Israeli mentorship program Perach navigates wartime challenges as it marks 50 years of service

Organization, which was formed just before the Yom Kippur War, has overseen some 800,000 mentors and in some way helped 2 million Israelis

Since 1973, the nonprofit Perach, which pairs university student “mentors” with elementary school-age “mentees” from disadvantaged backgrounds, has built a prestigious program based on the power of one-to-one tutorship. But that connection was tested as never before after the terror attacks of Oct. 7. 

Perach mentor and law student Sarit Sivan, 23, was evacuated from her home in the southern town of Ofakim to the Tel Aviv area, as was her young mentee from Sderot. Their initial meetings in the weeks after the start of the war were more complicated over Zoom, but eventually the two were able meet in person and Sivan took her mentee to restaurants and helped her with her homework.

“It was not so easy at first, we never experienced something like this. When I first met my mentee, I tried to take the meetings in other directions [away from the trauma.] It also helped me for those two hours to be cut off from our day-to-day reality,” Sivan said. “It helped us to find the balance between what happened in real life and what we need to do. For two hours it was just fun with her. After all she is a child and expected me to come and have fun with her.”

Now, as the national mentoring program marks its 50th year, it has rebounded since Oct. 7 and within a month of the Hamas attacks at least half of its 23,000 university student mentors who had been scheduled to begin the project in October were already meeting with their young elementary school “mentees.” And as the school year nears an end, Perach officials are trying to figure out how the mentors and mentees keep their connection alive.

Founded in April 1973, right after the Yom Kippur War, Perach, which is Hebrew for “flower” as well as the acronym of “proyekt chonchot,” or “tutoring project,” is based on a model of providing scholarships for university students who volunteer as mentors to mostly elementary school-aged students from Israel’s geographical and social periphery, to Jews and Arabs, religious and secular children from all over the country. 

Over the years it has grown from the modest project of a dozen volunteer students proposed by Rony Attar, then a doctoral student of computer science at the Weizmann Institute of Science, to a project which now yearly distributes scholarships amounting to NIS 150 million ($40.5 million) to 24,000 students, who mentor some 40,000 children and teenagers, focusing on mainly one-to-one tutorship targeting underachieving, socially disadvantaged children. The early efforts were supported by professor Haim Harari, then dean of the Graduate School of the Weizmann Institute, and the project continues to be headquartered at the Weizmann Institute. It is recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Education, with most of its funding coming from the Council of Higher Education. In 2008, Perach was awarded the Israel Prize.

Four students scheduled to be mentors this year were killed in the initial weeks of the war, Alon Galron, national director of Perach, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The Perach framework is pyramid-style with coordinators in touch with groups of mentors, providing guidance and supervision throughout the year. This format has also allowed them to provide emotional assistance for the mentors when needed, said Galron.

“Because they have to advise their mentors, sometimes it can be overwhelming and as an organization we have to support our people in the field. The year is not over — we don’t know what we are facing yet,” he said. “The main challenge in getting the university students to be mentors was that the opening date of the school year kept moving [because of the war], but we managed to cope with it and have been able to get 23,000 mentors out of our normal 24,000.”

This year, as the number of student mentors in reserve duty has doubled, Perach has given special scholarships to accommodate their limited availability, he said.

Under the extenuating circumstances the staff coordinators in the field were over-motivated this year and took on more mentees than normal, resulting in the program uncharacteristically going over budget, he added. “There are challenges, but we are meeting them successfully,” he said.

There have been changes in the perception and implementation of the program over the years, he said. While in the early years children might have been initially embarrassed to participate in Perach out of fear of being negatively labeled, now it is viewed as a specialized program to help students reach their potential.

“At first my parents and I had doubts. We were new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and we were worried this may be like having a social worker. At first I worried it was because I was different,” recalled Avital Pries, 22, today a psychology and sociology student from Ashkelon who a little over a decade ago was a mentee in Perach and now is on staff as a coordinator after having also been a mentor. “They spoke to my parents and convinced them to give it a try. I remember I enjoyed it and that it was fun. My parents saw me go from a closed, shy girl who did not talk and did not participate to being someone who speaks in front of people, manages groups, organizes students.” 

She always knew she wanted to give back to the organization that played such a significant role in her life, she said, and last year she was a Perach mentor.

Once using the term “tutoring,” Perach today prefers to see itself as a “mentoring” organization helping children reach their potential not only academically but also on a social and emotional level, Galron said, and also has expanded to include mentorships for college students with disabilities.

“Now we focus more on the child’s strengths, and show them positive things, creating a horizon and hope for them, something they can look forward to achieving,” said Galron. “These kids mainly need someone who can give them personal attention…four hours a week is a lot with someone who cares only about you.”

Mentorships normally last for a year to 18 months, said Galron, and are based on creating this personal relationship between the two young people. Their research has shown that building a place of trust, social efficacy and learning efficacy, leads to academic results, he added. “The personal connection between two individuals is a basis for everything,” he said. 

Over 50 years, Perach has had more than 800,000 higher education students participate in the program and more than 2 million people in Israel directly or indirectly affected by the program either as mentees, parents or teachers, he said.

The program does have something of a gender imbalance, as 70% of the mentors are women, while 55% of the mentees are boys. This can present challenges as many boys say they prefer a man as a mentor, Galron said.

Perach’s scholarship format has also become a model for similar programs abroad, Galron said, and last year they provided direction to an organization in Portugal trying to build a similar mentoring model with students.

Perach is the largest mentorship program worldwide, Galron said. He credited its low dropout rate of 8% primarily to the financial scholarship incentive, but also to its support system for mentors. However, Galron stressed that the mentors also benefit from the program besides the money.

“They receive a scholarship, yes, but more important is for them to get a lifetime experience about what Israeli society is,” he said. “Most mentors come from middle-class or upper-class families, and this may be their first introduction into the backyard of their country. It is more than just receiving money. It is receiving life experiences if they are to be future leaders of this country.”

Indeed, many of Israel’s social leaders are Perach mentors who have gone on to contribute to Israeli society, such as World WIZO CEO Mira Mines and director of Ha’Emek Medical Center, Dr. Maor Maman. 

Mines said her experience as a mentor, coordinator and later deputy director of Perach Tel Aviv gave her an important tool box for the world of management. Since her experience with Perach, she said, it has been important for her to use her heart and intuition in all the CEO positions she has held — even in the business world.

Maman said his connection with Perach began with the need for a scholarship but then grew to be much more than that.

“I mentored a student from Migdal Ha’Emek, and this allowed me to give back to the community where I grew up and help a child who needed guidance… It gave me a lot of meaning. The gratitude of the families of the mentees when I taught and also as a coordinator when I made home visits is worth everything,” he said. “I strongly believe in education and influencing the younger generation, in my opinion it is one of the most important roles there is.”

Over the years the demand of schools from Perach as a solution to the increasing challenges they face has increased, said Galron, and they receive lists of students from the schools with complex issues who need more professional intervention rather than a student mentor.

“Today families are demanding more from the establishment and then the establishment wants our help in many cases. Israeli society is changing and we have to find the right to adapt to that,” he said. “Certainly this year there are many more challenges.”

For now Galron said Perach is focused on how to complete the current year of mentoring, when in June normally mentors and mentees stay in touch with each other even at the end of the program, but now they don’t necessarily live in the same city and informal meet-ups may not be an option.

“How do you say goodbye to a child who has been through turmoil and has come to rely on you for eight months?” he said. “Professionally it is the right thing to do, but how to do it is something we are grappling with right now.”