Baruch Matatov, a 17 year-old boy from Ashkelon, Israel who is an 11th grade student at World ORT’s Kfar Silver Youth Village, is one of the winners of World ORT’s Gina and Joseph Harmatz Award for his efforts to raise awareness and end discrimination for Israel’s visually impaired community. The Award is presented to students from throughout the ORT network of schools whose projects showcase their dedication to Tikkun Olam.
There were 12 other ORT Harmatz Award winners, from Israel, Russia, Argentina and Mexico, including students who used their education in ORT’s STEM programs to put technology into action to help others, volunteered in special education schools, raised funds for those in need and visited elderly Jewish community members.
Three years ago Matatov contracted a rare genetic disease which profoundly diminished his vision. As he struggled to come to terms with his new condition, Baruch became aware of the many challenges and problems that the visually impaired and blind must deal with. He decided he needed to do something to help the more than 23,500 people in Israel who suffer some form of decreased vision or blindness.
Baruch discovered that many visually impaired students found it difficult to interact with their teachers and classmates. He also learned that there is discrimination in hiring vision impaired individuals, even when full vision is not required for the position. In addition, a recent survey revealed that 50 percent of Israel’s population is unwilling to pursue a romantic relationship with someone who is vision-impaired or blind.
Thanks to the self-confidence and leadership skills he gained at the ORT Kadima Mada program at Kfar Silver, Baruch resolved to address these inequities. He became active in the youth movement Noar B’Yachad, which runs programs on behalf of youth with visual impairment or blindness aged 10 to 21, who are enrolled in regular education settings across the country. Working with the organization, Baruch organized meetings to bring the “visual” community together with the visually impaired to raise awareness, discuss the discrimination they face and advocate for aid. He said, “I have lectured in front of hundreds of students in different grades and schools. I do this on a volunteer basis, sometimes at the expense of my studies at school.”
Baruch is also working to establish a special conference for individuals with decreased vision or blindness, seeking those who have achieved success in Israeli society despite its inherent inequities or prejudices.
“To be someone with a visual impairment in the State of Israel is not an easy feat, he said. “I find that I have accomplished more than expected, in my quest to change the system. But it takes more of an effort and investment. You need to be able to travel throughout the country, from Yokneam to Dimona, to make a difference. I believe my social involvement has changed (attitudes) and will bring about more change.”
ORT Kadima Mada has an educational network comprising six high schools, three of which are attached to Youth Villages, including Kfar Silver, and all of which have a high proportion of students from troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds. It also provides enriching, applied courses to more than 5,000 children, ages 5-17, each year in partnership with the Israeli government and local municipalities.