Volunteer Service Draws Israeli Teens Before They Start Stints in Military
‘They learn to take responsibility, to be there for other people,’ says one organizer of the year-long Shin-Shin program
On the small kibbutz where Dror Ben David grew up, “nothing was demanded of me,” she said. “I felt something was missing.” As she prepared to finish high school, she aimed to change that. “I wanted to feel needed,” she explained.
In 12th grade, Ben David applied for Shnat Sherut (meaning “Year of Service” in Hebrew)—more often known by its Hebrew acronym, Shin-Shin—a voluntary service program where Israeli high-school graduates defer army service for one year to work in a variety of community programs and organizations. If accepted, she would have to put off her two years in the IDF, essentially extending her obligation by a whole year. Shin-Shin doesn’t appeal to everyone, but Ben David saw the year as an opportunity to experience something new and to make a real contribution to the world around her.
The application process entailed six months of traveling every other weekend to “audition” for four placements she chose from a list—all while studying for high-school finals. In the end, she was accepted, with nine other young men and women, to live and work in Megadim, a residential, therapeutic community for children who have been removed from their homes by the court system. Ben David has now been there for 10 months, assisting in a second-grade classroom and mentoring the children who live in the community. “It was not simple at first; I always had to look for my own boundaries. And every kid opens differently,” said Ben David, 18. “But I am really connected to the children now, especially the kids from my ‘family.’ I understand from them how much I’m needed.”
A 2004-2008 study conducted by the Department of Personnel of the IDF recognized the significant contribution of soldiers who have done pre-army service. According to the study, the number of soldiers entering command positions and officer-training more than doubled for graduates of Shnat Sherut programs. Additionally, it found that 9 percent of Shin-Shin men drafted during those years joined elite training units, compared to 1 percent of the general public; 12 percent of Shin-Shin women took positions in combat units, compared to 2 percent of the general public. In a letter revealing the results of the study, dated March 24, 2010, Senior Recruitment Assistant in the Division of Security and Social Services of the Ministry of Defense Udi Dror wrote that he believes the experiences gained over the course of the year of Shnat Sherut “are central factors in the high motivation for a meaningful and valuable army service.”
Ben David’s mother Anat thinks the experiences she’s had since she started working at Megadim have had a big effect: “She went from a childhood without any worries, to seeing what some children go through: sadness and hurt and ‘hardcore’ stuff like prostitution and neglect,” said Anat. “Dror is opening her eyes, her heart. She is compassionate. I’m very proud of her. She looks not just at herself, but around her. So many kids her age are self-centered. She’s not.”
Established in 1997, Megadim is one of two SOS Children’s Villages in Israel and one of about 500 worldwide, that care for children who cannot live with their biological families. The villages are structured around a philosophy that strives to give every child a supportive and stable home that is part of a larger town or village.
Megadim is a self-contained campus within a neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Migdal Ha’Emek. The children who live there have been removed from their homes for any number of reasons, ranging from physical and emotional abuse to poverty and neglect. They are placed in Megadim only after the search for other alternatives, such as finding a family member to take them in, has been exhausted. Sometimes siblings come together.
About 80 children, all Jewish and aged 4 and up, are divided into eight “family” homes in Megadim. Each house has a “mother,” an adult who makes her home in Megadim, and children of varying ages who adopt the role of siblings. The children attend local schools. Megadim also runs several nonresidential, therapeutic programs to support at-risk families in nearby Bedouin towns. And on campus, Megadim runs a nonresidential after-school program for disadvantaged children from Migdal Ha’Emek.
Village director Benzi Biram explains that the children who come to live in Megadim don’t display the disruptive and violent behaviors sometimes seen in children who have suffered similar abuse and neglect. But they need, and deserve, an incredible amount of support.
The first Shin-Shin group arrived in the village about seven years ago. “I can divide life here into before Shin-Shin and after,” said Biram, who has been at Megadim for 15 years. “Before they came, there wasn’t enough personnel to give the kids everything they needed. Now the Shin-Shin group is completely involved in our trips, celebrations, and activities, with projects in the community.” The teenagers work with the kids tending the vegetable garden and the petting zoo; they plan and lead after-school activities, and they help out around the village with maintenance or in the administrative office.
Each family unit is assigned a Shin-Shin to help the mother and act as role model and mentor for the children. Ben David spends three mornings a week in school, working one-on-one with children from Megadim and the town and assisting the teacher. Afternoons she leads a dance group of fourth through sixth graders and a drama club for seventh through 12th graders. Some days she might walk into town with the kids, to buy candy or ice cream. Dinner is always spent with the family, and in the evenings she helps with homework and generally makes herself available for the children.
Biram said he sees the Shin-Shin volunteers go through a lot of changes during the year: “When they arrive, they don’t know much about working with children. But they learn and grow. It’s really a give-and-take.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever been away from home,” said Ben David, who arrived in Megadim last August. “It took a while for me to feel like I could say what I think.”
The Israeli army has always relied on its creativity. It could do with shedding even more prejudices, bad ideas, and pants.