of the periphery is the Knowledge Map, a tool developed by the Foundation, together with JDC-Ashalim, the Jindas Association and the Welfare Ministry. The Knowledge Map plots the factors affecting social mobility in Israel to address the question of how to best remove the link between a child’s socioeconomic background and their chances to succeed in life. “We researched the critical factors from birth to age eighteen that affect children’s development to reach employment and become upwardly mobile,” says Cohen. “The research found 28 factors in the ecosystem surrounding the child that affect his or her chances of success, and the Knowledge Map clearly shows the importance of the home environment, the community and the education system for social mobility.”

The Rashi Foundation has a myriad of different programs for children, youth, young adults, families and communities, and Cohen cites the “Noshmim L’Revacha (“Breathing easy”) program as the type of initiative that epitomizes its work in the periphery. The program implements an innovative approach of the welfare services to assist families that are living in poverty, in which the family participates in building an intervention plan that addresses all aspects of its existence, and gives it tools to bring about a change in its situation.

Learn more about Rashi Foundation>>

Noshmim L’Revacha was initiated by Israel’s Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry in collaboration with the Rashi Foundation and JDC Israel in an effort to fundamentally change the treatment of the welfare services on the issue of poverty. The unique approach of the initiative treats the family as a whole rather than relating to parents, children, the financial situation or employment as separate issues. 

The initiative is currently being implemented in over 100 communities across the country, serving some 3,000 families per year, in addition to 12,000 Power Center beneficiaries. Rashi and the Joint oversee the operation until the Welfare Ministry takes over by the end of the year, and the process of transferring full responsibility to the state will continue through 2024.

Another program that typifies the Foundation’s approach is the Magshimim cyber program. Thirteen years ago, only 3% of soldiers serving in IDF's cyber units came from Israel’s periphery. The Rashi Foundation, together with the Ministry of Defense, joined forces to change the situation and established “Magshimim,” designed for outstanding high school-age youth from Israel’s geographic and social periphery. Two years after, the program became a national program, with the support of the Prime Minister’s Office and with additional partners - National Cyber Directorate and philanthropic foundations, together with High Tech companies. 10 years ago Rashi established the "Cyber Education Center" – and NGO dedicated to developing and operating various tech education programs for youth. "Magshimim cyber" among them, continues to successfully provide three years of thorough and advanced training in computer programming and cyber, while implementing a variety of skills such as independent learning, problem solving and team work. In 2023, Magshimim offers high tech opportunities for 1,700 students from more than 100 municipalities throughout Israel’s geographic and social periphery.

Each year, 65% of the program’s graduates are accepted to either cyber and other technology units in the IDF, 86% of them continue after their army service to computer science academic studies and integrate into high-tech industry. Today, 35% of the soldiers in the cyber units come from municipalites in the socio-geographic periphery, most of them thanks to Magshimim.

How does the Rashi Foundation manage in today’s fractured political climate? “We are an apolitical organization,” says Cohen. “We can work with anyone as long as doing so does not conflict with our values.” She adds that organizations such as the Rashi Foundation are particularly valuable today for their ability to bring people together. “When there are divisions in society, the job of a civil organization is to create a balance, to work together, not to give up on anyone, to work with all of the sectors in society, to be attentive to all, and to show that it is possible.”

The Rashi Foundation has set three primary goals for the coming years to strengthen Israel’s periphery. “First,” says Cohen, “We want to increase experiential education and informal activities. We have found that experiential education, such as sports, music and art, allows children to learn the skills they truly enjoy.” In addition, she points out, research has shown that children who have the type of social skills needed in these informal educational settings have a greater chance of succeeding in later life.

Cohen lists the second goal of the Rashi Foundation as promoting employment in the periphery for the benefit of its residents, as well as regional work with employers and local authorities, together with quality training and the creation of employment opportunities among underrepresented populations. Third on her list is strengthening the role of parents and families in the periphery. Rather than bringing solutions to these issues from outside the periphery, the Rashi Foundation intends to accomplish these goals through the work of local municipalities and by placing youth in key positions within the periphery to help them become agents of change.

Moving to the Rashi Foundation has enabled Cohen to continue her efforts to advance the state of education and social equality in Israel. “The ability to continue to work in education and welfare and address the great inequalities in this country are what brought me to the Rashi Foundation. I am very happy in my work. There is a great deal of initiative and creativity at the Rashi Foundation, and the people here are socially involved. This is the way to create change in Israel today.”

For more information: Rashi Foundation

This article was written in cooperation with the Rashi Foundation.