Each year, thousands of young men and women in Israel are deferred from compulsory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) service, usually because of problematic personal histories that might include poverty; violence in the home; neglect; emotional-sexual abuse; and difficulties in adjusting to educational-social-employment frameworks. Many of these youth can be found on the streets, loitering and engaging in anti-social activities in locations all over the country. Some abuse substances, tend towards depression or rage, and have police records for criminal behaviors.
The mainstream path towards adulthood is completion of 12 years of study, military service – or National Volunteer Service (sherut leumi) – followed by studies/employment, seems out of reach for this population and the path to the fringes of society can be short and almost seems paved.
In Bat Ami – the organization for sherut leumi and social change – we accept young adults who have been rejected by other sherut leumi organizations, as well as the IDF, because of their difficult histories, and offer them the opportunity to volunteer and provide significant help to the community. They are placed in normative volunteer settings including educational institutions and frameworks, social services, and public agencies of many types (e.g., fire fighters, police, security services). Other “special” populations of young adults who also serve in sherut leumi include young women from religious backgrounds who are exempt on this basis, individuals with physical, emotional or cognitive challenges, and individuals from ethnic minorities such as Arabic-speakers – Moslems, Christians and Druze.
The guiding principle of Bat Ami is to ensure that each and every young adult in Israel is offered the opportunity to serve in sherut leumi as a means of contributing to creating a more tolerant, equal, and just society in Israel. Graduates of sherut leumi are eligible for the same benefits as are those who complete military service.
Sarah (a pseudonym) is an impressive young woman, full of life, who was a regular in Zion Square (a plaza in Jerusalem than is a hangout for loitering youth), until three years ago. Then she volunteered for two years through Bat Ami’s “Young Women Serving the Community” project, working with animals and the public in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. This special project is conducted throughout the country and in it participate some 220 young adults (most of whom are female).
Sarah tells her individual story, and it’s a bit difficult to match this optimistic young woman with her difficult life. “My father was killed in a tractor accident in the 1992 snow storm when I was two” she recounts. “I don’t know if this is a real memory or what people have told me, but I know I really loved him. As a child I was always sad.” Sarah describes her adolescence as a time of pain, loneliness, and difficulty adjusting to formal frameworks. “My mother did not know how to deal with me, so we were always fighting and shouting at each other,” she continues. In 10th grade Sarah was expelled from school and the path to loitering in the streets was swift, and included a period of drug use.
Several months later, at age 17, Sarah tried to kill herself, which then led to two psychiatric hospitalizations, followed by a year of addiction treatment in a rehab center, during which time she completed her matriculation exams in math. “I decided to start with the hardest challenge,” she laughs, “material I had no understanding of at all. In the end I got grades of 86 and 96 on the tests – an outstanding achievement for me.”
One of Sarah’s dreams was to serve in the IDF. “This would have been a perfect fit for me. But the IDF wouldn’t accept me because of my background.” And so Sarah turned to sherut leumi. After two years of volunteering Sarah was selected as an Outstanding Volunteer because of her “Exceptional dedication, high professional level, and contribution to other volunteers and colleagues.”
The journey Sarah undertook, as did her peers in the program, is not to be taken for granted. The transformation from being a rebellious, angry teenager to a mature individual who contributes to the community, involves profound inner change to a narrative of competence, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging. This is what can be attained through the volunteer experience in Bat Ami, together with the intense support of Bat Ami’s dedicated staff, who all feel a sense of mission in their work.
Today, Sarah can adamantly acclaim: In sherut leumi we are not young women in-distress!
“The experience of volunteering engenders change, a ‘switch’ in mindset,” says Yedaya Levine, the founder of Bat Ami who served as its executive director for 15 years. “Some of these young women were never ‘missed’ by anyone. In this project, for the first time they are needed and we sense their absence. They are really important.”
Sarah articulates this sentiment in her own words: ”What is great in sherut leumi is that here we are not young women in-distress. We are workers and we are relied upon; it’s a great feeling. All my life I just wanted to disappear but suddenly I have responsibility; I have to face challenges, take care of the animals, and interact with the public.”
The Young Women Serving the Community project enables young women facing challenges to succeed; young women with difficulties adhering to frameworks, who have histories of negative interpersonal relationships, and true distress at the home. Each group of 15-20 young women has a coordinator trained as a professional social worker, who is responsible for integrating, supporting, and placing the volunteers in their positions. In addition the volunteers receive allotments, so as opposed to the mainstream sherut leumi arrangement, the volunteer placement itself does not need to provide any funds for these volunteers, explains Ms. Hila Soferman-Hernik, the founder of the program. “At the same time, the volunteer placement must be prepared for the daily tasks that faces them, as we do not place young people in settings that cannot provide a mature, responsible individual to be the on-the-job referent and role model who works together with the sherut leumi coordinator.”
A significant component of the program is the weekly Enrichment Day. In the words of Ms. Soferman-Hernik: “During this special day, participants in the program are able to raise difficulties in the volunteer setting or the program as a whole, but most importantly, it focuses on acquiring tools and skills to cope successfully with life issues such as male-female relationships, gender identity, a sense of belonging and identity. Each young woman creates a vision for her future and is empowered to have a personal dream, ambitions, and uncover her personal strengths.”
Or Elisha – Award Winner
Or, a young woman with a disability is wheelchair-bound. She is dedicated and motivated to help others, and elected to volunteer in sherut leumi as a way to contribute to her country. During high school she received a waiver from military service because of her physical limitations. Receiving this deferral was a painful moment, and the reason she chose to move out of the family home to a group apartment operated by Bat Ami for sherut leumi volunteers in S’derot as part of the Knafayim [Wings] Preparatory Program (mechina), and volunteer via the organization’s Mishlavim Project for disabled young adults. Bat Ami, which has emblazoned the goal of an inclusive society in its credo, accepted Or with open arms.
During her first volunteer year Or worked in the offices of the Hesder Yeshiva in S’derot. During her second year, she worked in the libraries of both Kibbutz Erez and the Brosh Moshav. She sorted and catalogued books and developed deep relationships with the members and children of both communities. On a personal level, Or added a great deal to the social milieu of these communities, the centrality of the libraries, and the awareness that a wheelchair-bound individual can play a key role in society. In 2017 she received the President of Israel’s Award for Outstanding Volunteers in a moving ceremony. According to her sherut leumi coordinator, “Or is a symbol of the victory of the spirit – both motivation and optimism – over any challenge.”
T. Talks About Bat Ami
I volunteer in an elementary school in Rehovot. When I received a waiver from the IDF I had to make a decision: I could go to school or get a job, or I could try another way to contribute to the country and society in which I live. I chose the second option, even though it was the much harder one. I was deferred by the military because of a history of severe depression that so hindered my functioning that I dropped out of high school. After long and intensive treatment I started to improve and decided to do sherut leumi. When I applied, I was petrified I would fail by not showing up to work on a regular basis. He was worried that the job pressures would cause me to fall back into depression, that I was not yet ready for the commitment needed to do sherut leumi.
When I first met my (amazing) coordinator for an introductory session together with the elementary school principal, I began to relax. This was the school I had attended as a child, and the principal was delighted to accept me as a volunteer; some of the faculty even recognized me.
They assigned me to work with a first grade student who was having learning difficulties. At first it was strange – to find myself in the position of the “responsible adult” with a young child looking to me to help him. In the beginning, the days stretched out and felt like weeks, and I would return home exhausted. But slowly I began to discover new things about myself. For example: I was very patient with the first graders who were struggling with reading, writing, or arithmetic, and this is not an easy task. I also discovered things that dispelled my previous fears, and saw I could cope with the structure and commitment. I was pleased to find that the children liked me and looked forward to their private lessons with me. Before I knew it, the kids would come up and hug me when I entered the class. I began to really enjoy my work. The monthly workshops in Tel Aviv taught me a lot and were very helpful, and the encounter with other sherut leumi volunteers was very empowering.
I now enjoy every day in sherut leumi, I am stimulated by and interested in each pupil I teach. My volunteer work is not simple, but I would not change it for anything. I feel that I am helping schoolchildren and teachers, and benefiting a lot from this experience, as well. I am very happy that I joined Bat Ami to do sherut leumi.
The Israel Ministry of Social Services, the Authority for National Volunteer Service, the Hizdamnut Fund, the Glencore Foundation, the Freidberg Family Foundation, the Gruss Foundation, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties, the National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi), Tel Aviv University, private foundations and donors.
Read more about Bat-Ami programs for social change at bat-ami.org.il/about-bat-ami/