Growing up in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, nicknamed “the bomb shelter capital of the world”, is a challenge. Thriving under such circumstances might just be a miracle. Yet, for 14-year-old Netanel Naftelayev, that is exactly what he is doing with the help of a special after-school program called TikvaHope.
TikvaHope provides disadvantaged children and their parents with tools to break out of the cycle of poverty and become independent, productive members of Israeli society.
“Netanel’s family moved to Sderot from the Caucasus, a very primitive area in southern Russia, a few years before the city became inundated with thousands of rockets from Gaza,” explained Daniel Berkeley, manager of the Sderot Youth Department, to Breaking Israel News. “The combination of difficulty fitting into the Israeli lifestyle and the many years of terror took its toll on Netanel’s family.”
Immigrants from the Caucasus face unique challenges when settling in Israel. Most do not have a formal education. In the Caucasus, farming is the usual means of employment, whereas in Israel, most people pursue higher education. Therefore, many Caucasian immigrants live in poverty.
They are strongly connected to their Judaism as well as old world traditions, including maintaining strict rules for raising children which often conflict with more lenient Israeli attitudes.
Youngsters like Netanel are fortunate to be breaking free from these challenges and even becoming leaders with the help of TikvaHope. “Living is Sderot was very frightening for a long time,” shared Netanel with Breaking Israel News. “But, with the help of my family, community and TikvaHope, I came to realize that I have strengths and resilience which allows me to stay positive. I now want to help the community and the people who live here.”
Noting that the TikvaHope Youth Center is his home away from home, Netanel practices the organization’s strategy to consistently ask himself two questions: “What do the teenagers in Sderot need from their city/country?” and “What can the teenagers of Sderot give back to their city/country?”
To that end, Netanel – a Hebrew name which means “God has bestowed” – is fulfilling the meaning of his name, also shared by a Biblical captain of the tribe of Issachar. Though Netanel is very modest when describing his own achievements, Berkeley pointed out to Breaking Israel News that he is very successful in school and makes every effort to achieve in whatever he attempts.
“Netanel is excelling in his studies, which include mathematics, physics and English,” beamed Berkeley. “He is at the top of his class and is a role model for teens in the community.”
After four years of participation with TikvaHope, Netanel still waits anxiously for the program to begin again following any breaks. “The program helps a wide range of teenagers with differing opinions about things, which I find interesting,” he noted. “We all get to know each other, develop together and discover something new through our interactions.”
Today, 9th grader Netanel is the youngest of 24 representatives for the Sderot municipality Youth Council, which influences decisions made in City Hall. As an ambassador for TikvaHope, Netanel is part of the body of representatives for teenagers in Sderot that is in charge of promoting youth issues and advancing the day to day lives of the young people in Sderot.
“At first, Netanel found it challenging to keep up with the older and more experienced representatives in the Youth Council,” Berkeley told Breaking Israel News. “But, today he has become a vital part of all of the activities and projects lead by the council and has been voted into the position of secretary-general. This is a big responsibility and he is succeeding.”
Netanel now dreams big for his future. His long-term goals are already in place. He would first like to manage a TikvaHope Youth Center. Then, he hopes to be a member of the Sderot City Council. Ultimately, he believes that joining the Israeli Knesset (parliament) is a real possibility.
“I am sure that without TikvaHope I would not be where I am today,” reflected Netanel to Breaking Israel News. “When I started coming to the club in fifth grade, I was not who I am today, someone who wants to volunteer to help people and make the world a better place.”
Berkeley was clearly emotional at Netanel’s growth. “Seeing Netanel serve in the Youth Council is very fulfilling, especially because of the impact this can have on his fellow teenagers that attend the TikvaHope Youth Center,” he said. “He is setting an example of social involvement, volunteering and a high work ethic for everyone who knows him. His is a TikvaHope shining star.”