TORONTO — While Jews around the world are still celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary, the country is also gearing up for a new round of festivities in 2009.
Next April, Jews around the world will begin toasting Tel Aviv-Yafo, the country’s largest city and commercial centre. Israel’s only bona fide metropolis will be 100 years old next year, and dozens of cultural and sporting events will be held over an eight-month span in honour of this historic milestone.
On a recent trip to Toronto, Admiral Abraham Ben-Shoshan, director general of the Tel Aviv Foundation, challenged Canadians to mark the centennial by getting involved with the foundation, a non-profit organization that bankrolls education, social welfare, heath, cultural and environmental programs to improve the quality of life in the city.
He equated the 30-year old foundation, which is funded by an international network of donors that includes Israelis, to “the right arm of the mayor,” explaining that the non-denominational organization identifies social, educational or cultural projects within the city and connects them with private and corporate donors. “The foundation helps the mayor achieve beyond what the city budget can afford.”
He said Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv’s two-term mayor, set a goal of completing 150 projects in the fields of education, social services, arts and culture, and sports and recreation. In the last six years, this goal has been achieved with the help of supporters of Tel Aviv-Yafo around the world.
Ben-Shoshan noted that 40 per cent of Tel Aviv residents, or 140,000 people, live below or at the poverty line. “We have to take care of them.”
In fours years at the foundation’s helm, he said he has learned a lot about the city’s social problems and the disparity between rich and poor residents. The ongoing challenge is to find ways to “bridge the gap.”
He stressed that the high level of educational, health and cultural programs funded by the Tel Aviv Foundation is one of the best ways to minimize socio-economic inequities.
Ben-Shoshan pointed to the gains made by the foundation in early childhood education, noting that prior to the foundation’s founding, there were few early childhood education programs for disadvantaged children. “The mayor said that we should help every child. We began renovating buildings to provide pre-kindergarten enrichment programs. Today there are 8,000 children enrolled. That represents a 45 per cent increase in enrolment.
“The children come from 8 a.m. to four in the afternoon, and we serve them hot meals.”
He said another problem area identified by the mayor was the high dropout rate among high school students in the southern part of Tel Aviv. “This is a more deprived area of the city, with a dropout rate of 31 per cent.”
The foundation built libraries and resource centres in all the schools. “We bought books and computers, and we hired teachers to help the students to do their homework.”
Ben-Shoshan said feeding the soul through the arts was another aspect of the work. “We wanted to open the children to new experiences, like exposure to the opera. We built music centres where the students could listen to music and get enriched.”
Within seven years, the initiative paid off. The dropout rate fell from to nine per cent from 31, he said.
Ben-Shoshan also touted the achievements of Hemda, a high-level science education centre that is a resource centre for 18 high schools. “The place has state-of-the-art laboratories. It is staffed by teachers trained at the PhD level.”
He highlighted some of the foundation’s many success stories. It has funded more than 400 projects, including 14 health centres, 15 music conservatories, numerous sports and recreational centres and parks and outdoor playgrounds, as well as social, health and nutrition programs for the elderly.
Ben-Shoshan said that one of the programs that has been very well received and needs to expand is the establishment of social clubs– right now there are two – for Holocaust survivors. (He estimated that of the 80,000 seniors living in Tel Aviv, 30,000 are survivors.)
Many of these people are child survivors who were previously isolated from other survivors, he explained. “The social connections they are making now changed their quality of life. The net effect is unbelievable.”
For more information about the Tel Aviv Foundation, visit telavivfoundation.org.