In a Bakehila project in which Israeli-Ethiopian children from struggling communities were taken to see an Ethiopian optometrist at work, an unusual incident happened.
The inquisitive children had spent a few hours with the optometrist who showed his clinic to them and demonstrated how he tested people’s eyesight. At the end, the optometrist sat down among the kids to hear their thoughts on what they’d seen. He happened to put on his white lab coat just before sitting. Suddenly, one of the children turned to him and said: “But…you’re Ethiopian! You can’t possibly be a doctor.” Something about seeing one of his own kin dressed in a white lab coat was incomprehensible to this child. Because in his perception, and that of so many others of a similar background, people like him didn’t get to be doctors. Individuals from struggling communities often see themselves as society sees them: poor, unable and trapped in social class that is going nowhere fast.
Children and youth who grow up in such surroundings fall prey to a psychological state of poverty, which affects the opportunities they see for themselves and their futures. Poverty doesn’t necessarily mean an empty fridge or cut off electricity. It’s a state of mind in which one sees limited options for a viable future. Lack of prospective social mobility and limited education means that youth at risk often drop out of school, work low-wage jobs, and continue with their future families into another round in the cycle of poverty.
“Poverty is an emotional state,” says expert Eldar Shafir. “You’re so concerned about the present that you can’t begin thinking about the future, and that’s the big irony: People with the greatest need to think about the future don’t have the leisure or emotional capacity to do so.”
Bakehila was founded by MK Erel Margalit in order to close the educational gap amongst disadvantaged communities in Jerusalem, thus increasing the graduation rates among youth at risk and positively affecting their chances for breaking out of the cycle of poverty in the future. We hope that, by seeing the plethora of opportunities laid out in front of them, youth at risk can and will choose differently. They will have the motivation, along with the scholastic and personal aid we provide, to finish high-school and pursue their dreams. And, at least, psychologically, to see themselves as the able individuals they really are.
On the eve of Pesach, this message connects clearly to the experience of the Jews in Egypt. Generations upon generations of Jews were enslaved and stuck in a forced servitude of labor. Their daily hardship became the only reality they knew, trapping them in a spiritual slumber in which they could not sum up the motivation or will to leave. So much so, that when Moses came to his people to tell them of God’s plan to free them, they were not interested. “Moses related this to the Israelites, but because of their disappointment and hard work, they would no longer listen to him.” (Exodus, 6:9) The author is a Resource Development Associate at Bakehila, a Jerusalem-based non-profit that drives social change.
It is for this reason that they had to experience something truly supernatural in order to shock them out of their reverie, and allow them to exit that state of mind – the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. And only then, could they be taken out of the darkness into the light, both physically and spiritually.
Struggling communities have real, daily hardship on many levels. But the worst aspect is not material; it is the feeling within, the way they perceive themselves to be. Let us hope that with the aid of education and positive role models, we can help today’s youth at risk to perceive themselves as more than what society dictates. “The first step to exiting the cycle of poverty is realizing that you, and you alone, are responsible for your journey,” says Yair Zaafrany, CEO of Bakehila. Let them loosen those restrictive bonds, and allow them to reach the light of opportunity that is right in front of them, if only they would look.
The author is a Resource Development Associate at Bakehila, a Jerusalem-based non-profit that drives social change.