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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.”

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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