The diversity, Israel Youth Awards coordinators are fast to tell, is not the purpose of the program, which is actually part of an international initiative to help build youth leadership through community service. Nevertheless, when the program held its annual awards ceremony Tuesday evening in the garden of British Ambassador Simon MacDonald's Ramat Gan residence, speakers noted that a program which brings together Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Beduin and Circassian youth is all too rare in Israeli society.
The cultural interchange, initiated for the common goals of community service and self-fulfillment, was highlighted by the many youth dance troupes performing in the ceremony. Beduin, Druze and Jewish youths performed renditions ranging from the traditional to the ultra-modern of the debka, a stomping, fast-paced folk dance indigenous to the area. Drawn in to the energetic beat, high school students from the Beduin town of Rahat enthusiastically applauded Jewish dancers from Jerusalem and Druze from Deir el-Asad in the western Galilee.
"I think the fact that we are perhaps the only youth movement in which all of the peoples, all of the tribes, all of the races and all of the types participate, means that we can bring closer that thing that we all want - peace," said Natan Walloch, first deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and co-chairman of the IYA.
The purpose of the ceremony, however, was not to engage in cultural interchange, but to celebrate the completion of the Gold Level of the Israel Youth Award program. It also honored those teenagers who earned special citations for excellence in the three-year course, which reinforces values of community involvement among high school students.
The Israel Youth Award program works through schools and community centers to promote youth leadership, self-development, character, initiative and self-confidence. It focuses on community volunteer efforts on a national and international scale. The project is a part of the International Youth Award Program, the biggest youth development program in the world, with 500,000 participants in 125 countries. It draws on youth between the ages of 14 to 24, and is monitored by volunteers.
Meytzila, a high school student from Dimona's Black Hebrew community described the weekly regimen of the program: "We have to do certain things in the "Kehila," she said, "as well as sports and hobbies. My hobby, for instance, is sewing." In addition to the volunteer projects, the youth also participate in international gatherings of International Youth Award member countries, allowing the Israeli students - many of whom come from towns in the periphery - to travel overseas and represent Israel.
According to program co-chairman Michael Gross, this is not only an opportunity for many Israeli youth to expand their horizons, but also an opportunity for Beduin, Druze, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Circassian communities to present a human and positive face of Israel to youth from other countries. "We have contact through this group with Jordan and the Gulf states that our young people would never ordinarily have," Gross said.
However, the program participants were less interested in highlighting the overseas conferences, and instead focused on community service as the formative aspect of their three-year experience. Many of the students were also proud of becoming leaders themselves as they advanced in curriculum.
Ilana, 18, a recent graduate of the program, shrugged off the seemingly attractive prospect of free trips overseas. "I actually never went to an international conference," she said, emphasizing instead the impact that her work in a Haifa home for impoverished senior citizens had on her life.
High school students from the northern Negev development town of Kiryat Malachi eagerly presented their community's award winner for excellence, a smiling 12th-grader named Yossi who appeared hesitant to discuss his achievement. "I invest in my studentsâ€¦ I've been to conferences on developing leadership. Its been good for me because I've had to really think about what sort of a person I am and what sort of a person I want to be," said the student of Ethiopian origin.
Only when asked if he had been overseas did he discuss that aspect of the program. "I was in Spain and in France," he said. But even in when discussing this opportunity - so unusual for the son of Ethiopian immigrants growing up in an impoverished development town - he emphasized the act of volunteering as opposed to the excitement of touring oversees. "We took the time there to restore a Jewish cemetery," he said.