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How Magic Can Help Underprivileged Israeli Teenagers Get Ahead

When is a trick more than a trick? When Ophir Samson uses it to teach confidence, leadership, and work-related skills

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Ophir Samson was sitting with a friend last year at one of his favorite restaurants in Jaffa when a young waiter approached the table, reached behind Samson’s ear, and pulled out a gold coin. After a brief moment of confusion, Samson smiled as he managed to place him: Over eight weeks in early 2012, Samson had taught magic tricks to a group of 15 teenagers at Jaffa’s Arab-Jewish Community Center. More than a year had passed, but this former student clearly remembered what he’d been taught.

The kids at the Community Center, Samson said, were typical teenagers: hard to control but energetic and engaging. They’d call their British-born teacher “Harry Potter” but would quiet down at the chance to learn a trick and the subtle steps and technical skills—practiced for hours, yet unnoticed by an audience—that turn a rusty amateur into a confident magician. To perfect the coin trick, for instance, your fingers have to move faster than the audience’s eyes, and you have to be able to direct someone else’s gaze where you want it to go.

Through the Smadar School for Young Magicians, Samson has taught dozens of Jewish and Arab Israelis, as well as refugees and children of undocumented parents living in Israel, to pull coins out of ears, make handkerchiefs disappear, and levitate banknotes. Held at places like Save a Child’s Heart, which provides life-saving medical procedures to children from the developing world, or Bialik-Rogozin, a school for children of asylum seekers and undocumented workers, Samson’s classes are meant to get teenagers fired up about magic, as well as build their confidence, develop their leadership skills, and get them used to speaking in public. “The purpose is to show them these skills are transferable in other areas,” said Samson. “Magic has done a huge service to me and developing my career.”

This summer, funded by a $1,000 grant from the Schusterman Foundation, Samson and four volunteers will be teaching four-week magic programs to more children at Bialik-Ragozin, a WIZO foster home, and kids living with their mothers at a shelter for battered women in Herziliya. Samson said: “I’m really excited about reaching new communities.”

***

Two days before his bar mitzvah, Samson (who’s now 30) still hadn’t learned a long chunk of text he’d need to read. He stayed up late studying in an effort to learn it, but he was distracted: His parents had given him a magic set for his bar mitzvah, and he’d opened its deck of cards. He was trying to master a new card trick; a math whiz and the son of an inventor, he wouldn’t stop until he figured out how it worked. By the day of his bar mitzvah, he still hadn’t learned his entire Torah portion, but he had mastered his first trick.

As part of Samson’s bar mitzvah gift, his parents also gave him six lessons with British magician Michael Vincent, who became a big influence. Vincent recalled in an email Samson’s intense desire to learn and an approach that “combines great technical ability with social intelligence, social grace.” He encouraged Samson to perform in public early; at 15, Samson landed regular gigs at North London restaurants, including a Saturday-night slot at Solly’s, a North London institution and the equivalent of Katz’s Deli in New York. Within a few years, he’d be performing at weddings and corporate events in Paris, Las Vegas, Boston, and Israel.

In 2011, when he was 27, he was working in finance. He liked his job but wondered if he could use his skills in the social sector. He moved to Israel to work in social finance and helped in the development of Social Impact Bonds, a financial product that rewards investors when a social good has been achieved. “When I moved to Israel my thinking became a lot more socially oriented,” he said. “I met a lot of inspirational people. They had fantastic career possibilities and incredible talents and the ability to make lots of money, but they decided to devote all of their skills toward social issues.” The people Samson met had left well-paying jobs or were graduating and going straight into the nonprofit sector. “I think we all have this intuitive desire to help people less fortunate than us; the question is where that lies on our priority list,” he said.

Samson wanted to initiate his own project. He’d run a class in 2012 at Tel Aviv University for underprivileged kids who’d shown a flair for math, but his other big passion was still magic; he’d been teaching it to adults in an ad hoc way for 10 years. At a meeting at Jaffa’s Arab-Jewish Community Center, Samson mentioned that he was a magician and floated the idea of offering free magic lessons. He set up a fundraising page and raised approximately $500 to buy wands, cards, and foam balls for his class of 15 aspiring magicians aged 13-15.

The children took the eight-week course seriously, practicing at home after class and coming back each week with new skills. The course also brought out different personality traits in the students. “There’s one kid who started off as really, really shy,” Samson said. “At the end he was very charismatic about doing the tricks. I guess he used the magic as a window to expressing himself and becoming a little less inhibited.”

Samson taught his next full course at Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv. The school is home to 750 pupils, most of whom are children of undocumented foreign workers and refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere. Principal Eli Nechama said that the school takes the place of home for many of its students, whose parents are in survival mode, looking for money and work, and don’t have the time or the means to look after their children. Students are served three meals a day and their healthcare needs looked after. Although lessons end at 3 p.m., the school remains open until 10 p.m. Bialik-Rogozin can’t charge parents for after-school activities, so Nechama is always looking for volunteers. “In my school we never say no, we give a chance to anything,” he said. “We do many, many things that encourage them and empower them to believe in their abilities.” Samson volunteered and taught two courses to 10-12-year-olds, most of whom had never seen magic.

“Immediately there was a great connection,” said Nechama, a theater director who believes that art and performance can play a crucial part in the lives of troubled teens and children. The kids come to the school with gaps in everything from language to their motor skills. The dexterity needed to execute the tricks helped them develop hand-eye coordination, according to Nechama, and standing in front of a group and performing helped them build confidence.

Fifth-grade students from last year’s Bialik-Rogozin magic class told me via email what they got out of it: “My parents were excited when they saw me do magic tricks,” said Michelle, who added that she “also learned to be more confident.” Yarden, another student, said that in addition to learning tricks, “I also learned how to solve problems. I learned how to solve problems when I made a mistake with the trick. I learned to fix the problem and keep going.”

***

Samson chooses most of his students based on need—kids who didn’t have much opportunity to take after-school classes or who came from communities where money for hobbies was hard to come by. By definition, they live in the most disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society. In some cases, as with the Arab Jewish Community Center, he sees a different opportunity: for magic to make a small contribution to bridging Israel’s cultural divide.

Samson breaks down his goals as being twofold: “It’s giving children from under-privileged backgrounds an opportunity to learn a new skill, which is rarely found, and trying to get them excited by it,” he said. “And by doing so, teaching them soft skills and leadership and presentation.” He reels off a few of the lessons that magic classes help teach: speaking in front of large audiences, presenting to a room, talking to strangers. “That’s very much what I’d like to impart in them.”

There’s research to back up Samson’s instincts about the power of magic. American magician Kevin Spencer has been using magic to rehabilitate children and adults with severe physical and psychological issues, such as autism and hemiplegia, for more than 25 years. Today, according to his website, Spencer’s methods are used in more than 30 countries.

After suffering a near fatal car accident in his early twenties, Spencer developed a closed brain injury and a lower spinal cord injury. It took him a year to recover with the help of an intensive rehabilitation program. During that time, it struck him that certain magic tricks resembled exercises given to stroke victims or hemiplegia sufferers to rebuild dormant muscles. As a result, he developed programs that use magic tricks to improve damaged motor functions, each trick having specific therapeutic goals. The results are impressive: In a joint British-Israeli study of children with Hemiplegic Cerebral Palsy, the kids went to a two-week summer camp that incorporated physical therapy into teaching magic tricks. At the start of the program, the kids were using their affected hand 25 percent of the time; at the end, they were using it 93 percent of the time. Spencer explains that the three key areas magic taps into are dexterity, a person’s motivation, and the social element. “Magic doesn’t work unless you have an audience,” he explained. “Once they’ve learned a trick, the next thing they want to do is show it to someone.”

“Kids that are considered at risk, underprivileged kids that grow up in poverty, they share a lot of the same attributes,” said Spencer, echoing Nechama. “It seems that the biggest one of those is lower self-confidence, lower self-esteem.” According to Spencer, self-confidence is one of the most valuable results in performing magic—the kids get a boost from having the ability to do something that their peers can’t.

Samson has enlisted four volunteers to help him this summer, a combination of new olim from the United States and U.K. and Israelis moving back after years abroad. One of those volunteers is Hillel Raz, who left Israel at 12 and moved back after years in the United States, Italy, and Wales. “I came back,” said Raz, “because it’s my home, and if it is my home, then to make it a better place.” Raz has been fascinated by how strong an element presentation is in performing magic, whether it’s a card trick or making foam balls disappear. Although the tricks are very technical, one of the key lessons he’ll need to communicate to the participants is how to stand in front of a crowd and direct them so that they latch onto the cues you intend them to. “These are very important in business,” said Raz. “It will be very empowering for the kids.”

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How Magic Can Help Underprivileged Israeli Teenagers Get Ahead

When is a trick more than a trick? When Ophir Samson uses it to teach confidence, leadership, and work-related skills