In Israeli Program for At-risk Kids, the Mentors Benefit Just as Much

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Roman Guralnik, who moved to Israel from Odessa when he was a small boy, recently accepted a job offer from one of the country's top law firms.

What made him an attractive candidate, he believes, were his consistently high grades. What enabled him to get those grades, he explains, was being able to devote most of his time to his studies over the past four years. He didn't have to work his way through school – his housing and tuition costs were paid for.

Guralnik, 28, who will graduate later this year from the Netanya Academic College law school, is among a select group of students in the Netanya region who, in return for mentoring and living among at-risk Ethiopian children, have their rent and schooling covered entirely. (Provided they stick it out for a few years.) They are participants in Students Build a Neighborhood – a project conceived and funded by the English Speakers Residents Association, a group that lets its members, many of them retired immigrants, volunteer in their local communities.

Now in its sixth year, Students Build a Neighborhood was first launched in the almost exclusively Ethiopian neighborhood of Heftzibah in Netanya, where Guralnik has been living for the past four years. Building on its success, ESRA has expanded the project in recent years to other disadvantaged neighborhoods – Nordau on the other side of Netanya and Yad Hatisha in Herzliya.

Since taking charge last May, ESRA chairwoman Brenda Katten has expanded the organization's reach around the country, most recently by setting up its first branch in Jerusalem. She is also determined to bring ESRA's flagship project to the capital. "It may take a few years, but I'd love to recruit students from the Hebrew University to work with us on this,” she says.

Right there in case of a crisis

Students Build a Neighborhood seeks to match up Ethiopian children who are challenged academically and socially – often unable to receive the extra help they need at home – with young Israeli students, "hand-picked" according to their supervisors. The students not only help the kids with their homework and engage them in sports and other extracurricular activities, but also serve as role models. Perhaps most importantly, they are right there, a few doors down, should crisis strike at any hour.

The housing and tuition perks they receive are meant to give them a head start in higher education by freeing them of the financial burdens most other students bear. Since most of them come from working-class families, they would be forced to work their way through school if it weren't for this assistance.

Nina Zuck, ESRA's head of projects, says this program speaks to her in a very personal way. Zuck moved to Israel in 1972 to flee the apartheid regime in her native South Africa. “For me, working with Ethiopians here in Israel is a way of rectifying what was and giving back,” she says.

Until a few years ago, the Heftzibah neighborhood suffered from high crime rates as well as drug and alcohol use, so it was all but off limits to nonresidents. Today, Zuck walks around the streets freely, a familiar face to many residents, who greet her warmly. They know her not only from her frequent visits to check in on her students and their charges, but also from her work with the local Ethiopian dance troupe and the computer and sewing centers she helped set up for adults.

Tall and fair, Guralnik doesn't exactly blend in to the neighborhood. But that doesn’t bother him anymore. “At first, I did feel a bit strange here, but today I’m as much a part of the community as anyone else," he says. "Not only do I help with the kids, but we do holidays together, I help translate their documents, and they help me lug my washing machine up the steps.”

Zuck estimates that more than 45 students have taken part in the program since it started (some like Guralnik staying on for the length of their studies), mentoring more than 100 Ethiopian children. They study at nearby academic institutions – Netanya Academic College, Ruppin College and Wingate Institute for the Netanya participants, and the Interdisciplinary Center for the Herzliya participants.

In exchange for having their rent paid, the students must spend at least six hours a week with their charges and commit to the program for at least a year. Upon being accepted, they go through a two-week training program to prepare for working with at-risk children.

In Heftzibah, five out of the 300 neighborhood apartments are allocated to 12 students participating in the program this year, more than half of them Ethiopians. Another three apartments are allocated to project participants in the Nordau neighborhood and another three to participants in Herzliyah. The rental fees are covered by ESRA, with matching funding from the respective municipalities. From the second year on, if the students agree to put in another three hours a week with the children, they receive an annual NIS 10,000 scholarship toward their studies.

The familiar status of outsider

On a recent winter evening, Guralnik was working with two of his sixth-graders on their math homework. The boys, he seems oddly pleased to report to his supervisor, got in trouble that day for disrupting class. When Zuck wonders why that would be considered good news, Guralnik explains: “They were bored in class because we’ve already moved on in our evening sessions here to seventh-grade math.”

Growing up as a new immigrant in Hadera, Guralnik says he still recalls the sense of being an outsider in Israel, so he identifies strongly with the Ethiopian children. “It gives me a lot of empathy for them,” he says.

“What does empathy mean?” asks one of the boys.

“It’s when you see someone sad and feel sad as well,” explains Guralnik. “Like today, when I showed you this bandage here on my finger and told you how I cut myself, and you felt bad for me. Right?”

The boy smiles shyly.

Negist Mekere, a 22-year-old business student at Ruppin College, has been participating in the program for three years. She immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia and grew up on the second floor of the building where her parents live to this day.

Identified at a young age as a child at risk, she received help through a special reading program. “It made me think that if a program like that could do so much good for me, I could do lots of good for others as well through similar programs,” she recalls. “When I heard about this particular program, I knew it would be perfect for me. These are kids who have nowhere to go after school, and they really need the warmth and love we give them.”

Last year, she helped organize a joint bat mitzvah celebration for her sixth-grade girls. “These are children whose parents couldn’t do this for them,” she says. “So we did it together. We made beautiful challah, we lit candles and had a great time.”

This Friday, Guralnik’s boys will receive their midyear report cards. He’s almost as excited as they are. “You know who they’re going to rush to show those report cards to first?” he asks. “Me.”

A volunteer on the Students Build a Neighborhood Program in Netanya. Credit: Moti Milrod