What happens when someone walks into a disadvantaged neighborhood and decides to make a difference there? How long does their commitment last? And do they go home at the end of the day?
by Laurie Heller
There has been debate for many years on the best ways to raise academic achievement in low income areas, how to change destructive family patterns and how to provide youth with new horizons. Through not yet widespread, I have seen more and more professionals find expanded ways to dedicate themselves personally to their causes by living within the community. The Kvutzat Reut nonprofit, run by Orli Fridman and the Beit Yisrael community, have pioneered this incredibly local method to spark a profoundly deep impact in the lives of others.
The story of Kvutzat Reut and the Beit Yisrael community began when they decided to commit to a disadvantaged neighborhood for a lifetime knowing it was the way to make deep changes.
In 1993, an idealistic group of young men and women who had served in the IDF together decided to form a kibbutz community, and called themselves Beit Yisrael. They sought out a place to live, and heard about a pocket of poverty in Jerusalem’s Gilo Aleph neighborhood. What was once a thriving absorption center had evolved into a public housing project.
The Gilo Alpeh public housing project was beset by the classic challenges of intergenerational poverty, including high rates of crime, drugs, and unemployment. While other visitors might have seen the graffiti on the walls and needles on the ground, members of Kibbutz Beit Yisrael saw an opportunity to make a difference.
They moved their families into some of the worst housing blocks and soon afterward established the Kvutzat Reut organization. For the first few years the organization focused solely on providing safe and enriching afterschool mentoring and tutoring programs for several dozen local children.
“When we first moved in we were met with a lot of suspicion,” said Orli Fridman, who was also amongst the original Beit Yisrael families that settled into the housing project. “The residents could not understand why we chose to be there. And after years of feeling abandoned by government and welfare services, they felt forgotten by mainstream society and gave no regard to those living ‘outside’ their experience.”
It took years of patient work by Beit Yisrael community members with local families to spark change. Local residents, having been offered help many times before by people who did not stick around, slowly began to accept the Beit Yisrael community when it became clear that they intended to stay indefinitely.
“When housing project residents realized we were here to stay, we were suddenly able to develop relationships with them and having an impact on the children’s success in school. When we renovated our kitchen, one neighbor said to me, ‘Okay, I finally believe you aren’t leaving.’”
A few years later Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, and Beit Yisrael’s activities took a major turn.
Following the assassination, Israeli society was suddenly starkly polarized along religious-secular lines. The members of Kibbutz Beit Yisrael were themselves a mix of secular, traditional, and Orthodox families and had found a way to live together in a tight-knit community. With a firsthand understanding of the valuable multiculturalism that the country was sacrificing, they created Israel’s first pluralistic pre-army Mechina leadership program for young men and women from a diverse range of backgrounds.
The Mechina (Mechinat Beit Yisrael) brings together some of the country’s brightest young leaders for a year of Jewish study and volunteering. The volunteering happens in the neighborhood, powering the organization’s tutoring and mentoring work with local kids and teens.
Today Kvutzat Reut reaches about 500 children living in and around the Gilo Aleph housing project. They have expanded the programs to include mentoring for high-risk teens, an early childhood playgroup, an sustainability youth movement, highly subsidized pre-Passover and summer camps, in school tutoring, and community-wide celebrations for Jewish and national holidays.
After a generation of partnership this is what has been accomplished: more housing project children than ever graduate high school. More than ever before are enlisting and serving in the IDF-a vital platform for socioeconomic advancement in Israel. And streets that were littered with needles and trash are slowly filling up with renovations and green spaces.
To illustrate, this past Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), over 20 young men and women who were born and bred in the housing project came onstage in their IDF uniforms. None of their parents had served, and never imagined their children would be welcomed into the army’s ranks.
“We meet our goals each year, but the struggle isn’t over,” said Aviva Lahav, a Mechinat Beit Yisrael graduate and Hebrew University student who moved back to Gilo Aleph, married, and brought her husband with her to the community.
“When I was in the Mechina I became close to a teenage girl who grew up there. Despite the odds she succeeded in school and participated in National Service. And we’re still in touch.”
So the Beit Yisrael community continues their work one child and a time, small victories add up to complete a wider picture of change. Despite the challenges, they could not have accomplished a similar impact without their long term commitment. They are digging their heels in for the next 20 years of work because no one at Beit Yisrael leaves to go home at the end of the day.
Laurie Heller is the Founder and President of Laurie Heller and Associates, a consulting firm for Israeli nonprofit organizations and American based foundations. The company helps nonprofit organizations open doors and locating new funding sources from existing supporters. The company’s approach in writing grants comes from a unique perspective based on Laurie’s’ work with foundations.