Inside Israel

When Opposites Attract – a JDAIM initiative at its best

My Piece of the Puzzle (MPOP), an Israeli nonprofit organization that aims to break stereotypes about disabilities and inclusion, brings youth-at-risk and youth with special needs together in joint fun and educational activities. After ten years pioneering this new partnership, much fundraising, and several successful summer camps, MPOP has recently received backing from Israel’s Ministry of Education to open projects in schools across the country.

As a teenager, I was very shy and struggled through school, both socially and educationally. No matter how hard I studied for a test, I got low grades, which affected my self-esteem. At the age of 15, I joined a youth movement, and that’s when I realized that I wanted to work with kids who no one believes in and let them know they are worth something. They are worth a lot!

After I finished my IDF service, I was selected to be a counselor at Camp Ramapo in New York, where I saw for the first time the magic that happens when you put together a whole bunch of kids and youth who come from different backgrounds and difficulties. Do you know what happens? Magic!! They learn how to love, how to be loved, how to build strong and meaningful relationships and how to become contributing members of society.

One of MPOP’s first participants was Tal, 16, from Ramle, a classic ‘youth-at-risk.’ His father was serving a long prison sentence. Tal had very low self-esteem, behavioral issues and had changed schools five times in three years. The first few days in our summer program, Tal made fun of the special needs campers and didn’t want to participate in group activities. But one morning he participated in an activity, and very quickly things started to change. A few nights later he told me in tears: “I failed at everything I have ever done, but here, I found something I’m good at. I enjoy helping other children and I never knew I had any good qualities. Now I understand what unconditional love means”.

For children with special needs, the impact is also profound. These are children who go to different schools and struggle to feel they have potential outside of this world. When they have a positive experience outside of this bubble, it can have a noticeable impact on their self-esteem.

Nimrod, 15, has autism. He was very shy when he came to us – for the first few meetings, he did not talk to anyone, we were not sure if he was verbal or not. Later, he shared with us, “The first few days I felt lost. For many years I had terrible experiences with other kids who don’t have autism and don’t understand me and what I’m going through. The last day of camp I made my dream come true and I sang in front of everyone in the talent show.”

In order to achieve our goals, MPOP operates three types of activities. The first type of activity is a year-long program, done in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Education, in which youth groups of these populations from all over the country undergo personal empowerment activities on a bi-weekly basis. The second type of activity is a joint summer camp where they enjoy significant personal and educational experiences. And the third is a joint project between MPOP and Aharai, where we have a gap-year program that prepares these young adults for meaningful army service. In addition, as part of the vision of integrating both youth populations into general society, we help arrange for our youth to do volunteer work and collaborative activities which provide them with tools for integration and adaptation, elevate self-esteem, and highlight their strengths and their value to society.

I am often asked, “How does this combination work? Youth at risk are tough cookies” – Well, do you know what is special about cookies? That even the tough ones are sweet.

Jenna Elbaz is co-founder of My Piece of the Puzzle, along with Shaked Karp. For more information: jennaelbaz@gmail.com – website: http://mypuzzlepiece.org/