Beautiful Native Flower (June 18,
by Naomi Ragen
The tragedy of street violence among Israeli teenagers claimed two innocent
lives last week. As I listened to the usual "blah blah" of talking heads
discussing how to deal with this urgent social problem, it occurred to me that part of the
solution might just already exist, the product of a unique blend of Israeli wisdom and
When my eldest was in her first year of college at Hebrew University and
strapped for cash, she was recruited by a college program called "PERACH." All
shed have to do, they told her, was meet with a child twice a week and help her with
The little girl was nine years old, the third child out of four and only
daughter of a simple housewife and an electrician living in a poor neighborhood in
Northern Jerusalem. She was a sad little girl, dressed in ugly clothes, and suffering from
neglect and passive abuse. More than anything, her self-image was badly in need of
Yes, my daughter went over her math and English and grammar homework with her.
But she also began bringing her some pretty clothes, and some toys. "Shes
sweet," my daughter would tell me. "Such a sweet, good child." After a few
months, my daughter reported, the childs mother, amazed that a stranger had found so
many good qualities in her daughter, also began to look at her child with a kinder eye.
When my daughter graduated, she gave the little girl a parting gift: all our familys
Barbies and accessories.
And although my daughter is a married woman now with children of her own, and
the little girl she tutored is already in high school, theyve never stopped being in
touch. And its quite possible, that they never will.
A uniquely Israeli educational project employing university students to mentor
disadvantaged youngsters, PERACH (meaning "flower" in Hebrew) began by accident,
25 years ago.
One cold winter night, Rony Attar, a 26 year-old graduate student at the Weizman
Institute, and his wife, stopped their car to pick up two shivering young hitchhikers.
They turned out to be brothers, the children of a poor widow who, having no choice, had
enrolled them in a boarding school for disadvantaged youngsters.
The brothers hated it. It was on this night theyd decided to run away. The
Attars drove the boys back to their boarding school. However, a few days later, unable to
forget them, the Attars returned, and asked permission to take the boys into their home.
For the next two years, Rony and his wife helped the kids with their homework, took them
to libraries and museums and hikes around the country. Staggered by the boys
educational and personal progress, Rony went to his professor, Chaim Harrari, dean of
Weizman's Fineberg Graduate School, with an idea: Why not recruit other Weizman college
students to tutor and mentor disadvantaged youngsters from nearby Yavneh? Professor
Harrari, from the goodness of his heart, agreed to take such a project under his wing.
Beginning with 20 college student volunteers and an equal number of youngsters, PERACH was
This year PERACH celebrates its 25th anniversary. With funds from the
government's Council of Higher Education and The Ministry of Education, the good deed of
one thoughtful college student and the work of one dedicated professor has become a
nationwide project of international renown. With 550 full time employees in 8 regional
centers located in Israeli universities, PERACH now has 20,000 college student tutors who
reach out to 45,000 disadvantaged youngsters.
The children, who are recommended by their school counselors, are drawn from
every possible segment of Israels population: Arab youngsters from the Galilee,
young Bedouin from the Negev, secular Israeli kids from south Tel Aviv slums,
Ultra-Orthodox boys and girls from Jerusalem and B'nai Brak.
Each year, PERACH coordinators -- recruited from former tutors -- recruit
college students and then contact school counselors for lists of needy youngsters.
Coordinators individually match youngsters with mentors. In addition, college students
also give after-school enrichment classes.
But its not only the children who benefit from project.
Noam is ten years old, the child of a garbage collector and housewife living in
a small development town. In the past, teased by his classmates, Noam was ashamed of his
parents, and became increasingly involved in petty thefts and street violence, hanging out
with older boys and smoking. The school counselor wasn't even sure he was worth helping. A
PERACH counselor felt differently. She matched Noam with Jonathan, a 24 year-old, second
year electrical engineering student struggling to keep up with tuition costs.
Jonathan took Noam to see the sunset on the beach, to visit museums, milk cows,
and up hiking trails. As a reward for improving his study habits, Jonathan helped Noam
build a beautiful kite. Proud of his relationship with Jonathan, Noam developed new
self-confidence. His grades improved so much, that a math teacher made him take a test
twice. He got 100% both times. According to his parents, thanks to his tutor, Noam not
only became a good student; he became a nicer person.
As for Jonathan, the rewards were not only monetary: "Noam taught me to see
the interesting and exciting side of everyday things. I too became a more well-rounded
person, and was enriched by lots of small, wonderful experiences."
Begun with a single seed of lovingkindness, PERACH has bloomed into a beautiful,
native flower. Given what is happening in our streets and classrooms, I say lets
water PERACH more lavishly, allowing its dedicated director of eighteen years, Amos
Carmeli, the additional resources he needs to expand the program to reach the thousands of
Israeli children obviously in need of its unique brand of personal care.