Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. -Exodus 25:2
Last week I drove for a couple of hours to one of the more out-of-the-way places in the country, a moshav in the southern Jordan valley, to give a background lesson to a group of 18 year olds who will be participating next week in a two day seminar we are facilitating for them at the archaeological sites of Yodfat and Zippori. They are living down there in the context of a year-long program of study and volunteer service between high school and the army. These pre-army leadership institutes have become quite popular in recent years; there are now over 30 of them, which means that over a thousand kids every year pass through them. These institutes are a new format of a more veteran program, the Year of Service programs operated by the various youth movements, which account for thousands more participants in the kibbutzim, for example, 40% of high school graduates do a service year before the army. And in our own regional high school the percentage is even higher. This means that thousands of young people every year, knowing that they will be spending two years (girls) or three (boys) or more (officers) in the army before they can even think about college or vocation or family, still choose to take a year off for volunteer service.
In the case of the pre-army leadership institutes, the program is very full, including intensive study of Jewish and other texts, hiking and pre-army training, community service, and group living. For the larger numbers who do a traditional year of service, most programs are connected to a youth movement; kids live in a group apartment with peers, and engage in projects sponsored by their movement often leading local youth activities, or tutoring in schools. All the youth movements have such frameworks the old-line socialist movements, the religious movements as well as green and other social-change organizations. A few years ago we hosted at Shorashim a great team of kids doing a year of service for the Jewish National Fund, running nature clubs and leading excursions for communities in the area. They had a great impact on our local children and teens, of all ages, and really became a part of our community.
There has been some criticism of these programs as being elitist: the pre-army leadership institutes are expensive, and some see something patronizing in all these middle class kids going off to save the unfortunates in the development towns. Therefore, in recent years there have been serious efforts invested in recruiting volunteers for these programs from the places that had always been seen as recipients, not contributors. One problem is, of course that kids from lower socio-economic communities feel more pressured to get on with life, to get through the army and get a job. Taking a year off is seen as a luxury, and is not part of the cultural landscape. This is an interesting challenge for all the organizations fostering youth volunteer service.
Growing up in Israel today is a complicated business. The tensions among global culture, Jewish culture, and Israeli nationalism, the dilemmas of war and peace, the scary prospect of army service, the ideological and ethnic conflicts that pull us apart, the lack of role models all these pose daunting challenges to everyone approaching his/her 18th birthday and looking beyond it. That thousands of kids every year choose to take a year off to do volunteer service seems to me, at least, one of the more impressive and heartening signs of hope for our future.