A 2017 UNICEF report revealed that Israel has the third-highest children’s poverty rate in the developed world, behind Mexico and Chile. One-third of Israeli children reside in poverty. The government has failed to aggressively aid impoverished Israeli citizens. According to a 2016 report, the Social Affairs ministry’s budget to support poor Israeli families was less than $10 a person — a minimal $11.8 million. A December 2016 survey by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews revealed that 68% of poor people were forced to abstain from purchasing food during the previous year due to lack of finances. Over half of the respondents were also forced to skip medical treatments.  

The Israeli-based Afikim seems to have found some solutions. Eighty-eight percent of Afikim participants matriculate from their low-income high schools compared to 44% of other students attending the same high school. The Jerusalem-based NGO has attempted a unique approach to combating poverty in Israeli homes. Their program serves 528 secular and religious youth at 14 centers throughout Israel. They work with families to keep them intact rather than going to foster care. This is accomplished by providing hot meals, tutoring, life skills training, counseling and other programs, so that youth under economic stress are nurtured to become successful members of Israeli society. 

Rabbi Moshe Lefkowitz, CEO and founder of Afikim, devotes his efforts to improving the welfare of needy children. Lefkowitz’s mission in 2019 is to increase the number of Afikim students by 80. Unfortunately, Afikim has to turn away thousands of children (many whom are immigrants) each year due to a lack of funding and space. Afikim has a modest $2 million budget, with 40% of its funding obtained from the government and the remainder raised from private donations. The Israeli government gives non-profits dealing with poverty a maximum of 40% of their budget, while non-profits dealing with other issues, such as special needs, are eligible to receive significantly more funding. Even with these limitations, here is what Afikim is able to accomplish: 

The Afikim project consists of five long-term programs. The programs focus on providing educational resources for both children and parents.

● The project Afternoon Learning Centers is designed for children in the first to sixth grades and include classes and enrichment programs to acquire life skills.

● Afternoon Welfare and Learning Centers provide support for children who have been judged as at-risk by the courts. Children remain in their home environment, where entire families receive professional counseling designed to provide positive outcomes.

● Afikim also oversees Learning Centers for middle school and high school students, providing educational and emotional support. Students in the 11th and 12th grades receive training and guidance in preparation for service in the Israeli army.

● Parent Empowering Centers provide professional guidance and counseling to parents of Afikim children, including workshops on managing money, as many Afikim families are immigrants and not prepared for Israel’s high cost of living.

● The Afikim Graduate Program provides support for Afikim students who have completed their army service. Professional counselors guide students through the college application process; Afikim offers alumni scholarships to attend institutions of higher learning.

Moshe Lefkowitz, who directed soup kitchens before founding Afikim in 2008, believes that impoverished Israeli youth will benefit more from receiving a fishing rod than from being given a fish. Such is the case of an exemplary Afikim graduate and her family. Noga (name changed for privacy purposes) is a 22-year-old IDF soldier serving in the prestigious Givat unit. In 1998, she emigrated with her family from Addis Abada, Ethiopia. Noga’s parents worked multiple jobs to support their kids in Israel. Her parents pushed their six children to excel in academics. However, Noga and her siblings struggled to learn Hebrew and English. Her parents discovered Afikim’s afternoon program, which began providing tutoring to all of their children after school. Afikim also took an extra step and tutored Noga’s father in English, which provided him with the skills to quit his janitor position and become an escort at the Knesset. Upon her completion of duties in the Israeli Defense Forces, Noga hopes to continue her education and be an ambassador. She believes it is her duty to share her history and heritage and give back to her Afikim community. JN

Marcia Heller is a speech pathologist living in Mesa. 

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