A group of ten high school graduates postpone their mandatory Army Service so that they can help develop Arad’s young communities. As the year draws to an end, the group reflects on an experience of a lifetime.
The city of Arad has its share of social programs, targeting young and elderly populations alike, as well as many special communities. But every once in a while comes a social program that is inspiring not only in the goals that it sets out to achieve, but mainly because of the people who are doing the work.
Arad’s “Tsameret Shnat Sherut” program brings together an inspiring mix of male and female high school graduates from secular and orthodox communities throughout Israel, who postpone their mandatory army service for one year in order to volunteer within Arad’s youth communities and far from home. The volunteers, who are between 19 and 20 years old, relocate to Arad for the duration of one year and contribute to the city by working with children, mainly by developing unique curriculums within local schools, creating enriching afterschool activities and serving as “older siblings” on an individual basis throughout the year.
The main mission of Tsameret is to facilitate cooperation between secular and orthodox youngsters, based on values of Zionism, leadership, friendship and social awareness, with hop of inspiring other Israelis and making Israel a better place. “Tsameret” literally means “high level”, a name that hints at the program’s ambitious goals, while “Shnat Sherut” stands for “a year of service”.
The “Tsameret Shnat Sherut” program first began operating in Safed in 2007 and has been a part of Arad for the last three years. In Arad Tsameret is funded, like many other of the city’s social initiatives, by the New Jersey/Delaware – Arad/Tamar Partnership2Gether, the Jewish Agency framework that has been connecting between Jewish American communities from New Jersey and Delaware with the city of Arad and Tamar Regional Council in Israel for over 15 years.
To fully understand just how unique “Tsameret” really is, one must understand just how rare it is for a high school graduate in Israel to postpone his or her Army service. Postponement means serving Israeli society for an additional year, on top of the three mandatory years of military service (for men) and two years (for women). Yet to this eclectic group of young idealists, the decision was a natural one.
“I was looking to experience a meaningful year,” reflects Chen Whalberg from Efrat, “a year that offers a challenge and an alternative”.
“In the community in which I live, a year of social service is rare to the point of being considered inappropriate,” adds Lia Tzvilik from Rishon Letzion, “I felt like I could make a difference by helping children in school. I am very Zionist and education is the basis of this country”.
The ten volunteers, or “Shinshinim”, as they are referred to, have been residing together since August in two apartments, one for males and the other for females, located within the confines of one of Arad’s oldest neighborhoods. In the mornings, the group can be found in Arad’s local high schools, where they offer their assistance to children who need help with schoolwork or just need someone to talk to and receive advice from.
In the evenings, the Shinshinim set out to fulfill their ultimate goal: creating a foundation for organized youth activity in Arad. The young volunteers take to the city’s numerous youth centers, some of which they had helped establish, organizing activities and helping the city’s youth run the centers by themselves. Several of the “Shinshinim” also volunteer at Arad’s Absorption Center for “olim” from Ethiopia and publish a monthly youth newspaper, titled “Whirlwind”.
“These days, I am busy helping the 10th graders under my care prepare for their end-of-year matriculation exams”, explains Asaf Shainu from Psagot, “In the evenings I can be found at ‘Sharon’s Youth Club’, where I am in charge of food, donations and the evenings’ themes and content”.
“We are currently preparing to recruit 5th and 6th graders into Arad’s youth center network”, says Sivan Barkan of Ashdod, “Children of that age were never a part of Arad’s youth movement before. It feels like this is exactly what we were meant to be doing, and I hope that this initiative will grow and become a part of Arad”.
While most of Arad’s youth are classified as normative, the city also has its share of children at risk. Yishai Perziger, originally from Givatayim, wanders the streets almost every evening in search of children who have made the streets their second home: “We meet youth who wander the streets. We make contact with them and introduce them to a framework that does them a world of good”.
The program’s connection to the New Jersey/Delaware – Arad/Tamar Partnership2Gether allows the local Partnership office to offer a hand with the little things, like printing the monthly newspaper and remaining in close contact with the group. The volunteers, on the other hand, have been doing their part in strengthening the bond between Israel and the United States by becoming involved in some of the other social programs funded by P2G. For example, every summer they meet and host the American Kefiada Instructors who arrive to voluntarily serve as instructors within a 3-week English camp for Arad’s children, introducing them to the city’s unique attributes as well as the local population. The “Shinshinim” also help train the Israeli pupils that take part in “Gesher”, a program that focuses on bringing youth from Arad and New Jersey closer together by developing their collective Jewish identities, cultivating their leadership skills and creating opportunities for them to meet, engage in dialogue and establish mutual thinking sessions. They even find time to meet with Birthright groups that visit Arad, showing them around town.
“It is important for them to do good in every way that they can,” reflects Ruthie Dan-Gurie, Partnership2Gether’s Living Bridge Coordinator, “by welcoming the volunteers that are coming here from New Jersey and Delaware, they are helping them feel at home and strengthening the bond between Arad and its partners abroad. It has been working so well, that we are currently planning a similar program involving young American adults from the Arad/Tamar P2G’s partner communities in New Jersey and Delaware, who will utilize their gap year to volunteer alongside the Israeli ‘Shinshinim’ in Arad”.
Looking back at almost a year’s work, the young volunteers have come to view Arad as their home. They have also matured and developed, much like the children they have been helping throughout the year.
“We arrived in a city we knew nothing about,” reveals Yishai Perziger, “and now we belong in Arad and Arad is a part of us. We basically know almost everyone here”.
“The experience has made me believe that anyone can do anything,” says Lia Tzvilik,”It is only a matter of opportunity. Give a child a chance, and he will succeed”.
“This year introduced me to life’s complexities and I met people who live under different conditions than those in which I was raised,” adds Sivan Barkan, “It made me realize that I will do something meaningful with my life”.