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Ofer we Couldn’t Refuse

Flashback to the story in our last issue celebrating the project’s 10th year

 Thanks Merle for mentioning me in the article celebrating the wonderful project "Students build a Community" that I am proud to have helped organize ten years ago (ESRAmagazine #191). You might find it interesting to hear how the whole idea was born and adopted by ESRA, quite different from the way it's written in the article.

One evening as I was reading a local Netanya paper in my home…it was the fall of 2006…I came across a very short article about a meeting of the City Council of Netanya in which one of its members, Ofer Orenstein, had proposed a plan to help children in deprived neighborhoods. It was his idea to select successful university students who would live in the same neighborhood where the children live and tutor them, serving as models for the children and promoting changes in that neighborhood. The article stated that the Council had turned down Orenstein's proposal. How could they do that, I thought!

As a social worker of long standing who experienced the neediness of many of our people and knowing that education is the main key to improving their lot, I was furious at that article and decided to talk to Mr. Orenstein to learn more about his ideas. I found his phone number through Bezeq and called. I told him that I was very enthused by his proposal and asked him to provide more information. He happily sent me written material by fax. I was so excited by his plan that I immediately contacted Debby Lieberman, ESRA project chair at the time. When Debby heard from me and read the material, she called together several of the leaders of ESRA and held an emergency meeting in her home. Our invited guest was Ofer Orenstein who was only too happy to describe in greater detail how his plan would work. The ad hoc committee members were very excited about Ofer's dream plan and gave their support to proceeding with investigating how to move ahead.

The next step was a suggestion by Ofer to take a train ride to Beersheva to learn about a similar project that he had heard about, so on New Year's Eve 2006, Debby, Ofer, and I took a train ride to Beersheva instead of joining a party with friends to bring in the secular New Year. It was a dark, rainy night when we arrived in Beersheva to be met by a young man who was the coordinator of the Beersheva project. He took us to meet the students who were living in a neighborhood in that city but, unfortunately, they were not there. They were obviously celebrating the New Year somewhere else. Since we had come all the way from Netanya and Ramat Hasharon and were feeling disappointed, this fellow decided to take us to the "yishuv" which was the center of their activities further south of Beersheva. After a half hour we ended up at a place that looked like the beginnings of a new moshav. I remember the mud around the paved paths we walked on that rainy night. There were a few small buildings and we were told that the "yishuv" was being built by the students themselves together with experienced builders. In one of the buildings there was a projector and a screen, and it was there that we saw the work that was being done in a number of towns including Beersheva, Yeruham, Dimona, and Mitzpe Ramon by university students, most of whom came from Jerusalem to study at the Beersheva University. These students, the coordinator explained, were full of idealism, came from comfortable homes, and wanted to help unfortunate children to have a good life, to become successful in their studies and their future endeavors.

We were so inspired by the film and by our guide's talk, that Debby and I felt our bodies vibrating within our skin. We became so enthusiastic about the possibility of ESRA adopting Ofer's proposal we could hardly contain ourselves. I remember returning home so energized and wanting to get started having the Board of ESRA approve the plan.

The following months involved meetings of the ESRA Executive who saw the potential of Ofer's proposal and set up meetings with Netanya's decision makers. After negotiating with the latter who didn't see how the city could afford to pay matching funds, ESRA finally won the battle and each side agreed to pay some 50,000 shekels to finance the first year of Students Build a Neighborhood (the name was changed some years later to Students Build a Community) and in reality ESRA added much more money than the city of Netanya.

Once the plan was approved, Ofer and I met with other professionals, including the director of the community center and with politicans and those that provided the funds in order to gain their support and help in finding apartments for the students and supplying them with basic appliances and furniture. Other evenings during the summer Ofer, a couple of other city workers and I spent hours interviewing students, finally choosing fewer than the twelve that we had hoped to find because it had taken so much time to organize the first year. We hired Tamar, a wonderful young woman to become the coordinator of the project in Hefzibah, a very needy neighborhood in which the population was 99% Ethiopian with a few families of Russian immigrants.

I coordinated the project for ESRA for the first three years until I learned, to my surprise, that I was redundant. I am delighted to see that the project has been so successful from its beginnings ten years ago that it has been copied in several other neighborhoods in Netanya, raising the educational levels of the children who are lucky enough to be afforded the help of their wonderful tutors.

Well done to ESRA and its dedicated workers who continue to promote this project for the advancement of many of the children of Netanya and for the enrichment of their lives and the lives of their families.



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Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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