Local Amit leaders reflect back, look ahead

Local Amit leaders reflect back, look ahead

Israeli-based child welfare organization develops $70 million educational campus in Ra’anana

Students work in a Gogya center.  (All photos courtesy AMIT)
Students work in a Gogya center. (All photos courtesy AMIT)

Amit, a Hebrew word for friend or colleague, also is an acronym for Americans for Israel and Torah. It is the name of an organization of American Jewish volunteers, founded, led, and staffed mostly by women, who support education in Israel that is grounded in Jewish values. Programs that Amit runs support the education of more than 40,000 Israeli children, mostly from disadvantaged and poor families.

Amit is about to go forward with an exciting new project — the development and building of the Kfar Batya campus, an educational center and facility designed to provide innovative schooling and other initiatives in the Israeli city of Raanana.

Women, including many in our area, have major leadership roles in this organization and these new projects.

Almost a century ago, Polish born Bessie Gotsfeld traveled from her New York home and arrived in Palestine with a suitcase full of money she had raised from generous American donors. She bought farmland in a sleepy little settlement called Ahuza-A, an area destined to become Ra’anana. Her vision, as the founder of the new organization American Mizrachi Women, was to help children and their families in pre-independence Israel. Bessie Gotsfeld’s Hebrew name was Batya, and her dream grew into Kfar Batya, a network of schools and children’s villages.

Fast forward to 21st-century Ra’anana, a flourishing city of close to 80,000 people. Bessie/Batya’s farmland purchase is now poised to become the Amit Kfar Batya campus –- housing schools, including the Gwen Straus Junior and Senior Science High School for Boys, the Evan and Layla Green Family Foundation Gogya Building, an athletic center, an amphitheater, memorial gardens for Israel’s fallen soldiers, and Amit’s headquarters. The campus, expected to open in 2025, will be a place to educate thousands of students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, and train thousands of teachers from cities and towns across Israel.

(There are more than 96 schools and programs in the Amit network, including schools for boys, schools for girls, and coed schools in 32 cities throughout the country.)

Amit will celebrate the new $70 million campus on November 22 with a sold-out evening that will feature a performance by violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. The evening will also honor donors and those who have contributed to Amit’s vision with financial contributions and hard work, volunteering their expertise and talents to move the organization forward.

Two students at an Amit school do an experiment.

Bessie’s pioneering work in Israel helping thousands of children has inspired generations of women to carry on her work. Four such women — Sharon Merkin and Joyce Straus, both of Englewood, Connie Kadish of Teaneck, and Audrey Trachtman of New Rochelle — are outstanding leaders at Amit, links in a chain of volunteers who enable children with great challenges to learn and develop productive paths in Israeli society.

Audrey Axelrod Trachtman is the president of Amit. She’s also a CPA with an MBA from Wharton, who was vice president of finance and strategic planning for Philip Morris and General Foods Latin America. A proud mother and grandmother, she serves many roles in Jewish community organizations.

“Fifteen years ago, I had just stopped working,” Ms. Trachtman said. “I was always interested in inequality and social justice. I thought I could make the most impact working with Israel. I had a vision of Amit as more my mother’s and grandmother’s organization. But I did research, and it was where I wanted to be.”

Ms. Trachtman said that Amit has 96 schools all over Israel, including 60 high schools, plus elementary schools, junior colleges, and technical schools. Technical schools provide programs for children who have not succeeded in schools with more academic orientation. “There is innovation in education in all of these schools and cross-fertilization between different schools,” she said. While Amit traditionally has focused on schools with dati — modern Orthodox — orientations, now there also are both secular and ultra-Orthodox schools in its network.

“We wanted to be a big umbrella where people with different perspectives come together and can discuss issues in a respectful way,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s not one size fits all, and what might work in a religious school is not necessarily what will work in a secular school.”

Amit is reaching out beyond Jewish schools. “We’re doing some consulting work with a city in the Galil called Rameh,” Ms. Trachtman said. “The school is one-third Muslim, one-third Christian, and one-third Druze Arabs. The mayor is Druze. The Ministry of Education asked us to do this. When Arabs are not integrated into Israel, it’s not good for Israel.” The goal is to help Arab schools integrate successful elements of Amit pedagogy, to enable those students to succeed.

Ms. Trachtman said the Amit network of schools is led by Dr. Amnon Eldar, who has been the group’s director general since 2002. Dr. Eldar helped develop the unique Amit approach to education that he named Gogya, from the Hebrew term pedagogya, the method and practice of teaching.

Gogya is a multifaceted approach, more experiential than the traditional classroom. Students are active learners, with opportunities to teach and learn from each other in small groups. There are many hands-on experiences, allowing students to engage with and contribute to the community. The Gogya program has adopted various modern approaches to teaching and learning, with creative projects, emphasizing values, problem-solving, critical thinking, and exposure to the real world.

A student at an Amit school learns to make things.

The Gogya method was first introduced to a handful of schools in the Amit network in 2014. It was found to be effective for all types of students and expanded throughout the network. The new Ra’anana campus will include a Gogya center, a “holistic innovative education center,” Ms. Trachtman said. “We plan to have a full Gogya center, an incubator for the program and approach we use for Gogya.

“How do you evaluate 21st-century skills?” she continued. “We have a robust R & D team in the headquarters of Amit. The Israeli R & D team made a significant number of visits to schools. They looked around the world and saw things that were interesting. They visited California, Detroit, Florida, Atlanta, Boston. They came back and incorporated ideas, such as internships/mentorships, based on things they saw. Some ideas were based on charter schools in the inner cities.”

Dr. Eldar and his team are also developing their own ways to approach education, “including critical analysis, creative thinking, and entrepreneurship,” Ms. Trachtman said. “With Gogya we look at each child in a very holistic way. It’s about the person you can become. There’s a sense of community involvement on the part of the student. The students can also give, volunteer, and they can work in society.”

Sharon Merkin and Joyce Straus are co-chairs of Amit’s board of directors. Ms. Merkin, who is the mother of five sons who range in age from 21 to 36, has been involved with Amit for 27 years. She was a personal financial planner, and for four years she applied her professional expertise in her role as Amit’s treasurer. “Amit is a great environment, and the people are passionate about what they do there. The staff is amazing,” she said.

She recalled that when the Gogya method was introduced in 2014, her first year as Amit’s treasurer, “we resoundingly supported Amit with this. You’ve got to keep current. It’s not about only learning the facts anymore. It’s about using creativity and problem solving.

“Gogya went hybrid when we went online” during covid lockdowns, Ms. Merkin continued. This was important for children “living in the periphery of the country; the programs became available to kids all over the country.”

Gogya’s unique approach will reach even more students. The new campus will have a Gogya headquarters, where hundreds of teachers will be trained in its methodology. This includes interdisciplinary, skills-based, and project-based learning.

These students, from an Amit school, have just won science awards.

Amit’s director general, Dr. Eldar, has deep roots in the organization, Ms. Merkin said. His mother, Nitzchiya Eldar, ran Beit Hayeled, a residential program for children from dysfunctional families. Initially those children lived in dormitories, but now they can live with families, called mishpachton units. “Amnon Eldar and his wife, Michal, served as a couple at Beit Hayeled,” Ms. Merkin said.

“Amit is a way to donate and have an effect on a broad base of society,” she continued. “It’s a wonderful mission and wonderful environment. There are more young people on the board, and men on the board. In the future -– given the staff and people we have, whatever the future brings, we’re ready.”

Joyce Straus and her husband, Daniel, support many Jewish educational causes, and they’re co-chairs of the November 22 Amit evening.

Ms. Straus was a pediatric physical therapist, and she worked with disabled, developmentally delayed children. Her mother-in-law, Holocaust survivor Gwen Straus, was active in Mizrachi Women of America, which became American Mizrachi Women in 1973 and then Amit in 1983. One of the schools at Kfar Batya, named in her honor, is the Gwen Straus Science High School for Boys. It has been very successful in preparing youngsters for high-tech careers; its students frequently enter and win science competitions.

“The tag line for Amit is: Israel has your heart. Make it your legacy,” Joyce Straus said. “I feel that Amit has done that for us. Its breadth and impact is so enormous; the level of education is so high. The holistic approach where every child is nurtured is highly regarded by teachers and administrators. It is a very inclusive and centrist kind of orientation. All different socioeconomic backgrounds, all different ethnic backgrounds, all different religious backgrounds. No one is excluded. No one is judged.”

She reported that 70% of programs are in the periphery of the country. “It’s the number one educational network in Israel,” she said.

Joyce Straus is the mother of three children and the grandmother of nine, and she has a multigenerational Amit family. Her children “are all involved with Amit at some level,” she said. “They all are invested and interested in Amit. Everyone was connected to my late mother-in-law and knew about her passion, and now my passion.”

Ms. Straus has been on many Amit missions to learn about the programs and schools. “Missions are very important for our lay leadership,” she said. “It seems that when we’ve had our missions, people who weren’t as passionate became hooked. We meet with teachers, principals, students.

A young Israeli man holds a sefer Torah on an Amit campus.

“The thing about Amit is that they welcome all children,” she continued. “They nurture kids from some of the worst socioeconomic backgrounds. On one mission we visited a very, very poor city –- predominantly Ethiopian children. There was not a dry eye. Some of the kids don’t get breakfast at home. What the teachers were doing, not only in school where children reach highest potential, but also with the families, reaching out to them … in some towns the Amit Center is like the community center.”

“By educating these students, we’re strengthening Israel in every way.”

Ms. Straus noted what she called Amit’s hashkafah — its guiding philosophy — is “the respect that the teachers, principals, and staff had for everyone, and respect for one another, and being inclusive.

“The goal is to level the playing field for all of these kids -– to provide a high level of education for all of the children,” she said. Right now, 98% of Amit graduates complete IDF or national service. That is “way higher than the national average,” Ms. Straus said. “It’s the future of Israel; it’s the students giving back to society. We’re creating future leaders.

“The new Gogya center on the campus is on another level,” she concluded. “It’s cutting-edge in terms of innovations in education. It’s an incubator for implementing innovations and technologies.”

Connie Kadish is Amit’s tri-state regional vice president; she’s married to Dr. Alan Kadish, the president of Touro University. She grew up in Portland, Oregon, where she had many opportunities to participate and assist at Amit events, helping to serve at dinners organized by her mother and grandmother. “When I got married, my mother made me a life member of Amit,” she said; she’s a third-generation life member, she added.

“Amit has always been on the forefront of education in Israel,” she continued. “They get people to be productive members of society. What started out as Beit Hayeled -– housing in Jerusalem for postwar orphans — now serves kids from dysfunctional homes.”

An Amit student works on a robotics program.

The education is very high-tech, Ms. Kadish said. “Kids feed into Technion, technical schools, trade schools. The pass rate for the Bagrut” — the certification that a student has completed high school— “for Amit schools is very high, 90%, compared with 73.4% for all of Israel.

“And some Amit schools have a pass rate of 100%,” she added. Amit Ulpanit for Girls Or Akiva, and Amit Modi’in for Girls are two examples of schools that achieved perfect pass rates.

“The percent of students who go on to the army and Sherut Leumi,” national service, “is very high,” she said. “There are lots of success stories. A number of kids come back to Amit as teachers or principals.”

Ms. Kadish reflected on the Gogya method of teaching. “It’s not conventional learning,” she said. “It’s like chevrutah learning, where you learn in groups, then a teacher gets up and teaches the group. Amit is trying to get all their teachers on board with Gogya.” Noting that Sderot, where the methodology is used, has been the target of thousands of terrorist rockets, “The schools and teachers there are really remarkable,” Ms. Kadish said, referring to “what they have to do to keep the kids safe in case of rocket attacks!”

Although Kiryat Malakhi, with a high percentage of Ethiopian children, is a periphery community, it has a new Gogya building. It is one example of how underprivileged kids are provided with the latest equipment and latest teaching styles so that no one is left behind.

Amit leaders believe that it is critical that girls get the same educational opportunities as boys. Girls in Amit schools have access to STEM education and training in high-technology fields.

They also believe that different children have different talents and can learn different skills. Ms. Kadish noted that Amit addresses “how to teach kids a trade — plumber, carpenter, electrician — and help a child recognize those talents.”

Amit recognizes that there is room for many approaches to achieve success. “There are different types of skills,” she said. “None is better than the others, but all are necessary for society.”

Audrey Trachtman, left, Sharon Merkin, Dr. Amnon Eldar, Bessie Gotsfeld, Connie Kadish, and Joyce Straus

She noted that everyone in Amit feels passionate about “educating our children, and everybody uses the term ‘our children,’ not ‘the children.’”

Ms. Kadish would like to pass the baton of Amit leadership to the next generation, including her children and grandchildren. But that is a generation with fully programmed, busy lives.

“Now both parents are working at time-intensive jobs,” she said. “How do we continue to maintain interest in our cause and keep people involved? All organizations recognize that people don’t have time. The challenge of the 21st century is how to keep our membership engaged. How many emails are read and opened? How can we keep in touch with people?”

Ms. Kadish suggested that different activities will help bring in new faces. She mentioned one trendy event, the upcoming Monte Carlo Night, which will be held in a private residence in Teaneck on December 17, featuring gambling for charity, food, and raffles.

And the incomparable Itzhak Perlman will perform on November 22, in a fundraising evening that sold out quickly. “He is a big supporter of Israel, of children, of education,” Ms. Trachtman said. “He is a major part of the evening. He will perform pieces that connect with his life -– his favorite pieces.”

From woman to woman, for more than a century, Bessie Gotsfeld’s vision has enabled children to thrive in Eretz Yisrael. Ms. Gotsfeld, a true mother of Amit, died in 1962. Dr. Eldar highlighted her unique contributions in a yahrzeit tribute to her in 2016: “Although Bessie Gotsfeld did not have any children of her own, she has provided the foundations for thousands and thousands of children and their families for generations.”

The Amit website sums up, “People should understand if you love Israel, if you love education, if you love children, then look at Amit. It’s for kids who don’t have an option, kids who are struggling.”

Learn more about Amit at Amitchildren.org

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is professor of biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey.

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