Nurturing Hearts and Minds in Troubled Times


This article first appeared in the Times of Israel 

These are dark days for all of us across Israel. Tragically, children have been terribly affected by the atrocities, displacement and learning loss of the past weeks.

In response, in the earliest hours and days of the war, World ORT Kadima Mada – the operational arm in Israel of World ORT’s global Jewish education network – initiated efforts to provide urgent educational and psychological support.

World ORT has provided dignity and hope to displaced people since the Holocaust. We had assumed that the type of work characterized by our support for Jewish refugees in DP camps between 1945 and 1948 was something relegated to the history books. But here we are, nearly 80 years later, continuing our mission with the same commitment and passion.

Israel is currently a hotbed of NGOs and civic society organizations carrying out remarkable work across diverse areas. Our contribution is focused on two key areas.

One of the most significant needs right now is to support the emotional and mental health of our nearly 10,000 students and teachers and their families, as well as others in communities across the country.

Our comprehensive psychological support packages include running one-on-one and group sessions with psychologists trained in mental first-aid. We have been systematically mapping and evaluating the emotional needs of our beneficiaries, particularly in the mild-to-severe ranges and providing dedicated, tailored support to individuals.

We’d like to start online classes for all our student diaspora, but for many children, their heads are just not in it right now. They are not ready for Maths or English classes. It is one step at a time. All they can currently manage are educational distraction online programs – taking their minds off things for a short time while they are trying to process everything that has happened.

Examples of this are seen most clearly with our students from the Kfar Silver Youth Village at Ashkelon, just a few kilometers from the Gaza border. Although the village was thankfully safely evacuated on the day of the attacks, tragically a significant number of students and teachers have lost family members and friends. Dozens of people with links to our organization have been killed or kidnapped by terrorists. A number of Kfar Silver graduates have been killed serving in the IDF.

The bespoke work with counsellors or social workers can be a lifeline for teenagers grappling with these heartbreaking scenarios. Many have been taking part in therapeutic workshops in subjects including science, robotics, coding and virtual reality. We have already reached almost 2,000 children, helping kids from grades one to eight in both the southern and northern peripheries of Israel. The daily sessions give them some semblance of normalcy – beacons of hope during this turbulent time.

In parallel we are training teachers and instructors in effective online teaching methodology so that we can continue to provide education for the duration of the crisis, however long it might be. Distributing laptops and assisting educators in integrating their curricula into online activities ensures a comprehensive approach. We will not leave any student or teacher behind in this work.

One of the most heart-warming aspects of this dreadful time is seeing our friends and colleagues in Israel, and across World ORT’s global network spanning more than 40 countries, offering to volunteer their time and resources to support us. We have been inspired by the commitment of Jewish students worldwide to reach out to their peers here, exemplifying World ORT’s values of co-operation and Tikkun Am – Jews investing in our own identity, culture, religion, rituals and state to ensure a meaningful Jewish future with young people who are able to engage in the world with pride and knowledge.

This is a devastating moment in our history, but this compassion and kindness gives us hope that better times lie ahead – they have to, and we will work night and day to ensure they do.