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
An important aspect of the program is the effort put toward helping the Shin-Shin volunteers become a cohesive group. Although they spend a lot of time with their families, they live together in a building they call “the commune.” They also eat lunch there most days, and once a week they have an activity just for them. “It takes time to get used to each other,” said Ben David, “but it happens. It’s very important to have the support that the group gives you. You’re not alone; there are people to talk to, who understand what’s bothering you. And they’re sharing the same experience.”
They meet regularly with a social worker. “Sometimes there’s something difficult I want to say to my house mother,” Ben David said. “Or a kid tells me a secret that I need to tell an adult. We talk about anything that’s bothering us. We get a lot of support.”
Figuring out the difference between dealing with younger and older kids has been a challenge. “With little kids, you’re a guide. You can tell them what’s right and what’s wrong,” Ben David said. “With the older ones, you’re more like a sibling. You can’t tell them what to do. You can only tell them your opinion. My [Megadim] family has mostly teenagers. We’re pretty close in age, and I deal with the same things they do. For instance, when a kid smokes—I have friends who smoke, so it’s hard to tell them it’s wrong. I’ve had them get mad at me, but it’s my job. I have to be a role model and a staff member, and I’m a friend, too.”
Liraz Brand is coordinator of Shnat Sherut for the United Kibbutz Movement, parent organization of the group at Megadim and umbrella organization for Israel’s kibbutzim. It is one of about 20 organizations that administer the program. Each works in cooperation with the IDF, which sets a quota for the number of participants each year.
In 2012, 2,300 out of more than 5,000 applicants were accepted. Of those, the United Kibbutz Movement has about 700 participants—one-third men, two-thirds women—in 90 different locations. (Arab youth and religious women participate in a year or two of Sherut Le’umi—National Service—a completely separate program for those exempted from regular military service.)
“The places where we serve tend to get less help from the state. None are in the West Bank,” said Brand, “although that might change in the future. Religious kibbutzim have their own program, but we do have one group of Shin-Shin that is mixed secular and religious.” Funding for the different Shin-Shin programs varies. Certain activities are self-funded by the parent organizations, but much of the financial support comes from the Ministry of Education.
As is the case for all of the United Kibbutz Movement placements, Megadim provides room, board, and pocket money to its Shin-Shin group. This comes out of the per-child stipend the organization receives from the Ministry of Social Services and private donations. But the United Kibbutz Movement covers all other financial outlay for the program, including the administrative staff and the recruitment, acceptance, and training processes. Each year there are two general conferences and an annual closing ceremony. In 2011, then-Minister of Defense Ehud Barak was the keynote speaker.
Although most Shin-Shin groups work within some type of educational framework, each sponsoring organization has a particular objective. For 13 years, the Jewish Agency has sent groups of Shin-Shin, called “Young Emissaries,” to North America and England, to work with synagogues, community centers, Jewish schools, and youth groups. The purpose is to initiate interaction between Diaspora and Israeli Jewish youth. This year its program includes almost 70 participants.
Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority has a unique program: Shin-Shin participants do coursework in nature, geography, and Israeli heritage and complete tour-guide certification. They lead field training sessions, educational tours, and programs and develop informational materials for park visitors.
More typical of the Shin-Shin parent organizations, though, are the Israeli youth movements. One of the largest, Hanoar Haoved Ve’Halomed (the Working and Studying Youth) has 400 participants in what they call Havat Hachshara (Training Farm). The terminology comes out of Eastern Europe, where members once trained to settle pre-state Israel; this program receives funding from both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defense. “Trainees,” who have been involved in the youth movement since grade school, see the year of service as a chance to put ideals into practice: “We work in schools and with after-school groups to instill values of equality, Zionism, democracy—to make changes in Israeli society,” said coordinator Shahar Klepner. “We see how much [our trainees] have gained by what they choose to do in the army.”
Brand echoed that sentiment. “When they enter the army, they’re more mature. We can see the results,” he said. “They’re exposed to the world outside their bubble. They learn to take responsibility, to be there for other people.”
Next month, Ben David will enter the army as a group leader in a field school. This year isn’t quite over, but she’s already feeling a bit nostalgic. “We all want to stay in touch very much,” she said. “It’s a year we will remember.”
Ben David is well aware of how much she’s given to the children in Megadim and how much she’s received in return. “I’ve had to deal with situations I’ve never dealt with before,” she said. “I’ve learned you can’t give up on a child. You have to be mature and forgive them and love them unconditionally. We’re very important to them.”
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