Today's blogpost was written by Shira Zilberstein, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.
A prominent theme of my experience on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship has been education. Across Israeli society—from Arab, Secular, Religious, Druze and Bedouin communities—we have been introduced to organizations that see education as key to advancing personal and socio-political causes. However, it is no secret that the Israeli-education system has weaknesses, including overcrowded classrooms, overwhelmed teachers and culturally narrow curricula, that limit the ability for education to serve as a vehicle for social change.
The Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI), where I have interned for the past 9-months, provides a model to address downfalls in Israeli education. ICEI is Israel’s leader in turning around underperforming elementary schools in socio-economically weak localities in Israel. The organization partners with the Ministry of Education and local government to work across a growing network of 27 schools in 14 municipalities. Their holistic, whole-school improvement model provides resources and training to principals, teachers and staff. Three mornings a week, I arrive at the ICEI outpost in my neighborhood to assist with media, resource development, strategic planning and needs-assessment research.
Students inside an ICEI classroom.
The neighborhood in which I live and work in Rishon LeZion is called Ramat Eliyahu. Ramat Eliyahu reserves a special position on ICEI’s agenda as home to the Atzmuat Plus program. Atzmaut Plus improves academic outcomes, as well as specifically supports the large Ethiopian-Israeli population in the neighborhood by promoting intra-family relations, familial financial stability and expanding employment opportunities. As part of the program, Ethiopian-Israeli Family and Education Coordinators work across school, community and home to help Ethiopian-Israeli families adjust to Israeli systems, as well as to introduce Ethiopian culture i
nto mainstream Israeli society. In my dealings with the Atzmaut Plus staff, I am continually inspired by their work as liaisons between multiple communities, showing up at homes, coordinating programs in schools and community centers and approaching families with care and understanding.
Mothers and children engage in enrichment programing run by Atzmaut Plus.
Working in Ramat Eliyahu, I also get to witness ICEI’s methodology in action. At a site visit with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-West New Jersey at a local elementary school, I observed the personalized and active teaching methods and extensive library central to ICEI’s pedagogy. In the fall, I rejoiced at a special school festivity for the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd that included dancing, singing, relay races, food tastings and history lessons. This winter, I joined one of ICEI’s elementary schools to attended the annual Young Writers Competition in Tel Aviv; the culmination of months-long, school-based writing sessions and contests. The event provided students with the opportunity to be recognized for their achievements and bolstered excitement about literacy and creativity. When a bashful 6th grade student, who I happen to tutor in my neighborhood, won best story, she collected her prize onstage and returned to her seat, greeted by cheers from friends, peers and one thrilled tutor.
Students from the Vitkin school in Ramat Eliyahu at ICEI's 2019 Young Writers Competition.
Rivka Mekonen, a student from Ramat Eliyahu, received her prize onstage as the first place winner amongst 6th graders at ICEI’s
2019 Young Writers Competition.
As I conclude the Yahel Fellowship and working with ICEI, I leave the organization at an exciting period of growth, lending hope for Israel’s educational system. Many of the issues Yahel encourages fellows to grapple with (and that have been especially consuming me this year) are vast and daunting. We will not eradicate inequality tomorrow, rewrite historical narratives, reach international peace agreements or rebuild crumbling infrastructure. But, I can facilitate research on education reform in Arab communities, find grant proposals to expand ICEI’s network and translate a 4th grader’s story about a pet cat to share with the public. Yahel has instilled that social change occurs as a process on many scales. My keystrokes, as I write a simple email for ICEI, contribute to the organization’s capacity, to education reform within Israel, to promoting academic and socio-economic advancement, to familial stability and community wellbeing, and thus, in that very act, is a part of social change.