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Changing Fortunes In Harlem

Changing Fortunes In Harlem

In the next few days, upon his return from a weeklong business trip to the United States, Rami Sulimani will arrange meetings with the leaders of community projects in five Israeli cities.

Sulimani, the head of a major social welfare agency in Israel that works with the country’s at-risk youth, will tell the leaders to be more innovative.

He will tell them to be more proactive.

He will tell them to be more assertive in dealing with the government agencies and private foundations that support their activities.

Sulimani will tell them, in short, to be like Geoff Canada.

Canada is the president and founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an independent social welfare organization that works with more than 12,500 children and adults in a 60-block area of the Manhattan neighborhood.

For one afternoon last week he told a 10-member Israeli delegation led by Sulimani how HCZ has turned around the lives of thousands of minority children (mostly African Americans, as well as some Hispanics and youngsters from other backgrounds) and helped change the tenor of the area.

In a boardroom at the organization’s headquarters at 125th Street and Madison Avenue, where charter school students in modest uniforms politely climb the stairs; at a public school where HCZ staffers teach French to elementary school students; and at a storefront building where young parents learn parenting skills, Canada described his mission to "carve out a portion of Harlem" where children feel safe and believe they have a future.

"Children have been failing in Harlem for 30, 40 years … in every area," like education and health and employment, said Canada, an educator who graduated from Harvard.

"We want to make it harder to fail," he said.

As Canada talked about the successes of HCZ, which in its 22 years has established cradle to graduate-school programs for Harlem’s children, the visitors took notes and raised their hands to ask questions.

"It’s a great example," said Sulimani, director general of the Ashalim-Association for Planning and Development of Services for Children and Youth at Risk and their Families, who toured the Harlem program for the first time a year ago. "It’s something we can learn from."

Indeed, Sulimani this summer instituted a pilot project called Better Together in two neighborhoods of Kiryat Malachi, an economically depressed city in the center of Israel, adopting the comprehensive, community involvement emphasis stressed by HCZ: A tenants’ association in one building took responsibility for cleaning the site, and organizers went door-to-door looking for volunteers.

Sulimani said he wants to incorporate more of the Harlem ideas into an Israeli setting "as soon as possible."

The problem of at-risk youth, who often turn to drugs or violence and end up in the criminal justice system, is "getting worse" in Israel, he said, affecting some 350,000 Jewish and Arab children and teens, but is little known in the United States.

Sulimani, who toured a score of social welfare programs and met Ashalim supporters during his week here, said the problem is usually worse in the "periphery" of the country: in small, heterogeneous communities where immigrants from various countries and cultures have settled. Unemployment and crime is usually highest in these communities, he said.

Israel, according to a recent report issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, trails only the United States in the number of juvenile criminals serving life sentences.

"I see the faces of people" to whom he describes the extent of the problem, he said: "’What? Where.’ I don’t think people realize the situation."

Ashalim, a 7-year-old organization funded by the Israeli government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and New York’s UJA-Federation, sponsors 240 projects on what Sulimani calls a "very small budget" of $7 million.

HCZ’s annual budget, raised from a combination of government grants, corporate partners and private foundations, is $40 million.

Sulimani heard about Canada’s organization, the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile last year, in his social welfare circles.

"The world is a small village," he said.

The vanload of Israelis and representatives from JDC and UJA-Federation, while praising HCZ’s substantive achievements, also represented a symbolic change. For generations, during the days of the 19th century abolitionist movement and more recently during the civil rights movement, whites, among them a disproportionate number of Jewish activists, often found themselves in a paternalistic position working for blacks.

This time Jewish groups were learning from their black counterparts’ "best practices," Sulimani said.

"They understand that they must involve the community," he said, referring to Canada’s description of HCZ meetings with Harlem residents.

"What [the HCZ record] demonstrates is that it has nothing to do with race or religion … it has to do with the quality of people," said philanthropist Edith Everett, a JDC board member and supporter of HCZ who accompanied the Israeli delegation in Harlem.

The Israelis followed the footsteps of other social welfare experts who come to Harlem to learn how HCZ works."We get a lot of visitors," said Marty Lipp, communications director at HCZ, which arranges three-day training workshops and shorter site visits. "People come through here weekly if not more."

"Everyone thought it was a great visit," said Merav Galili, manager of Ashalim’s overseas partnerships. "It’s inspiring to see such a person. It’s inspiring to see such a project."

The leaders of the Ashalim pilot projects in five Israeli cities are well trained and highly motivated to help at-risk youth. They are also well qualified to work with bureaucrats and other supporters, Galili said.

"But they’re not Geoff," he added.Sulimani will go to each community in the coming days and describe what he experienced in Harlem, he said.

"I don’t think we are going to replicate a Canada," he said. "We must learn from him."

Sulimani invited Canada to come to Israel to see Ashalim in action, and Canada accepted.

How will Sulimani know, in a few years, if he has succeeded in bringing the spirit of Canada’s Harlem program to Ashalim projects in Israel?

"If you see in each community a lay leader that takes responsibility for all children," Sulimani said. "If you see a dramatic change in the scholastic achievement of the children. If you see the streets cleaner than they are today."

If, he said, the leaders of Ashalim projects throughout the country take initiative like Canada did.

"I hope," Sulimani said, "to see many Geoff Canadas."

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