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Beautiful Native Flower

The tragedy of street violence among Israeli teenagers claimed two innocent lives last week. As I listened to the usual “blah blah” of talking heads discussing how to deal with this urgent social problem, it occurred to me that part of the solution might just already exist, the product of a unique blend of Israeli wisdom and compassion.

When my eldest was in her first year of college at Hebrew University and strapped for cash, she was recruited by a college program called “PERACH.” All she’d have to do, they told her, was meet with a child twice a week and help her with her homework.

The little girl was nine years old, the third child out of four and only daughter of a simple housewife and an electrician living in a poor neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. She was a sad little girl, dressed in ugly clothes, and suffering from neglect and passive abuse. More than anything, her self-image was badly in need of nurturing.

Yes, my daughter went over her math and English and grammar homework with her. But she also began bringing her some pretty clothes, and some toys. “She’s sweet,” my daughter would tell me. “Such a sweet, good child.” After a few months, my daughter reported, the child’s mother, amazed that a stranger had found so many good qualities in her daughter, also began to look at her child with a kinder eye. When my daughter graduated, she gave the little girl a parting gift: all our family’s Barbies and accessories.

And although my daughter is a married woman now with children of her own, and the little girl she tutored is already in high school, they’ve never stopped being in touch. And it’s quite possible, that they never will.

A uniquely Israeli educational project employing university students to mentor disadvantaged youngsters, PERACH (meaning “flower” in Hebrew) began by accident, 25 years ago.

One cold winter night, Rony Attar, a 26 year-old graduate student at the Weizman Institute, and his wife, stopped their car to pick up two shivering young hitchhikers. They turned out to be brothers, the children of a poor widow who, having no choice, had enrolled them in a boarding school for disadvantaged youngsters.

The brothers hated it. It was on this night they’d decided to run away. The Attars drove the boys back to their boarding school. However, a few days later, unable to forget them, the Attars returned, and asked permission to take the boys into their home. For the next two years, Rony and his wife helped the kids with their homework, took them to libraries and museums and hikes around the country. Staggered by the boys’ educational and personal progress, Rony went to his professor, Chaim Harrari, dean of Weizman’s Fineberg Graduate School, with an idea: Why not recruit other Weizman college students to tutor and mentor disadvantaged youngsters from nearby Yavneh? Professor Harrari, from the goodness of his heart, agreed to take such a project under his wing. Beginning with 20 college student volunteers and an equal number of youngsters, PERACH was born.

This year PERACH celebrates its 25th anniversary. With funds from the government’s Council of Higher Education and The Ministry of Education, the good deed of one thoughtful college student and the work of one dedicated professor has become a nationwide project of international renown. With 550 full time employees in 8 regional centers located in Israeli universities, PERACH now has 20,000 college student tutors who reach out to 45,000 disadvantaged youngsters.

The children, who are recommended by their school counselors, are drawn from every possible segment of Israel’s population: Arab youngsters from the Galilee, young Bedouin from the Negev, secular Israeli kids from south Tel Aviv slums, Ultra-Orthodox boys and girls from Jerusalem and B’nai Brak.

Each year, PERACH coordinators — recruited from former tutors — recruit college students and then contact school counselors for lists of needy youngsters. Coordinators individually match youngsters with mentors. In addition, college students also give after-school enrichment classes.

But it’s not only the children who benefit from project.

Noam is ten years old, the child of a garbage collector and housewife living in a small development town. In the past, teased by his classmates, Noam was ashamed of his parents, and became increasingly involved in petty thefts and street violence, hanging out with older boys and smoking. The school counselor wasn’t even sure he was worth helping. A PERACH counselor felt differently. She matched Noam with Jonathan, a 24 year-old, second year electrical engineering student struggling to keep up with tuition costs.

Jonathan took Noam to see the sunset on the beach, to visit museums, milk cows, and up hiking trails. As a reward for improving his study habits, Jonathan helped Noam build a beautiful kite. Proud of his relationship with Jonathan, Noam developed new self-confidence. His grades improved so much, that a math teacher made him take a test twice. He got 100% both times. According to his parents, thanks to his tutor, Noam not only became a good student; he became a nicer person.

As for Jonathan, the rewards were not only monetary: “Noam taught me to see the interesting and exciting side of everyday things. I too became a more well-rounded person, and was enriched by lots of small, wonderful experiences.”

Begun with a single seed of lovingkindness, PERACH has bloomed into a beautiful, native flower. Given what is happening in our streets and classrooms, I say let’s water PERACH more lavishly, allowing its dedicated director of eighteen years, Amos Carmeli, the additional resources he needs to expand the program to reach the thousands of Israeli children obviously in need of its unique brand of personal care.

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