(Adapted from a speech given over at the opening session of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit in Jerusalem on April 7, 2016.)
Throughout my entire life, I’ve always dreamed of changing the world. I had big plans of growing up and making my impact. I just didn’t yet know how.
After graduating high-school in New Jersey, I took a gap year and came to Jerusalem, Israel for a year of study and exploration. It was my first time in Israel, and I found the experience completely captivating. I fell in love with the complexity, spirituality, and electricity of Jerusalem and I decided that there was no better place to begin fulfilling my dream of making the world a better place than right here in Jerusalem Israel. So, that’s exactly what I decided to do. One year later, at the age of 19, I left my family and friends behind, boarded a plane with a one-way ticket and became an Israeli citizen. I went on to receive my B.A., married a native, and moved to Jerusalem to begin pursuing my dream.
Jerusalem is the multi-cultural cross-center of religions, histories, peoples and stories. There are even multiple sects within each religion and culture, making this city not like any other. The modern building that we are standing in today (JVP Media Quarter) against the backdrop of the ancient stones of the Old City are an example of the merge of civilizations and histories represented by Israel’s capital city.
However, as different as we all are, there is one common denominator that cuts across all populations in Jerusalem. And that is the unfortunate state of poverty. I’m not referring to the poverty represented by raggedy clothing and empty refrigerators, but a poverty represented by a state of mind. A poverty that influences one on an emotional level in which one does not believe that he can achieve, and is subject to the confines of how society dictates that he must view his future. It is this social phenomenon that is plaguing about 300,000 children in Jerusalem today who are living under the poverty line. We call this “psychological poverty”.
Bakehila (“In the Community”), an incredible non-profit organization, is directly and holistically combating psychological poverty on a daily basis. They do not provide jobs, do not give out food packages, and they are not working to change policies. What they are doing is directly targeting the root of the problem, the only place where long term and sustainable change can be made – children.
A child’s mind is like play dough- it can molded and stretched and mushed and remolded again. That is why Bakehila works with children during the most impressionable stage of their lives, between the ages of 9-14 and over a five year a period, expanding their horizons and teaching them to dream. In under-served communities across Jerusalem, Bakehila has been implementing a highly integrative model of educational intervention for the past 12 years, reaching over 25,000 kids, Jews and Arabs alike. But almost more importantly, Bakehila provides positive role models for these children by placing over 50 year-of-service volunteers inside targeted communities for the length of a year. It is these young adults who are ultimately responsible for developing each child’s personal strengths and aspirations and serving as a much needed source of inspiration.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a most impressive young man by the name of Tespa. Tespa immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a young child with his many siblings. His single mother had no Hebrew skills and struggled to provide for her family. Tespa and his family fell directly into poverty, almost losing the battle before it even began.
Tespa was a troubled kid. He was expelled from three different schools, was involved in vandalism and small crimes, and needless to say, was going down a dangerous path. He somehow found his way to Bakehila, joined the flagship Learning and Enrichment Center program and met a year-of-service fellow who took Tespa under his wing and mentored him over the year and beyond. Tespa’s natural leadership skills and ability to get things done in record time quickly surfaced, and he emerged as a formidable student, friend and leader.
Five years later, he has graduated from high school and prior to starting his military service, Tespa currently volunteers as a counselor in a boy’s dormitory for juvenile delinquents, serving as a mentor and channeling the positive guidance that he himself once received from his Bakehila mentors when he so urgently needed it. This summer, Tespa will be joining the IDF as a mature and seasoned young leader, idealistic and full of passion.
After hearing Tespa’s story, I said to him “Tespa, you’ve already come so far, what are your dreams for the future?”
He said simply and with confidence, “That’s easy. I’m going to be the first Ethiopian Chief of Staff (Ramatkal) of the IDF”.
And you know what? I believed him.
Tespa is a quintessential example of Bakehila’s overarching message: If we can plant that one small seed in a child’s head that they can, they will.
It was here in Jerusalem that I connected with Bakehila, and began making my dream of changing the world a reality.