Fruits of Tomorrow

January 14, 2010 by

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I’ve got to tell you: I’ve been feeling proud lately.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend an event saluting the volunteers of Beit Shemesh. While this event has been happening every year for 12 years, I don’t always attend, wary of the self-congratulatory pomp and patriotism. But this year was different: I dashed out of my house to make it in time for the keynote event honoring those who work on behalf of the community.

The mayor spoke in welcome: “Despite all the divisiveness in the city, you, the volunteers, are the glue that holds together our community.” Beit Shemesh is a diverse community, with populations from many ethnic groups, and participants from all these populations attended the event.

Most people milling about were middle-aged or pensioners, with only a few youth volunteers. Against this backdrop one group stood out for their youth and energy: seventeen Ethiopian teens who had established a local youth group eighteen months earlier, called “The Fruits of Tomorrow” (Yange Proiang in Amharic). They were there to receive a certificate of commendation for starting the most exciting initiative in the city.

The founder of the group is a soft-spoken high school graduate, Mamaru Mandafro, who saw the need for this group after attending a leadership development seminar in 11th grade. All around him in school, middle-class Ashkenazi and Sefardi kids were involved in their youth movements—but his Ethiopian classmates couldn’t find their place.

On Shabbat afternoon, Mamaru and his friends would walk the main streets, seeing children from their community wandering aimlessly, getting into trouble. He dreamed of establishing a fully-fledged youth movement for Ethiopians, headed by a group that would support these children and model academic success and communal commitment.

He recruited a couple of friends for his plan—volunteers for Magen David Adom, champion athletes, top students—and they began to dream. Right before Chanukah, a year ago, the coordinators began planning their initiative, parked in the cold of the municipal amphitheatre for lack of a better meeting place. The students who gathered were the self-starters, the ones with inherent creativity and an intuitive understanding of their community. All of them had made aliyah from Ethiopia as children. None of them had had significant past experiences in youth groups. They planned and built their youth movement out of thin air, passion, and hope.

On Shabbat Purim 2009, the coordinators determined that it was time for action. Meeting mid-afternoon on the Narkiss Street lawn, they gathered children in grades 1-8 for games, stories, and collaborative activities.

For the first couple of weeks, they had to round up participants each Shabbat afternoon—the children had no reason to expect that someone would care about them enough to come each week. After a few weeks, the kids began to come on their own.

Now, after nine months of weekly meetings, 60-80 youngsters come every Shabbat to wait for their programs. The next dream: to get official recognition from the State as an independent youth movement.

So why did I feel proud? I’ve been lucky enough to be an advisor to this brave group of teens. More than proud, I feel honored to be the wind in their sails, to be even slightly connected to a grass-roots group that so changes the lives of its participants.

When I hear them talk about their dreams or plan their events, when I see how far they’ve come, my often-dormant optimism is ignited again. There are many such initiatives in Israeli society that don’t make the international news, or even the regional press. But you can see hints of them in the postings on bulletin boards, in the municipal centers, in the parks on sunny afternoons. (Actually, just this week Fruits of Tomorrow made a 3 page spread in the local Bet Shemesh paper – the photo is from the article)

All over this country are groups that create small-scale programs to better their society and grant new opportunities. These initiatives are what make me proud—and even sometimes hopeful.

And late at night, after the festive bells of the Volunteers Salute had died down, after the certificates of commendation were put away, after they’d finished studying for tests and posting on Facebook, each of these student coordinators sat and worked on the plans for next Shabbat’s activity, dreaming of the growth of their own Fruits of Tomorrow.

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