Earlier this month, as Katyusha rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip into Beersheba, children there went on learning, thanks in part to AMIT, a network of religious Jewish schools. Currently operating 98 schools, youth villages, and surrogate family residences across the country, AMIT, founded in 1925, serves more than 25,000 students. Seventy percent come from low-income homes and/or struggle with educational, psychological and social risk factors. During a recent visit to New York, Dr. Amnon Eldar, director general of the AMIT Network in Israel since 2002, discussed AMIT’s successes, struggles and vision.
Q: How do AMIT schools in targeted areas such as Sderot and, recently, Ashkelon and Beersheba continue to operate under such dangerous conditions?
A: When students are forced to stay at home because their city is under attack, AMIT has devised a conference telephone system so students can keep up their studies. When the situation is very dangerous, as it has been in the south this past week, children often can’t come to school for days at a time. Children dial in and are able to connect to the classroom and the teacher. Over the phone the teacher gives them directions, lectures, homework — the whole school experience, without the classroom. People have to understand that the future of Israel depends upon our students, and their education. At AMIT, we refuse to stop educating the Jewish future, even when there are missiles falling outside our windows.
This past week in Beersheba, AMIT experienced three miracles in three days. The school AMIT Chazon Ovadia was hit by a missile, as was the apartment of a student and the apartment of a teacher. Nobody was injured. I immediately sent out a letter to all 98 principals of AMIT schools across the country, requesting they say Tehillim [Psalms] with their students to thank God for this miracle.
In Sderot, how has living under such volatile conditions for so long affected the student’s performance in school?
What is truly incredible is that the students’ performance has continued to improve despite the missiles. In Sderot, AMIT operates three elementary schools and two high schools, one secular and one religious. Today in Sderot, 85 percent of students are matriculated into universities when they finish high school, while the average in the country is only 62 percent. Students learn how to live under the most uncertain conditions; not only live, but keep moving forward.
What services does AMIT provide to help children in such taxing circumstances?
AMIT provides a holistic program for the children, geared not only towards strengthening their learning, but giving them a chance to voice their fears and emotions in a close, supportive setting. In many of our schools, but especially in Sderot, we provide the children with special therapy workshops and after-school social activities where students have the chance to speak together about what they are going through.
AMIT accommodates students from so many different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. What is the demographic breakdown of the student population?
The breakdown depends primarily on where the school is located. Seventy percent of our 25,000 students come from underprivileged backgrounds, mainly in the country’s peripheral communities. Thirty percent to 40 percent of our students are immigrants, coming from Russia, France, Ethiopia and more. In certain schools, such as in Kiryat Malachi, a small town in the Negev, the population of Ethiopian students amounts to 40 percent. Within the Ethiopian community, the amount of students who pass the Bagrut (Israeli college-entrance exams) has risen over the years from 20 percent to 80 percent! AMIT believes students coming from foreign backgrounds have the ability to succeed; it’s just about educating them in the proper way.
How does AMIT work to foster relationships among students from so many different backgrounds?
Part of AMIT’s mission is to bridge the gaps between the different sects in Israeli society. To that end, we do our best to integrate students from all different backgrounds. Our student body is known for its diversity. Unlike certain other schools in Israel, AMIT rarely turns away students…
In terms of the religious differences, while AMIT is a religious Zionist organization, we set up programs where students from different religious background can meet and work together. In Sderot, for example, high school students from both the religious and secular high schools do community-service work together.
How did you yourself become involved with AMIT?
That story begins 30 years ago when my wife and I were newlyweds. We went together to work at Beit HaYaled AMIT in Jerusalem, a home for children, ages 5-17, coming from broken homes. We were in charge of 12 children, and we became their family. Today, I am still in touch with 10 of these children. They are upstanding Israeli citizens, contributing to Israeli society, and building homes and families of their own. AMIT saved the lives of these children. They were given the chance to break out of the cycle of poverty and dysfunction. That is what AMIT is about —giving children chances. Believing that with enough love, passion and dedication, we can turn the lives of these children around. At the end of the day, there is nothing more important to Israel’s future.