By Mission Participant, Beth Brownstein
Last month, I had the special privilege of attending this year’s annual young leadership mission to Israel.
As a first-time attendee, and a new member of the Youth Renewal Fund – Darca family, I was not entirely sure what to expect. But it became apparent almost immediately that this trip would be a memorable one.
The Youth Renewal Fund-Darca partnership addresses a serious problem that unfortunately is not well known and often not discussed in the U.S. – Israel’s failing education system in underserved communities. The gap in educational achievement among the Israel’s wealthy and peripheral communities has been growing and if not resolved, is a significant threat to Israel’s safety, prosperity and status as a leader in innovation. Our visit to Israel provided the opportunity to see in-person how the Youth Renewal Fund and Darca are driving change and providing solutions to solve this educational problem through an innovative approach tailored to the needs of each school with which they have partnered.
When we arrived at each school, it was evident that the Darca team traveling with us had a close relationship with the principal and faculty and played an integral role in formulating and implementing the programming at the school. The Darca team’s nurturing, inventive and hands on approach sets the tone for the kind of environment the principal and faculty create for their students, regardless of the student population and the unique challenges they face. It was apparent that the schools’ faculty were determined to instill in their students the tools necessary to drive the goals of self-confidence and innovation.
In Bat-yam we spoke with a teenage boy who, at the suggestion of his principal, took up surfing each morning before school as a way to stay focused and engaged during the school day. This student soon became a confident mentor for a growing surf group who joined him each morning. At the same school, we met students who are part of a Darca program in partnership with the Air Force. The students in the program take a set of pre-requisite courses which permit them to enter the Air Force, a path that would have been unfathomable for many.
We then visited an all-girls religious school in Bat-yam. Admittedly, I had a pre-conceived notion that the academic environment would be inferior due to certain religious constraints and gender biases. I was wrong. In the brand-new science room, the girls showed off different science projects and encouraged us to actively participate in their experiments. The principal of the school, in her closing remarks, stated with complete confidence that one of her students will win a Nobel prize one day. I believe it.
In yet another extraordinary story, we visited a school comprised mostly of children of Russian immigrants. The principal explained that before partnering with Darca, the school did not offer any physics classes to students. In the few years since the partnership, 20% of the student body is enrolled in physics. We met their national championship robotics team who explained how to build and navigate the robots. Most of us, however, struggled to keep up with the amazing kids. It became clear that robotics was not just a class they were forced to take in school; the kids committed many after school hours to building their robots and preparing for competition.
In Ashkelon, we met with students enrolled in the new diplomacy course focused on strategic negotiations. Those diplomacy students gave us a tour of the school’s art fair, describing in detail each artist’s vision for their work. We then divided up into large groups and worked on a negotiation project, which the students then presented to the entire group. English was their second language and they had limited experience public speaking. Yet they seemed unphased, demonstrating complete confidence in their skills. It was incredible.
Finally, we visited schools in Kiryat Malachi and Lod where the socio-economic environment created even more challenging circumstances. There we played the game “Escape the Room” with the students, where together, we solved a complex series of problems. In Lod, a photography teacher and one of his students showed us how photography had become a primary creative outlet for the students to express themselves.
The Darca program is yielding outstanding results. Students are not only receiving high Bagrut scores to secure entry into elite military units and university, they are also graduating with the intangible qualities, social values and self-confidence that will make them valuable leaders in their communities. These students are the backbone of a strong and prosperous Israel.
Our trip began the day after Yom Ha’atzmaut and Israel’s 70th anniversary. While much of Israel was in celebratory mode, we could not ignore the challenges Israel faces day-to-day. Over the course of the trip we met the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, the former head of the 8200 unit in the IDF (the most elite cyber unit), and an Arab Israeli journalist who provided their perspectives on how Israel can continue to prosper while addressing ongoing threats, whether from the divisiveness within Israel or from other factors abroad. These meetings further underscored why a strong education system is absolutely essential to Israel’s future.
Youth Renewal Fund is sustained through its devoted and very active senior leadership team. One of the great benefits of the trip is experiencing it with those leaders. They warmly welcomed us into the Youth Renewal Fund family and made it a priority to get to know each one of us. They welcome new ideas and are not afraid to make mistakes as they strive for continued growth and success.
I am grateful to also have experienced the mission with such a smart, fun and engaged group of young leaders. The passion and enthusiasm we developed during the trip only enhanced our commitment to the organization’s future. I look forward to working with my new friends from the trip and the larger Youth Renewal Fund family on the mission to create equal opportunities for all of Israel’s children and to ensure Israel remains strong, innovative and prosperous