Paulina Kampinsky, Daniel Amit, Gal Pasternak and Yishai Cohen giving lectures
Clockwise from upper left: Paulina Kampinsky, Gal Pasternak, Yishai Cohen and Daniel Amit giving lectures. Photo by David Bachar
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Herzl (a Hebrew acronym for Lectures for Youth), the initiative of Ofer Priel, was held for the fifth time recently. Priel, 39, who has been involved in education for years, explains how it works: He finds ground-breaking young people who have created change or achieved something exceptional, and approaches them with an offer it is easy to refuse: to stand up in front of an auditorium of high-school students and talk about themselves, or about the interesting thing they are involved in, for no less than 10 minutes. And then, after two months of training, they do it.

Priel, who also runs the Center for Educational Entrepreneurship for the city of Bat Yam just south of Tel Aviv, watched the inspiring lectures on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) website just like everyone else, and decided to create a series of his own lectures. It became a mission for him. Priel and his young people plan how to present the topic, write and erase drafts and work on those 10 minutes as they never worked for their matriculation exams.

They hone the ethos, pathos and rhythm, decide what to emphasize in their short life stories, and try to practice their texts without a need for written texts or hiding behind a lectern.

“At the stage when I find them, they are not necessarily excellent speakers but they have a good story,” explains Priel. “And the goal is not just to tell it, but to motivate young people to do, think differently, look differently at society and fulfil their dreams. I work with them with the goal of formulating a universal message. Despite the Internet, where everything flows and is open, many young people live in a sort of intellectual ghetto.

“In this event the audience develops an internal dialogue and goes through a process of empowerment. They ask themselves ‘If that one started a company at age 17, why can’t I do it?’ If the autistic child sees in his limitations points of strength, why shouldn’t I see my limitations as an advantage?” says Priel.

On the morning of the lecture the speakers are excited. The teenagers go over their talks and try to relax by listening to quiet songs on YouTube in the empty hall.

Ninth- and 10th-graders from high schools in Petah Tikva take their seats. A tough crowd, for whom all the secrets of the universe are waiting − if they just would take out their smart phones from their bags.

Priel explains from the stage: “The audiences have two approaches as to how to receive the lectures. The first is to sit on the plastic chair, stretch out as far as possible and wait for the lecturers to speak. The other way is sit tensed, listen to every word they say and be certain they thought about it 10 times. Their messages will pass between the lines, and if you miss them it will end with your thinking it was nice. If you listen carefully between the lines you will take something with you from here,” he told the young audience.

It is not clear if this introduction is what caused the incredible silence in the hall, but almost nobody was corresponding via WhatsApp. Even at the moments when the young speakers cleared their throats and tried to remember that they had planned to say, the audience clapped their hands to encourage them − maybe because they saw on television that it is what you are supposed to do when a contestant on a reality show forgets the words of the song.

I can do anything

In feedback forms they filled out after the lectures, they praised the speakers − who showed them it is possible to have big dreams. They wrote: “The lectures gave me motivation and a lot of inspiration to try and go after my dreams and advance,” “it is important to give these lectures to as many young people as possible so they can understand they are responsible for their own future,” “when I learn from someone my own age I understand better.”

At last week’s event, the first speaker was a 17-year-old entrepreneur named Yishai Cohen from Jerusalem. He spoke quickly, was interesting and decisive, as if he had done it hundreds of times in the past. He told stories of heroism with the title “How to turn ideas into working initiatives.”

First Cohen described his attempts at professional photography during his summer vacation between 10th and 11th grades. Until then he had done photography for fun, and he researched on the Internet and understood that in order to move up to the big leagues he would have to build a team. He enlisted a makeup artist and a wardrobe person, took over an empty house and hung up a sheet, brought in lighting and a marketer − and together they set up a semi-professional photography studio, in which they dedicated their vacation to photographing people, official documents and fashion.

“That is how I learned that you can take your hobby and serve a lot of people with it. We worked for three weeks and were forced to stop since school started. Then I understood that my hobbies would not go together with school,” said Cohen.

During a roiling chess match that went on until 3 A.M., Cohen and his friends talked about what they wanted to be part of when they grow up, but “we knew we were not good at anything. We are not programmers and have no advantage over workers 30 years old. The only thing that we have is we are better with Facebook, and that was our starting point. The morning after that we got dressed up nicely and knocked on doors of stores and restaurants in Jerusalem, with an offer to market them on Facebook. We went from store to store, got ‘no,’ ‘no’ and three ‘yeses.’ Our first three customers. And that is how we started working. At that stage we learned how you speak to customers, how you price your work and about the entire world of Internet and mobile advertising − graphics, video and copy writing. We opened a new media company called ‘Audience’ and started to hire our friends. Today we have dozens of customers and seven employees,” said Cohen.

He went on to talk about the SMARTBUS application he thought of, found funding for, developed and set up with the help of good friends within three weeks. Cohen also spoke about the important meeting he had with millionaire Morris Kah, one of the founders of Amdocs.

“We asked him what is a winner, and he said a ‘winner is a loser that doesn’t quit,’ who doesn’t give up even when it is difficult. If there is something I would want for you, it is to be winners.” His talk ended with rousing applause.

Revital Shapira, head of the secondary education division of the Petah Tikva municipality, came on stage after Cohen and surprisingly had great appreciation for the young man who did not stay in the educational system.

“Students learn best when other kids teach them,” she said. “If we were now in the framework of an education class, the teacher would come into the classroom and have a discussion on how to fulfill our aspirations and how we follow a dream. And I am thinking about the experience you had listening to Yishai for 10 minutes compared to an entire lesson,” said Shapira.

Following Picasso 
and Zuckerberg

After Shapira, Michal Lev came up to speak. Lev, 18, from Haifa is going to be inducted into the army next week. Before her lecture, she told me: “We want to be a model, so people will be like us and receive inspiration from us that they too can do it. But we are only people. We are not anything special. I’m not even gifted.”

Lev started out speaking about Pablo Picasso, who started exhibiting his paintings when he was 14. Mark Zuckerberg was 20 when he started Facebook and Louis Braille was only 15 when he invented the written alphabet for the blind, she explained to the students − they and others “were young when they succeeded in something they loved.”

Then she went on to tell how for the last two years she was a normal high-school student in the morning majoring in computers, and in the evening was a regular employee at Intel. “I worked as a baby-sitter and in an amusement park, and then Intel was looking for high-school students as employees. I sent in a resume and even though I didn’t have very much to write, I passed the tests and was accepted,” said Lev.

“Once I came to work with a shirt with a school symbol and the guard wouldn’t let me in. He thought I was the just the daughter of a worker trying to sneak in ... Even when I told people about my work, most of them didn’t believe I was a programmer at Intel. They thought I was joking, that I worked in the cafeteria or was just bragging. There were only a few who believed me,” said Lev.

She said she learned what work ethic was and what responsibility meant − a child in the world of adults.

Daniel Amit, 17, was the morning’s rock star. He came on stage wearing a T-shit that said: “I am a proud autistic.” It is the same shirt he wore to his audition for the X-Factor television reality show and excited quite a few girls. Girls who were supposed to be in the hall snuck in to take his picture, fixed their hair and clicked on their iPhones.

But when the moment came, the crowd was listening intensely. Amit sang and played − and then spoke. He presented himself as a 17 year old who was a fan of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, is home-schooled and loves to draw comics. “I am a boy with impressive abilities in many areas. From a very young age I played by ear. At first they thought I was a plain genius, but only later they understood it was because of the autism,” he said.

Amit told the attentive audience what it means to be autistic, and then asked: “If autistic [people] have it so hard and have no senses of adjustment, how can it be that I am standing here and telling about myself, singing, drawing and writing stories? Like sharp senses can be a problem, they can also express talent. In my opinion, Superman is autistic − he has sharp senses, exceptional hearing and long-distance vision. With me in the family of autistic people are Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and more.

During the first five events to date in the Herzl series, over 20 young people have spoken. The youngest lecturer was 10-year-old Avishag Ifergan, who spoke about “How I reached the situation where I read 550 books a year.”