Reflections from our October Board Mission to Israel
By Board member, Harlan Cherniak
I was filled with excitement in anticipation of the mission to Israel with the Youth Renewal Fund Executive Committee, Dr. Gil Pereg, the leadership team from the U.S. and other esteemed members of our Board. This was my first YRF mission back in the Holy Land since early 2014, just before the “charitable merger” between Youth Renewal Fund and Darca was consummated.
This most recent mission was rather different for me. It not only provided a refreshed “benchmarking” opportunity against the progress we have made, but allowed me to feel the results of our work through conversation with those working tirelessly to change the students’ lives.
The trip kicked off on Friday night, spending Shabbos together at the new Setai in the Sea of Galilee. It was a scenic landscape, and frankly, the room we stayed in reminded me of my honeymoon (our second hotel Tracy, certainly not the first one!). Northern Israel provided the perfect setting for us to unwind a bit, but more importantly, absorb our surroundings given the current geopolitical tension across the axes of Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Our travel to the peak of Mount Hermon was a unique experience and something that put all of this into perspective for me. We traveled with Brigadier General Alon Friedman and gained real-time insight into the growing source of conflict and complexity of the situation. We absorbed information about the emerging threat of cyber security from Brigadier General Rabi Ben Ephraim. We also rounded out the weekend with a “taste” of it all, a private dinner in the cellar of Chateau Golan, one of the country’s leading vineyards.
As we shifted our itinerary to the schools, the faculty and the students my excitement level increased. I recall my first interaction with an Israeli student back in 2008, in connection with an after-school learning program in Ashdod and my attempt to “fit in” to their soccer game out on the fields at recess. These connections allow me to live vicariously through the students, and now, having two young children of my own, it truly put things into perspective.
Our first visit was to the Darca network schools in Kiryat Shimona, located in Northern Israel, roughly six miles from Lebanon, and during periods of heightened political instability is often the victim of errant rockets and air fire from across the border. Danciger Darca, which unfortunately suffered material damage in 2006, serves over 1,200 students today and boasts a successful Bagrut rate of 86 percent. Danciger Darca is led by Principal Hanita Maoz. Once inside the new resource room we were greeted by Daniele, a member of the Darca Young Fellows Program. She was thrilled to see us (Sam in particular), and the width of her smile was indicative of the level of success we have had on the ground here. We had an opportunity to meet students who developed a short film on special needs students, with editing and attention to detail worthy of a slot at the Sundance Film Festival. We also participated in a debate with students around the affirmative and negative argument for Teacher uniform.
We were invited into the classrooms to gain additional insight into some of the students’ career aspirations. Many of the high school students wanted to become teachers, doctors, or even architects. The highlight for me was seeing students engaged in chess, which seems like a trending after school program here in the New York City school system. My son takes private chess lessons and to see these students engaged in “having fun (and how to accept a loss)” and learning to “think two steps ahead of their opponent” made me feel great. The chess skills gained here will carry them throughout the balance of their high school years, provide them with life-saving tactics for time served in the army and, most importantly, set them up for success in life whether negotiation or strategic thinking.
Next, we visited Ulpanit Darca, an all girls’ school for religious students from seventh to twelfth grade. Ulpanit serves as the bridge for the religious and secular education and boasts a Bagrut certificate matriculation rate of almost 95 percent, one of our top performing schools in the country! I was overly impressed with the schools’ focus on developing these young women into future leaders and instilling within them the confidence to achieve any of their goals. Young women at this school are fortunate to have exposure to coding, English learning, culture and even music. We participated in a group setting with one of the classes as they performed a song “Rise Up”. The lyrics were inspirational, and made me reflect upon my daughter Stella and the education and exposure she will receive by that age.
At Darca we are focused on innovation and ensuring opportunity and education for all. We recently embraced an opportunity to enter the city of Umm al-Fahm through an award from the municipality, one of the main Arab centers of Israel, and one notorious for anti-Semitism. While seemingly difficult on its surface, it is a challenge we must face, for when we are successful here we can achieve anything. A rising tide lifts all boats. We are scaling new heights and doing so in an unbiased way. There is a significant communication barrier in this school (given the lack of Arabic speakers across our organization), however, upon our visit, we emphasized why we are here; we want them to succeed. Sam Katz, a founder of the organization did an excellent job addressing the student body and drew an analog to the great philosopher and scholar, as well as the namesake of their school, Muhammad Al Razi, known for his three key pillars innovation, motivation and leadership, I liked that. Students were engaged and while apprehensive, I am confident we have a path to succeed and drive results for everyone.
Our last stop on this incredible mission was to the town of Netivot, a small city in southern Israel. Due to its proximity to Gaza and the increased volume of terror threats, all of the schools and streets of Netivot are well equipped with shelters to increase security and safety measures. We spent time across four schools in the town. First, we stopped by Darca Yitzhak Navon High School, Netivot lead by principal Yosi Abergel. We met dozens of students who were engaged in a LEGO robotics program, which was incredible to see the attention to detail from these young seventh graders. These programs are instrumental in helping these students develop improved fine motor skills, hand eye coordination and the intellectual curiosity necessary for problem solving. One of the teachers responsible for the English immersion program enlightened us about his philosophy towards teaching and enrichment, focused on using “kind words” and “always telling the truth.” We also spent time at Yeshiva Darca Netivot, which has one of the highest Bagrut rates across the Darca network. We spent two hours with Rabbi Yichiel Malka and a handful of his students at this all-boys school exploring the tools at his disposal including our very first “Escape the Room” and revolutionary 3D hologram software which has aided the students’ development around computer science, coding, circuitry and anatomy. Every student we spoke with was clearly appreciative, recognized the opportunity in front of them and demonstrated a burning commitment to Darca, its network of teachers, the faculty and most importantly the community Dr. Gil Pereg and his team have formed.
All of these experiences confirmed my devotion to this organization. It starts with leadership, so I would like to take this moment to thank the entire team across Israel and the US. Youth Renewal Fund Darca sets the tone from both the top down and the bottom up. It consistently reminds me how I try to develop and mentor my own team, how we run our organization, are encouraged to take risk and innovate ideas, invest time and money to educate and drive outcome oriented results. I am already looking forward to my next visit (hopefully with my entire family) so I can report back on the continued growth of our network, our impact and all of milestones we will have achieved by then. Until next time…H