National service is in the news, given the finding by Israel’s Supreme Court that the Tal Law, which grants army exemption to ultra-Orthodox young men of draft age, is not constitutional.
As a new draft law is being hammered out, Israel is grappling with the fact that 400 Torah scholars who benefited from Ben-Gurion’s exemption in 1949 have become 58,000 today.
But haredi young men are not the only Israeli citizens to turn 18 without joining the IDF. Although we think of Israel’s civilian army as the formative socialization experience for all young people, only 50 percent of Israeli youth now serve in the military.
The men and women who do enlist gain substantial benefits, including housing subsidies and funds toward university education, as well as priceless social capital. The networks and prestige of IDF service are lifelong, recognized ladders to business and political success.
What happens to the rest, those who cannot or do not join the IDF and yet could contribute meaningfully to their communities? Among them are some of the weakest members of Israeli society: young people who are physically or emotionally disabled; youth at risk; new immigrants who lack the minimum educational and social skills necessary for army enlistment; and Israeli Arabs.
For these young people, the lack of opportunity to serve has lasting consequences. Israel is no longer the informal, egalitarian society of old; the gap between elite and impoverished citizens is among the highest in the developed world.
Offered the opportunity for a meaningful year of civic service, however, many young Israelis are eager to participate and to acquire the social, educational and material benefits such service can uniquely confer.
Since the 1950s, religiously observant Jewish young women have been able to serve their community and country through the government framework of Sherut Le’umi, volunteer national-civic service in sectors such as education and tourism. In return, they receive the same financial benefits and recognition as non-combatant soldiers. About 10,000 young women serve annually in this framework.
In 2007, the Knesset opened up this framework, with the same benefits, to disadvantaged young people in both the Jewish and Arab sectors.
The program is administered not by the government but by approved NGOs, which receive government-funded slots, allocate them to volunteers, supervise local placements, and oversee the monthly stipends and post-service benefits. Volunteers serve five days a week in schools, hospitals and other settings.
In the “gold standard” programs, however, volunteers work in their placements four days a week, with a fifth day devoted to enrichment such as completion of high school, standardized test preparation for university entrance, leadership training, high-tech skills, and monthly meetings with diverse volunteer peers from different segments of society across Israel.
The results are telling. According to research commissioned by the Civic Service Forum and conducted by Adalya Consulting in Fall 2011, disabled young people find jobs after their year of service at a significantly higher rate than their disabled peers who did not volunteer.
Young Israelis who have a juvenile record, or who struggle with academics or family dysfunction and do not “merit” army enlistment, acquire skills and opportunities from civic service that offset their high risk of alienation from mainstream Israel.
Arab Israeli youth, 90 percent of them young women, volunteer in classrooms of 40 with a single teacher or set up after-school programs for kids where none previously existed. They train for tech support roles in Israel’s education system and as accredited soccer coaches for younger children.
In the first year that the program was expanded, 240 Arab Israelis participated. Currently, despite vocal opposition by some of the formal Arab leadership, there are 2,399 Arab volunteers in civic service.
Adalya’s research found not only a clear benefit to the volunteers, but considerable long-term savings to the state. Israel’s investment in civic service integrates marginalized young people into the economy, reducing both their dependence on government support and the need to invest later in their rehabilitation. In its finest exemplars, civic service is a model from which the United States has much to learn.
As the debate rages between those voices in Israel that advocate mandatory service for all and those who believe a more constructive path is “the right to serve,” the number of youth who volunteer for civic service is rising so steadily that there are not enough government-funded slots to meet the need.
This year, the Charles H. Revson Foundation joined Israeli philanthropies — led by the Gandyr Foundation, the Arison Foundation, and others — to create the Opportunity Fund for Civic Service, an independent, competitive pool of $6 million to be allocated over four years to NGOs that administer high-quality enrichment opportunities.
In partnership, the Israeli government has added an additional 850 slots for disabled and at-risk youth in 2012-2013. It has also made a commitment, for the first time, to supporting the enrichment programming that turns civic service into a ladder for employment and educational mobility.
With Israel’s success as the “start-up nation,” its cutting-edge medical inventions and its outsized presence on the global stage, it is easy to forget how many Israeli young people are neither studying nor working after high school.
Civic service has a message for them: “We need you. You matter. You have something valuable to give your communities.”
In the words of one volunteer:
“I was a mess. I had a criminal record, and someone suggested civic service. In the first months, I wasted my time. One day I was sleeping, and my boss at the hospital came to my apartment and woke me up. He said, ‘We need you at the hospital.’
“And I changed. Now I don’t want to leave. They tell me they can’t do without me. After my volunteer service, they’re taking me as a worker, part of the team.”
While Israelis wait to see in the coming weeks what the provisions of the new law will be for haredi young men, disadvantaged young Israelis are voting with their feet, signing up for civic service to strengthen their neighborhoods while building their own futures day by day.
Nessa Rapoport is senior program officer at the Charles H. Revson Foundation, a partner with Israeli foundations in the Opportunity Fund for Civic Service.
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