Bagrut Program Betters Academics, Builds Leaders Among Ethiopian-Israeli Teens

December 7, 2010


As Ashgaram, now a confident and ambitious 18-year-old, prepares to begin his Israeli army service, he barely recognizes himself as the little boy who emigrated from Ethiopia what feels like a lifetime ago.

Years of hard work and dedication in the Birth-to-Bagrut program in Rehovot, a JDC partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, helped Ashgaram graduate with honors near the top of his high school class and earn a matriculation certificate this past year. The program has also brought out the moxie in this teenager, who after serving as a combat soldier plans to earn a university psychology degree and create a bright future for himself, his family, and his community.

These are milestones Ashgaram never thought possible.

When the Alames made aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia, they fulfilled a life-long dream. But as it is for so many members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, the Alames’ transition to a vastly different, westernized country proved extremely difficult for the whole family, including then four-year old Ashgaram.

These difficulties evolved into a chronic state of despair for Ashgaram as a young boy, and by the time he entered 7th grade, he simply didn’t believe he could do well in school and lacked the motivation to even try. At best, he hoped to achieve the bare minimum: to avoid dropping out of school; earning a high school matriculation certificate (Bagrut) was nowhere on his radar.

Then Birth-to-Bagrut got involved.

Ten years ago, Birth-to-Bagrut—a hands-on collaboration with the local Ethiopian-Israeli community-extended JDC’s already successful PACT (Parents and Children Together) early-childhood education program for Ethiopian-Israeli youngsters and their families in Rehovot to include academic and other support through the completion of high school and earning of a matriculation certificate.

Birth-to-Bagrut tutors worked with Ashgaram and his high-school peers in small groups after hours, helping them understand the necessary materials for matriculation exams. Throughout the process, these tutors and the program coordinator built up Ashgaram’s confidence and engaged his family so that they could provide him with at-home support and conditions to help him succeed. In fact, he attributes his achievements—and his belief in himself—to the simple and powerful fact that people, some total strangers, believed in him.

“The program coordinator told me that there was no way she would let me leave Birth-to-Bagrut without a matriculation certificate,” Ashgaram recalls. “I realized that if someone who barely knew me believed in me so strongly and was willing to exert herself on my behalf, then maybe it was worth it for me to try after all.”

Ashgaram harnessed this encouragement, coupled with his mother’s unwavering support, and by example became someone whom his teachers and mentors call “an adored leader among his peers and a positive influence on the less motivated students in the program.”

Today, Ashgaram’s story speaks for many, reflecting the program’s overall achievement in helping more than 3,000 vulnerable youth reach their potential and have access to a brighter future. Now some 62 percent of the city’s eligible Ethiopian-Israeli high school students receive their matriculation; this compares to a national Ethiopian-Israeli average of 40 percent and a citywide Rehovot result of 58 percent.

For its success both in numbers and in engaging the local community members, Birth-to-Bagrut was recently highlighted in the city of Rehovot’s 120th anniversary celebration as a model for bolstering immigrant absorption and integration in the city.

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