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.”
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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