Israels teenage volunteers carry on valuable tradition

Israel has a longstanding tradition of volunteerism. The Israel Voluntary Services Organization lists some 250 such groups currently operating: More than 50,000 Israelis — out of a population nearing 5 million — are engaged in some form of volunteerism.

This figure comprises 25 percent of Israelis over the age of 16.

These volunteer operations serve such diverse populations as seniors, immigrants, people with AIDS, children, soldiers and large families.

"Everywhere the government is not operating, we do. We fill the gap," says Batya Warshitz, head of the Council for Social Services and Volunteerism, the umbrella body for voluntary organizations in Jerusalem.

Teenagers, too, do their part. The mandatory Personal Commitment Program, which began with 33 high schools in 1981, now includes more than 250 nationwide, including both secular and religious institutions.

The goal of the one-year Personal Commitment Program is to strengthen the link between youth and community.

Most schools participating in the program choose to implement it among 10th graders.

Students at that level "are generally mature enough to cope with volunteering," says Ruth Itzhar, director of the Ministry of Education's Department for Community Schools, which runs the program.

"Since they still have two more years of studies, it is hoped they will continue their volunteerism on their own. But there is no doubt the students need guidance so as not to get lost or be overwhelmed in adjusting to the tasks."

For this reason the ministry provides special training for program coordinators and supplies workbooks and other materials, including videos and games, to help students cope with the challenges of volunteering.

Not surprisingly, in every school a few parents feel that the program robs time from their children's studies.

"We explain to them that the program attains a number of goals beyond just volunteering," says Itzhar. "The personal goals achieved are in some respects even more important for teenagers who are at a stage in life when they are searching for identity.

"The program exposes them to a side of life they do not find in school," Itzhar says, "and they learn about themselves and their ability to meet personal challenges and take responsibility."

Nili Eisen, program coordinator at the Leyada School in Jerusalem, agrees. "Personal responsibility is a very important part of the program," she said, adding that teens enjoy being treated like adults and having adult responsibilities.

Students know that "once they have made the commitment, they must come every time, even if it's raining or they have a big test the next day.

"Volunteering has elements of real life. It's like going out to find work for the first time. The students have to present themselves and be interviewed. Not everyone is suited to every task."

Leyada chose to implement the program among ninth-graders. The majority of students work with the elderly and a good number work with disabled and poor children.

Those who have difficulty handling emotional stress can volunteer at such venues as local botanical gardens.

"The nice thing about this program is that the students don't just give, they also receive," says Eisen. "Sometimes I don't know who gains more, the students or those they are helping."

Eisen cites the case of two girls who volunteered to help an elderly woman, a poet and writer.

"She taught them so much about language — and enriched their lives with new and exciting ideas and concepts."

Sometimes what the students encounter is heartbreaking. One teen discovered that his charge, a 5-year-old boy, was being beaten by his father.

The volunteer "was in shock," Eisen recalls. "He didn't know what to do. He felt that by informing the authorities, he would be betraying the child's confidence.

"We worked with him to help him understand that encouraging the child to speak out was the best way he could help him."

Many teens working with the elderly find themselves facing their companions' advancing illness and even death. Shortly after Ela Ayalon began her weekly home visits with a man in his 80s, he became very ill and had to be hospitalized.

"I began visiting him in hospital. He was quite sick. In the beginning, it was very difficult to see him like that, to see such difficult things. I didn't feel good. But later, I realized how important it was to visit him and I began to feel better. I know I am doing something important for him," she says.

Esti Ashur works with young adults who have Down Syndrome in a Jerusalem center.

"We are three girls. We go once a week and work with eight young adults. We try to help them to do things they can't do themselves; to go places like the mall or downtown."