By Carmit Sappir Weitz, photographs by Flash 90

At 10:30 AM, when the smell of fresh rolls fills the halls of the Giv’at Gonen School in Jerusalem, a cry of despair is heard from one of the girls: “Where did all the juice disappear?” “We have no idea,” respond innocently two sweet kids while zipping their school bags hurriedly. “We took only one.” Nervously toppling their bag, its contents spilled out: the missing juice boxes.

“Tell me, how many do you have in your bag,” I whisper to one of them. “Maybe six,” he responded. “No more than seven. Eight max.” "Why don’t you give them back,” I suggest. “I think there are some other kids who want juice.” “OK,” they answer after some hesitation. “Tell them you found it by chance,” they say. After I return the missing juice boxes, the two are interested: “did they ask you who took them?” “No way,” I answered. “Now I’m innocent,” says one of them, and I respond, “the fact that you came clean doesn’t mean you’re innocent,” “So what does it mean?” he asks. “It means that you did something and you regret it.” “I just don’t want the counselors to be mad at me. I love them,” he says with downcast eyes. “Are they like big brothers and sisters to you?” I ask. “No way,” he says with alarm. “They don’t hit me.”

The counselors are a group of young adults who have decided to postpone their army service and dedicate one year to doing volunteer work. In this case, they serve as counselors to school students from disadvantaged homes. And while their friends are preoccupied with such critical questions as whether to sunbathe lying on their stomach or back, these young adults wake up at 07:00 AM every morning and go to work. Meet the "Ma'avarim" summer camp of JVP Community, which is based solely on good will.

Dozens of young counselors operate the summer camp, which includes some 200 kids from various Jerusalem neighborhoods: Katamon, Neve Ya’akov, Talpiot and Gilo. They meet every day between 9:00 AM and 1 PM and the counselors prepare them for the next school year – whether elementary or middle school. And despite the summer holiday, everyone is studying in order to improve their achievements next year.

“Ma’avarim is a direct continuation of an entire school year, in which young adults from all over Israel volunteered in various educational programs in Jerusalem’s weaker neighborhoods. Cost for the kids: a mere $38 each.

Not to be alone
Twelve year old Shahar has the energy of 30 kids. “I spend the summer studying and that’s OK, because these counselors are fun. Then I’ll go to a regular summer camp. I’ve already registered,” he says. His friend Ido is excited about the seventh grade, and confesses he wanted to meet new kids before he gets to his new school so that they will help him with his studies. “Here, in Empowerment Class we made macaroni and cut vegetables together. It was fun. I learned how to do things together with other kids. To share and not be alone."

Abeba Freda lost his father a few years ago. He currently lives with his mother and younger brother in Katamon, and recently bought himself a small, sparkling earring. “Mom wasn't too happy about it, but at last she agreed," he says. "She knows I'm a good kid. I came here to meet new friends and prepare for the seventh grade. Sometimes I'm a good student, but I know that at the beginning of the school year I used to get carried away a bit. Now I don’t. Besides studying here I learned in Empowerment Class that I can lead other kids.”

Yair Safrani, who manages the Study and Enrichment Centers area for JVP Community, explains that as part of the project, 15 schools with disadvantaged populations will be targeted. “Eleven of those are elementary schools and the rest are middle schools. We accompany the kids from the fifth grade to the eighth. Our volunteers support them throughout the year. In the summer, during two whole weeks, they learn everything, from A to Z, in order to enhance their self confidence. It’s not about studying. It’s about small classes where they are seen and supported,” he explains. “The first two parts of every day are dedicated to actual studies: math and English. The third part is dedicated to personal empowerment, and the idea is to prepare six graders for middle school. In middle school you lose your position. You arrive at an environment with nine classes, and you need to know your strengths. The kids don’t regard the counselors as adults. On the other hand, the counselors have life experience and the kids regard them as sort of adult siblings.”

How involved are the kids’ parents?
“Every case is different. We believe in involving them in everything. Parents are not clients, but partners, they know their kids best. We want them to guide us. We don’t want to present ourselves to them as professionals. We regard them as full partners. We have parent workshops during the school year, such as a workshop about Facebook and its ramifications. With time, the counselors become an integral part of the kids’ lives and families.”

The counselors reside in a commune – a four room apartment at the Katamon neighborhood. The utter mess and paint stains on the floor, the papers scattered on all over and the spaghetti that dangles from the ceiling hint at their enthusiasm. There are four in each room, all sharing share one bathroom and a single toilet. Besides spaghetti, the menu features frozen schnitzel, and when time is on their hands – they get home-cooked food from the nearest intersection. Once every two weeks they go home for the weekend. When they stay in Jerusalem over the weekend, they rest and go out together. They are worth a closer look, especially in light of the Tal Law dispute.

Getting attached
Noam ben Yona, 19, from Misgav in the north, regards the kids at summer camp as family members. “We were all counselors at youth movements. We know how to plan a session, and I don’t see a difference between six graders here and at youth movements. The idea is to forge a group, deal with each kid's strengths and show them that they are capable. There are kids here that I didn't know before and others I've been accompanying all year. We learn something new about them every day. It will be hard to say goodbye, that’s true, but it was all worth it.”

How do you become authoritative with such young kids?
“First of all, you get attached to the person. Then, when trust is there, authority is created. They trust me and I believe in them.”

You guys are like in the army. But the conditions are worse.
“That’s true, and it’s part of the challenge – to learn to cope with complete strangers, live with them, and to understand that everything can be solved. We are exactly like other young adults our age: we talk about diets, we have a drink in the evening, we go out, we talk about girl-boy relationships, but we have another something that is an inseparable part of our lives: a year of volunteer work – when it ends we’ll be different than when we started."

May Abramov from Moshav Haniel in Emek Hefer explains: “I learned a lot about myself, but that’s not all. We hear on the news and on TV a lot of stories about underprivileged kids. But here you face the kids themselves. It’s hard to believe what these kids undergo. A father killed, a mom who left home or a kid who doesn’t have food or a bed to sleep in.”

How do you cope with all that?
“You give your all. Most of us got here in order to change the world and turn things upside down. As time goes by, we understand that our contribution is not small, but that we can’t really change the world.”

Caption p. 1: Counselor Yael Adot in Empowerment Class at the Ma’avarim summer camp. Like older siblings.

Caption p. 2: from right to left: May Abramov and Noam ben Yona. To show the kids that they are capable.


Box: Cultural Heroes
The Ma’avarim summer camp is an integral part of JVP Community, which was established ten years ago by high tech entrepreneur Erel Margalit, who heads venture fund JVP. JVP Community is active in 17 schools located in four different neighborhoods in Jerusalem: Katamon, Gilo, Neve Yaakov, Talpiot and the Arab village of Beit Tsafafa. More than 22,000 children have participated in the various projects initiated by JVP Community so far, many of whom come from underprivileged families. Kids are appointed 24/7 mentors, and gradually become cultural heroes for their families and neighborhoods. “It was very difficult in Jerusalem because of the Second Intifada and the unbearable poverty,” Margalit explains how the idea was born in 2002. “Me, my girls and my wife wanted to give to society and to reach some of the kids and families because we felt very aloof. When you work in high tech you run all over the world, but just next to your home there is a totally different reality. It drove us crazy, because all in all these are families just like ours. I'm a social entrepreneur as much as I'm a hi tech entrepreneur. And every time you meet with kids at the beginning of the year, you see very difficult situations, and you are shocked at how different these people’s lives are from yours, although they live so close to you. They live in a different world – a world of survival. Poverty is not just how much food you have in the fridge. It’s a situation where a kid cannot even fathom what he wants to be when he grows up. After a year or two of activity he/she begins to have wishes and dreams. It bothers me that this is a one-man project which touches the lives of 22,000 kids. I can only imagine what would have happened if Israel would have regarded itself not only as a hi tech superpower but also as a social superpower. The main thing in JVP Community is that it lets kids experience success. The process is one of trust between students and the program and volunteers.”

Who are kids themselves.
“That’s true, and we give them power by harnessing social workers and welfare services in the neighborhoods, that have very small budgets these days. We regard them as a target audience and as agents of change in Israeli society. That's why we invest in them."


Teaser page 2: May Abramov from Moshav Haniel in Emek Hefer: “I learned a lot about myself, but that’s not all. We hear on the news and on TV a lot of stories about underprivileged kids. But here you face the kids themselves. It’s hard to believe what these kids undergo. A father killed, a mom who left home.”