By Ilan Preskovsky
There is a particularly pernicious problem facing Israel today that is perhaps rather less well known than the more newsworthy challenges that the average Israeli has to deal with: that of at-risk Israeli youth. According to the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a social research company in Israel, a staggering 20% of Israelis under the age of eighteen are considered to be “at-risk” of having their long-term prospects compromised by everything from learning difficulties to their socio-economic backgrounds – with Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox), Ethiopian, and immigrant children being particularly affected.
A number of institutions were set up specifically to deal with this phenomenon and to that growing list we can add the GEERZ Life and Leadership Skills programme, a relatively young non-profit organisation that tackles the problem in a most innovative and unconventional way: through mountain-bike riding. Established in 2012 by Rabbi Nachum Wasosky, whose fifteen years of experience as a youth and family counsellor and his love for mountain-bike riding in the mountainous terrain of his home city, Beit Shemesh, combined into a comprehensive programme that uses the sport of mountain-biking to target a number of areas that particularly affect his young clients.
The whole thing started almost incidentally, as Rabbi Wasosky took a few at-risk youth from his community along with him on his regular ride. It quickly became clear to him, however, that this simple activity was having a profound effect on the kids with which he rode. Along with the obvious physical benefits that come with rigorous exercise, there was real, observable improvement in their psychological and mental health. Not only did mountain-biking prove to be a perfectly healthy catalyst for their youthful energy that might otherwise come out through far more destructive channels, there was a noticeable upturn in their self-esteem and a new sense of empowerment and hope for their own futures.
Over the next few months, this informal community service morphed into the more formal programme that would become GEERZ. Structured as a 10-month, once-a-week after-school programme for kids and teenagers between the ages of seven and nineteen, the programme currently caters for some 150 riders across five Israeli cities – a notable increase from the eight riders that were the first “class” of GEERZ less than five years ago.
Much more than just a fun ride through some of Israel’s most idyllic areas, the GEERZ programme has been carefully crafted to provide something akin to a “training course for life”. Each 90-minute session focuses on three primary areas: life and leadership skills, bike skills, and mechanical skills – with each of them contributing to seismic shifts in the hearts, minds, and bodies of the young riders.
The GEERZ philosophy is that every child has the potential to succeed. Accordingly, they prefer the term “at-promise”, which focuses on a child’s potential rather than the negative connotation of “at-risk”, which implies that the children need to be “fixed” somehow, chas v’shalom, instead of merely inspired.
The ten-month course, which is presided over by 25 paid instructors who provide consistency and guidance to the dozen-or-so children in their charge, offers different life lessons and training in each weekly session, but also works towards the cumulative effect of giving these children an increasing sense of concrete achievement, self-worth, and the ability to navigate the challenges that life has thrown – and will throw – at them in the future.
GEERZ currently has branches in Ra’anana, Modi’in, Hashmonaim, and Alon Shvut/Gush as well as Beit Shemesh, and caters to at-promise and normative kids across the religious and economic spectrum, speaking Hebrew, English, Russian, Amharic, and Yiddish, as the programme has proven to be beneficial to all children, regardless of background. With so diverse a group, GEERZ ensures that it caters to the specific needs of the different kinds of children by employing trainers from the children’s own communities – adults with whom they can identify and look up to as role models.
Perhaps the greatest sign yet of the efficacy of this young organisation is that over half of the assistant instructors in the 2015-2016 programmes were former GEERZ riders themselves who have used what they have benefited from the programme to give back to it – while at the same time being paid for their efforts. For more info, visit www.geerz.org