Volunteerism catches fire among Israelis

TEL AVIV — There's a new Zionism afoot in Israel. It's called Dor Shalom (the Peace Generation) and it's sweeping the country, drawing in volunteers who are committed to mending the country's social fabric by translating Jewish values into actions.

Although volunteers cover the age spectrum, for the most part the movement is conceived and led by Israel's youth.

"I am not asham-ed to say that I am a Zionist," said Niv En-Gal, a 29-year-old Israeli who is an industrial engineer and part-time Dor Shalom volunteer. He ties the birth of Dor Shalom to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"Rabin's death woke people up for their dream."

It was the dream that had turned into a nightmare, group members say. No longer could the growing factionalization of Israeli society be ignored. The polarization between the rich and the poor, secular and religious, Arab and Jew, immigrant and sabra had become divisive and was a serious threat to domestic tranquility. Already it had led to Rabin's murder. Grief was turned into action, giving birth to Dor Shalom, a grassroots youth movement.

"We stopped waiting for people in power to do things," Michal Hadas, another twenty-something volunteer, told a group from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation during a recent trip to Israel.

On one hand, they were frustrated that Israel's leaders weren't doing enough. On the other, they recognized that ordinary citizens had become insular and weren't doing their part either. "In Tel Aviv people forgot about helping each other," Hadas said. Dor Shalom "pushed people into volunteering."

In just four years, Dor Shalom has attracted tens of thousands of volunteers and become a household word. It's a movement driven by idealism, energy, enthusiasm and a passion to change the world.

Its agenda is an ambitious one: to promote pluralism, democracy, tolerance and social responsibility, and to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots in Israel.

Dor Shalom is a major presence at every demonstration and rally. Throughout Israel, youth action teams design and implement social service projects. These projects vary, and have included ecological clean-up campaigns, working with the elderly, holding toy drives, hosting activities for Arab and Israeli children, fixing up houses and leading discussion groups. One of their major focuses is closing the educational gap by offering programs for underprivileged and at-risk children and teens.

To support their work, Dor Shalom volunteers hold fund-raisers and rely on private donations and grants, including one they received last year from the JCF.

The Tel Aviv neighborhood where Dor Shalom volunteers met with JCF visitors is the equivalent of an American slum. In Israel it's known as a "cardboard box" neighborhood.

Only a short drive from the bustling Mediterranean boardwalk and the European-style cafes of Dizengoff Street, it's a side of Israel that most tourists never see. The houses are tiny, dilapidated and crammed together. Laundry is strung across the backyards and dogs root through the garbage. The only bright spot is a corrugated aluminum wall, colorfully painted with children's drawings — a sign of Dor Shalom's presence.

In this enclave, which is largely inhabited by Russian emigres, Dor Shalom volunteers provide hot lunches, a day-care center for the younger children, and an after-school learning center where older kids can get help with their homework.

In this neighborhood as in many others, Dor Shalom volunteers run head on into Shas. The fervently religious political party has achieved considerable power in part by offering social programs in economically depressed areas, serving up a religious and political agenda along with food. This experience has challenged Dor Shalom's own philosophy of tolerance.

"It's easy to hate them because you don't know them," said Dana Yaffe, 18, discussing Shas Party representatives. Initially there was friction between Shas and Dor Shalom. But, according to Yaffe, once Shas members saw that Dor Shalom had no hidden agenda, the tensions dissipated. On many occasions she has worked with religious volunteers. "The purpose is to know we're all human beings."

The enthusiasm with which Dor Shalom has been embraced marks another significant change in Israeli attitudes — volunteerism as a tool to change society. In the past, volunteerism has not been a major factor in Israeli culture.

Although Israel is facing great societal problems, Dor Shalom volunteers do not see them as overwhelming or insurmountable.

"The differences can be very big but it's nothing we can't solve," said Yaffe, who has deferred her military service for a year in order to be a Dor Shalom volunteer.

"If we don't do anything about it, no one will."