By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – In 1989, when Jews from the former Soviet Union began settling in the Israeli city of Rehovot, Yaffa Gunner, a member of the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA) was living there while her husband worked at the Weitzman Institute.
“At that time, the city of Rehovot was just inundated with Russian immigrants,” said Marilyn Kushick, a member of JCA. “Yaffa worked with local people in Rehovot to see if there was anything that the members of JCA could do to help out.”
The result was Project Rehovot, a committee formed by JCA to raise funds for needy children in the Israeli city, located on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
On Sunday, Feb. 26, JCA will present a concert to benefit Project Rehovot. The concert will feature performances by Mak’hela, the Jewish Chorus of western Massachusetts, directed by Kayla Werlin; singer/songwriter Felicia Sloin; the old time country musicians featuring Rabbi Ben Weiner of the Jewish Community of Amherst; and the Hope Community Church Choir of Amherst.
Since 1989, JCA’s Project Rehovot has raised approximately $219,000.
“I believe that the children need all of the extra help they can get so that their education will help them get out of poverty and into productive lives,” Gunner said. “We are delighted that the classroom teachers, principal and assistant principal have only good things to say about Project Rehovot year after year.”
Making a Difference
JCA has raised funds for Project Rehovot since 1991, first for the children of Russian immigrants, and now for the children of Ethiopian immigrants who have settled in Rehovot in recent years.
“We raised money at the beginning for a variety of things. They needed a community center – kind of an immigrant center that we rented for them. Then the school system asked for computers for the kids, books for the kids, and then the system asked for help for immigrant children who were having the most difficulty in their regular classroom,” Kushick said.
The administrators at Ma’a lot Meshulam elementary school told Gunner, Kushnick and the other members of Project Rehovot, that what they really needed was a part-time teacher/therapist to work with these troubled students.
“These are the neediest children in our elementary school,” says Esther Ha’Levy, assistant principal of the school. “They are immigrants or children of immigrants who have difficulty with the language. They struggle to keep up with their school work and cannot rely on their parents for help. Many have poor social skills and isolate themselves from their classmates. All come from the poorest areas of the city where they see their older siblings falling prey to drugs and truancy.”
To help combat high drop out rates, JCA has for years single-handedly funded a teacher who works with these troubled kids.
“The money we raise for Project Rehovot goes to a salary for a part-time teacher who takes kids who have the most problems in the regular classrooms out of the classroom in small groups. This started with the Russian children, children of immigrants. And now it is mostly Ethiopian children.”
The teacher uses the arts – drawing, drama, music, storytelling and writing – to address the students’ needs. In all, Project Rehovot has helped approximately 800 students to learn the skills they need to succeed in school. The members of the committee correspond regularly with the teacher and administrators at the school to see how things are going and how the students are doing.
“We know that this project makes a difference and that is what is important to us. That is why we have been able to continue all these years to fundraise.
“The kids come to this part-time teacher with enormous problems, especially the Ethiopian children,” Kushick continued. “They come from an agrarian society and their parents are often lost when they get to Israel, for many years. There is a very high drop-out rate because the society in Ethiopian didn’t really have schools. Kids learned what they needed to learn at home and they worked the fields. Parents really have no idea about how to help with homework, and so the children have problems with language, and then there are kids who are so lost in terms of social issues and fitting in.”
Project Rehovot raises funds
At the benefit concert on Feb. 26, Rabbi Weiner and the Old Time Country Band and juggler Henry Lappen will perform in JCA’s social hall during the second part of the benefit. Also featured in the Old Time Country Band are Bob Solosko and Susan Mosler on banjo; Ben Levy and Ed Herbst on fiddle and mandolin; John Loeb and Elena Wikner on guitar; and Elise Barber on vocals. The group will perform while the audience dines on Mediterranean specialties and desserts, prepared by Chef Karen Loeb & her Project Rehovot team of caterers. The refreshments will be on sale with those proceeds also going to Project Rehovot.
Tickets for the concert will be sold at the door beginning at 3:45 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students and children.
For more information call (413) 253-0336.