When I was a high school principal in Jerusalem about 20 years ago at the height of the second intifada, I had many students — with full access to a publicly funded high school education — who just didn’t come to school regularly.
But as Ronen said to me one day, “How can I learn when I worry about getting home safely?” Shiran confided that she felt her teachers and parents only cared about her grades: “Don’t they see that my classmates have blacklisted me, and I have no reason to come to school?” And Moshe, the son of recent immigrants, was all-consumed with his family’s difficult financial situation and would skip school to take on odd jobs.
“I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students,” Rabbi Chanina said (Talmud Ta’anit 7a). On International Children’s Day 2020, we must listen to the voices of our students and hear their concerns. Many are even making it easy for us, sharing their feelings openly on social media.
This year begins the fourth decade since the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have much to celebrate in the progress that has been made worldwide to safeguard children’s rights, including their rights to health, education, play, and protection from violence and discrimination.
But in reflecting on children’s rights in the 21st century, we must reckon with the new challenges facing the world’s most vulnerable children — including Israel’s most at-risk youth.
What do children today need in order to realize their rights?
Are our schools preparing all of our children to flourish in a technological world? Are our schools engaging students so that they make the most of their education? With the breakdown of traditional family and community supports, are today’s children given chances to build strong interpersonal connections? In our diverse country, are children from marginalized groups able to see their futures within Israeli society?
This past summer I joined JDC as Director of JDC-Israel’s Ashalim Division for Social Mobility, coming from the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and previously serving as Senior Deputy Director at the Ministry of Education. At the ministry, I was instrumental in leading educational reforms to improve learning opportunities for under-resourced schools and underachieving students. While we made progress within the system itself, it was clear to me that schools alone cannot guarantee a child’s path to wellbeing and future prosperity.
I came to JDC attracted to the organization’s focus on promoting social mobility for Israel’s next generation. In Israel, not all children see a chance for a better future. While overall social mobility (the ability to move up through social strata) is relatively high in Israel compared to other developed countries, prospects are more limited for children from different groups and locations in Israel — specifically for Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, and individuals from immigrant backgrounds, and for those growing up in low socioeconomic areas.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened this challenge. Finance Ministry data shows that one in every five children in Israel does not have access to a home computer to take part in distance learning. In June, the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services reported a sharp increase of 61 percent in new welfare cases relative to the same period in 2019. In March 2020, domestic violence hotline calls from children and youth increased by 660 percent, indicating a growing number of children in unsafe homes.
COVID-19 has shown us just how critical it is to continue safeguarding children’s rights. Even in the heart of the Middle East, in Israel’s democratic society, where all children are guaranteed access to education and universal health care, not all children are granted the necessary conditions to adequately prepare for their futures.
When I was at the Ministry of Education, I saw firsthand how JDC staff would help us think outside the box. JDC pilot programs helped the education system to address the needs of students like Ronen, Shiran, and Moshe.
We must equip children with a sense of agency — the sense that they can set goals for themselves and act to achieve them.
Today, in order for the world’s children to be able to realize their rights in a 21st-century world, we must go beyond giving them a good education. We must equip children with a sense of agency — the sense that they can set goals for themselves and act to achieve them — so that today’s children protect and maximize their rights to health, education, and well-being.
To do this we first need to create the conditions in the child’s environment where this growth can take root. Children learn where they feel comfortable and wanted, and similarly, they feel comfortable and wanted when they are successfully engaged in their learning. A child’s sense of belonging — to family, school, and community — is the wind behind the sails that gently pushes them to develop their abilities, work well with others, and contribute to society.
Then, we need to give them opportunities to gain the skills to manage their finances and their health, to master digital competencies, to integrate into the job market, to maintain relationships, and to cultivate a sense of belonging to society.
JDC has a pivotal role to play in bringing together government and NGO partners in this endeavor. Every Israeli child, no matter their background or socioeconomic standing, deserves to have the opportunity to share in the prosperity and contribute to the future growth of our country.
Dr. Ariel Levy has over 25 years of experience in both formal and informal education frameworks, government, and the non-profit sector. He joined JDC-Israel Ashalim in August 2020, after recently serving as a visiting faculty member at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and as an advisor at the Yad Hanadiv Foundation. Prior to these positions, Ariel was a Senior Deputy Director in the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Pedagogical Secretariat Division Director.
At the Ministry of Education, Ariel was responsible for implementation of nationwide reforms within the Israeli education system, in national policy planning related to pedagogy, and in advancing programs for school-based management, narrowing social gaps, and improving academic achievements, school climate and student wellbeing. Before joining the Ministry of Education, Ariel served as Director of Professional Development for School Leadership at the Avney Rosha Institute – the Israeli Institute for School Leadership, established by the Ministry of Education and Yad Hanadiv to advance the Israeli education system by training school principals and supervisors. In this position, he was responsible for the professional development offered to 4,000 serving principals and established a training program for new principals in their first years. Earlier in his career, he was the principal of a large six-year high school in Jerusalem and held various educational and managerial positions in Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency and MELITZ, in Israel and abroad.
Ariel is a seventh generation Jerusalemite and continues to live in Jerusalem with his family.