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ESRA Takes the Lead

Lead-199 Kfar Shmaryahu Club for Physiclally Challenged Young Adults

It is said that "children live what they learn". A prophetic saying if ever there was, and one that has stood the test of time throughout the generations. It is also a principle that guides us, the Jewish People, in ensuring that our children obtain a good and a well-rounded education that not only teaches knowledge and aptitude, but also builds character and, in the long run, better futures and societies.

Israel, as we all know, is multicultural, a melting pot for immigrants who come from all corners of the earth with different backgrounds, languages and lifestyles. Yet all olim must acclimatize to living in the Levantine and a new culture. So where has ESRA taken the lead in this? ESRA is harvesting strengths and exploiting attributes to improve the lives of those less fortunate, and in turn, improve quality of life. And what better way to do this than through a variety of projects under the umbrella of education?

The epitome of these ideals is ESRA's flagship educational project Students Build a Community (SBC) - an outstanding win-win initiative where compassion and innovation combine to promote the spirit of giving, support and empowerment. In collaboration with the Netanya Municipality, SBC offers rent-free apartments to 40 university students, 10 each in 4 distressed city neighborhoods. In return, each student must mentor four children for at least four hours a week plus donate additional community hours. Second-year and up students, who each receive a scholarship of NIS10,000, give a further 120 hours annually to community projects, many of which are mentioned below.

ESRA volunteers manage the project together with municipal Community Centers. At the recent SBC annual awards ceremony, municipal representative, Ofer Orenstein, lauded ESRA, noting that three important elements differentiate ESRA from other volunteer and charitable organizations:

Continuity: the keynote to success for over a decade
Management: ESRA participates in both management and content
Spirit: ESRA's volunteers' love and dedication clearly impacts upon results

The success of SBC is underscored by the fact that two new SBCs will be starting within the coming year in Akko and South Tel Aviv.

Another long-standing educational endeavor is ESRA's
Project of Excellence at the Ruppin Marine Science Institute.
This 2-year enrichment course is open to promising 8th and 9th graders from disadvantaged communities. Each week, 38 students are bussed directly from school to the Institute where they have lunch and study biology, physics, chemistry, marine science and ecology. They are also taught leadership skills and spend valuable time in laboratories, exploring the sea and along the shore. An ESRA volunteer coordinates the project together with SBC students.

Tom is an enthusiastic second-year participant to the delight of his mother, who said, "I am extremely grateful to ESRA for initiating and financing this amazing program. Children today spend too much time watching TV or on their computers or cell phones. This project introduces them to another world, one of nature and the sea, where expert lecturers share their knowledge with sensitivity and patience. I have no doubt that having been given this chance, Tom will excel even further."

What is a skateboard? Many of the children who participate in ESRA's popular Skateboarding Groups had never even heard of the word let alone seen one before joining a group. This project teaches disadvantaged youngsters new skills of control and discipline, promotes community cohesion, and offers them a healthy alternative to boredom, a major contributor to juvenile delinquency. So successful was the first group initiated several years ago, ESRA now operates four skateboarding groups for youth at risk in Netanya, Rishon LeZion, and Beer Sheva. Each group is overseen by an ESRA volunteer and a SBC student working alongside a professional instructor. If skateboarding motivates youth to get off the streets, it certainly qualifies as education, albeit of a different kind.

Immigrants from Ethiopia, especially the parents and grandparents, endure monumental difficulties. ESRA is making huge efforts to support their needs through educational and guidance programs in Netanya and other towns which have large Ethiopian populations. Because many of the adults are adept at handcrafts, ESRA has established three Sewing Centers in Kfar Saba and Netanya for over 30 women. They learn to sew garments for themselves and their families and have an opportunity to socialize at the same time. Maritu, a long-time participant says: "I love this activity so much that I now have a sewing machine at home to make clothes for my family."

An admirable extension of these efforts is Citizens Rights in Sderot, where ESRA partnered with MEZACH, a citizens rights organization, to ensure that Ethiopian residents receive appropriate rights and benefits. Prior to ESRA stepping in to assist, the community was neither confident nor aware of this opportunity. Following an outreach program coupled with studies at Sapir College for 20 volunteers, the Ethiopian community has since grown responsive. ESRA is now reaching out to the Bnei Menashe community in Sderot – another neglected minority group. The project is managed by social workers and trained ESRA volunteers. Clearly, door-to-door visits to the Ethiopian community worked its magic.

There is no end to enhancing education. Whether within formal pedagogic institutions, or through extramural activities, hobbies, courses, or just daily life, learning takes many forms. A prime example of this is ESRA's Afternoon Learning Centers, which fulfil multiple objectives. First and foremost, they promote studies, but also they provide a warm and supportive environment for youngsters who come from the weaker sectors of society. More often than not, these centers are a home away from home, and offer a range of enrichment programs beyond educational support.

In Modiin for instance, 15 at-risk youth participate in structured activities every afternoon, five days a week. In Rishon LeZion, ESRA volunteers arrange darbuka drumming lessons, parties, and distribute knitted garments. Lunch is provided by ESRA to the Center in Neot Shaked in Netanya, and in Rehovot, volunteers offer a weekly English activity to youngsters which ranges from arts and crafts to movies, parties and outings. In Modiin and in the Sela neighborhood in Netanya, ESRA supports remedial teaching for youngsters. Another "Bayit Cham" (lit. "warm home") in Netanya has been a respite for 20 teenage girls every afternoon, where a chef helps them cook hot meals and where they enjoy enrichment activities from exercise to flower arranging. Some of their arts and crafts will be available for purchase at ESRA's upcoming 40thAnniversary celebration on May 14th at Shefayim.

Children living in Israel's periphery are in particular need of special attention. ESRA has therefore partnered with Sderot Young Leaders (SYL) to provide high school youngsters with tools for personal growth and empowerment by promoting their skills in English, robotics, computers and debating. The latter is fast becoming their forte, as national debate competitions take place in English, and the students are now on track to participate in the annual Model UN Forum. The group of youngsters is supervised by ESRA and SYL volunteers alongside a professional group leader. But the most exciting development of these efforts is that the debating team is a strong contender for first place in the national debating competition. How wonderful is that! Participants themselves also volunteer within their community by helping the younger children with their English. Truly, a case of helping hands.

Computer Centers

 When I first heard about ESRA's Computer Centers, I wished these had been around thirty years ago when computers started to become 'de rigeur' and insinuated their way into our lives to the point that nowadays, we cannot be without one. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to attend courses at the level of a child. Computers do not inspire confidence at my age! On the contrary, they literally floor me sometimes. But for kids, who catch on much easier that we do, ESRA operates two computer centers for youngsters from disadvantaged communities. Generous donors supported the purchase of all the hardware in the Centers as well as costs for the instructor and computer maintenance. SBC students also utilize these centers in Netanya for their activities.

Children with behavioral disorders tend to respond well to interaction with horses and smaller animals, which in turn helps to promote their learning and interpersonal skills. Towards this end, ESRA operates the Learning Through Nature program at Kibbutz Maggal, where 15 children from a special education school nearby spend one morning a week at the Therapeutic Riding Center. There, youngsters feed and groom the horses, learn how to train dogs, and tend to other animals in the petting zoo. At the same time, they are taught math and English (with an ESRA volunteer), and learn patience and understanding through bonding with the animals. The program is supervised by an ESRA volunteer, therapists and group leaders.

According to the school principal, "ESRA's program has contributed enormously to the youngsters' socio-emotional skills. The challenging experience has also taught them compassion, flexibility and leadership. This is not to say that the pupils don't sometimes object to performing set tasks, but coping with these hurdles helps them develop self-confidence. We look forward to continuing and expanding the program next year."

One of ESRA's most heartwarming projects is the
Kfar Shmaryahu Club for Physically Challenged Young Adults.
This social circle meets every week where enrichment programs provide interesting topics for study, discussion and activity, such as yoga or playing musical instruments. Interaction with pets from parrots to rabbits and mice is invariably a winner, and the enthusiasm of the participants is contagious. The club is supported with funds raised by ESRA Raanana which also provides 4 active volunteers and a coordinator.

As afore-mentioned, "Big Brother" Mentoring Programs are a winning combination. SBC is one manifestation, but by no means the only expression for ESRA's educational efforts. In cooperation with the Rishon LeZion Municipality and the Rishon Academic Institute, over 60 students mentor kids on the block in the city. Each student receives an annual ESRA/Municipal scholarship and in return, mentors 2-3 elementary school children. ESRA volunteers play an integral role in the project, assisting the students and arranging entertainment every two months for the children.

To quote one student, "I have learned a lot from this experience and I hope I have given as much as I received. Thank you ESRA for the opportunity to touch a child's life and perhaps even make a positive impact." And another, "There is no doubt that my sense of satisfaction and self-confidence has increased and I feel proud of each of 'my kids'. Seeing the smile on their faces and realizing that I have had a part in that is worth everything."

Generally, First Steps are related to the first wobbly steps of an infant becoming a toddler. But in ESRA parlance, it refers to a relatively new project that aims to prepare kindergarten children from distressed neighborhoods for First Grade at school. Two professional staff and three volunteers, including a speech therapist, special education teacher and psychologist, provide the children with tools within a setting of warmth and enjoyment. An SBC student studying early childhood education also volunteers in the project.

When ESRA began planning a curriculum for the kindergarteners two years ago, it was based upon preparing skills for school and life, so that children from these areas would not be demeaned with low expectations, but rather would be welcomed by both teachers and peers into the classroom. We hit pay dirt! Last year, Or attended First Steps, and this year he began first grade. His ecstatic mother called to say that he received an outstanding report card as well as a citation for being motivated, a good friend, kind, and helpful in school. Or is by all accounts a First Step success. We were not surprised, but thrilled.

The ESRA Haifa branch supports twelve 10th grade children with learning disabilities at the Kfar HaNoar HaDati School,where they attend a course in Learning Strategies to help them complete their matriculation exams with self-assurance. An ESRA volunteer oversees the program, which has already borne fruit. According to the teacher, "By exposing the students to a different way of relating to subjects, pupils are able to enter the conventional learning arena with increased confidence and enthusiasm. Several pupils who did well in their exams last year requested to be included in the same course this year. We heartily thank ESRA in Haifa for its support."

Another form of education is through music. ESRA's Volume Music Center provides professional classes to youngsters from distressed neighborhoods in Netanya. An ESRA volunteer oversees the activities while the children themselves become involved in ESRA events at the Community Center. "I can only describe the program as fulfilling the dreams of youth," said Smadar Dromy, Head of East Netanya Centers. "We thank ESRA for helping to realize the dreams of these children by reaching the places they could not have done without assistance."

Asneke and Negiste are two sisters who grew up in ESRA's Right Track Centers, where they received instruction in Math, English and Hebrew towards their matriculation exams. This is their success story: They participated in a special program that ESRA arranged with Eric Cohen Books - to bring the teenagers to his modern, state-of-the-art publishing house so they could write and publish their own magazine. The result was a magazine called 'STUFF", but the long term effect on the sisters was far more impactful. Their time at Eric Cohen and the excitement of producing the magazine galvanized their thirst for education. Redoubling their efforts with the help of the teachers at the Right Track Centers, they completed matric followed by their National Service. Then they both joined ESRA's SBC Project which enabled them to study for their degrees and give back to their community. Today both young women are married with children and careers – one at an academic college and the other working with teenagers. Together with ESRA, they were, and are, on the right track towards a successful future.

The newest kid on ESRA's educational block is Masa Ethiopia, Journey to Identity. As its name implies, this involves a roots journey to Ethiopia, preceded by a 6 to 8-month intensive course in Ethiopian heritage, Zionism, leadership and identity. The course accepts between fifteen to twenty 9th - 11th grade motivated and community-conscious students, and culminates in a one-week trek to Ethiopia. There, participants track the path of Judaism through the ages to modern times, and walk the route taken by their families through Sudan to reach Jerusalem. The trip includes visits to long-lost family members, Jewish villages, the Synagogue and the Jewish population in Gondar.

Masa Ethiopia is to help young Ethiopian Israelis discover their roots as proud Israelis of Ethiopian origin. Observed Nina Zuck, the project's initiator, "The experience showed that within a short time and with the right guidance, the young participants, some of whom were ashamed of their origins, found a way to merge their Israeli and Ethiopian identities. This bodes well for their future of active participation in the IDF, and Israeli society."

For further information regarding ESRA's Projects, kindly contact the National Office at 09 950 8371

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