Helping Lone National Service Volunteers Hit the Ground Running

April 26, 2015  

Numerous institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have invested millions of shekels in lone soldiers the last several years. While soldiers continue to receive aid and would benefit from receiving more, Israel’s other volunteers from abroad are only now receiving the same degree of attention.

One organization dedicated to the cause of helping non-Israeli and new immigrant volunteers from abroad is Beshvil, translated as “On the Path.” The organization launched four years ago and has grown year on year consistently.

“We have about 250 girls right now,” says Shira Lorentz, founder of Beshvil. “It’s becoming more and more of a thing. The majority of what we do is offer support. It’s the same problem that lone soldiers have.”

National service (sherut leumi in Hebrew) is a voluntary form of civil service that may be done in place of service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Anyone with an exemption from the IDF is eligible to participate. The program is popular with many religious women who would prefer not to serve in the military but work in community service. Options on where to serve include projects for special education, nursing homes, clinics, disadvantaged communities and a variety of non-profit organizations, among others.

Lorentz is being awarded the Moskowitz Prize – Spirit of Zion for her work with Beshvil, one of two winners in 2015. The award is meant to encourage the activities of younger activists and continue to foster their projects for long-term viability. The prize comes with a cash stipend and will get her and her organization professional aid in bringing the organization to the next level in terms of management and covering new projects.

She came up with the project while at the Gush Etzion seminary for girls at Migdal Oz. While there, she met several girls who were considering the move to Israel or volunteering for an extended period of time. She became familiar, firsthand, with their problems.

“They are mostly from France and the US but also from South Africa and the former Soviet Union,” says Lorentz, among other places. Lorentz grew up in Nechalim and served for national service abroad in Memphis, Tennessee with the local Jewish community. Lorentz cites her time in the US as a post-national service volunteer where she also had difficulties adjusting to the new environment, language and culture.

While Israelis might be able to go home for a weekend here and there to rest or get some downtime back home, foreign soldiers and national service volunteers do not have that opportunity. The goal with Beshvil, she says, is to respond to that growing need of seminary students and college graduates making the decision either to make Aliyah or to volunteer abroad for a year or so.

Among the many issues the organization tries to address is ensuring new national service volunteers are receiving the benefits entitled to them by law.

“There was the language, there were cultural assumptions, and there was a whole different community structure,” she said in an interview last year. “Plus, there were practical things – how to get health care, which foods were kosher, understanding mail from the bank…and on top of all that was being really far from home for the first time.“

The major problem in Israel she says is bureaucratic, namely regarding grants and benefits national service volunteers are entitled to.

“It is very problematic, but every soldier or civil servant receives a grant, but they aren’t receiving them on time.”

Lorentz says there are three main approaches to registering for national service and receiving recognition.

“She can be recognized as a national service volunteer, for one, if she makes aliyah and she registers for sherut leumi in normal way. Second, some girls use sherut leumi as a way to see if they want to make aliyah. If they volunteer, they are not considered sherut leumi girls at all and don’t receive a stipend of any kind.

Third, there are those who started doing sherut leumi, but had not yet been recognized.”

“It takes a while to get through the bureaucracy. First they have to go to the army and get an exemption, then apply to sherut leumi and get accepted. They get here in September and want to sort it out later, then they can’t. Only after all of this do people serving receive their monetary benefits.”

Lorentz wants people to know that more foreign volunteers are coming, and that Israel should be as accommodating and prepared as possible to ensure a smooth transition while they are in the country. Their time here – whether temporary or permanent – is part of an opportunity; it is part of a movement.

“There’s a new movement of seminary girls doing sherut leumi.”

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