(photo credit: Courtesy)
A group of teenagers assembles at the entrance to a Jaffa community center. It might seem an unlikely gathering since it comprises Muslims, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the daughter of a foreign worker and, of course, Jews from veteran Israeli families. But they are not so very different.
They are all between 17 and 18, and dressed in sweat pants and gray T-shirts displaying the Aharai (Hebrew for "Follow Me") logo in yellow. They are here, in theory, to work out and to prepare for military service. However for many, the most important thing is to be around their instructors, who serve as role models of a kind they might not otherwise encounter.
Jaffa is well-known for its diverse population and the usually excellent relations between Arab and Jewish residents. However, it is also known for its high crime rate.
"While these young people are more likely to choose the bad over the good, here they are making an actual action to become better people, citizens and leaders," says Roy Siny, 28, a master's student at Tel Aviv University who was the Jaffa group's chief instructor before he moved on to be Aharai's coordinator for the Central Region.
Aharai has been working with teenagers across Israel for nearly 10 years. The bulk of its funding comes from Bank Leumi and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The movement's 58 groups operate in economically depressed neighborhoods where young people feel neglected by the larger society.
The instructors are university students who served in combat units and received scholarships in return.
The name Aharai comes from the IDF's motto, "Follow Me," where the commander leads his troops from the front.
The Jaffa group experienced this Israeli clich firsthand when one of its original instructors, paratrooper Sgt.-Maj. Igor Kovalik from Upper Nazareth, was killed in August during the second Lebanon war, the victim of friendly fire from an IDF tank.
After Kovalik's death some of his prot g s left Aharai. Most of them became more determined than ever to defend their country.
"The fear exists all the time. But there is always the thought that now there are soldiers who are guarding me and my family, and that one day I'll have to replace them, so why not aspire to do my best?" asks Moshiko Golan, 18, a member of the Jaffa group who is preparing to try out for an elite reconnaissance unit. He already passed the preliminary tryout.
"Each Aharai group has a chief instructor and three aides," says Siny. "Aharai is different from similar organizations in that we keep track of the young members through their military service and beyond, until they are fully rooted as productive citizens. We provide them with employment counseling, scholarships for higher education, professional training. It is not our primary mission to convince them to serve in combat units.
Above all, we want to endow them with social skills and tools, to make them lead, to be confident in their abilities and to be empower them as productive individuals," he says.
Empowerment is the key word for most Aharai members, who often were entangled in crime, drugs and other misdeeds before they joined the movement. In many cases, they come from families who struggle to put food on the table and to provide their children with proper education, clothing and possibilities, and some of them have to help support their families and themselves.
The Jaffa group meets twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. Thirty teenagers, mostly from Jaffa's high schools, but also from Tel Aviv, are registered. However, only 15 of them regularly attend the meetings that are composed of group activities and short training on Mondays and intensive physical training on the beach on Thursdays.
"We also try to reach Arab high school students and believe it or not, this group's outstanding student for the past three years has been an Arab.
"In general, we don't have much success in attracting Arab pupils to Aharai because they, unlike the Jewish students, don't have the same goal in front of them, military service. But in the Jaffa group we have quite respectable representation from all of Israel's sectors, including children of foreign workers who plan to serve in the army," says Siny.
Marwan Badran, 20, the Jaffa group's outstanding student this year, says he started attending the meetings for the fitness training. "The IDF doesn't interest me but I met new people who I care about and I started volunteering in the community. It became important to me to be a part of a group and I get many things in return, so I feel good about it," he says.
The annual course starts in the fall, when Aharai instructors recruit new members at high schools, as well as teenagers wandering the streets. Until December, the instructors concentrate on teaching values and creating group unity. At this point, the members go on a demanding two-day outdoor training session that includes navigation and physical training designed to teach them how to get along in field conditions, with limited food and no connection to the real world.
During the Pessah vacation, there is a session in the desert. At the end of the year, there is a sports day in Jerusalem that starts with a challenging "stretcher run," where the members take turns carrying one of their own during a long, arduous hike. In between, they volunteer, prepare class programs in various topics and acquire leadership skills.
"I heard about this group from a friend of mine and I came here and stayed because of the people and because it is important to me to work out. At first, I thought I'd serve in a combat unit. Then I started to write about sports for Internet Web sites, so I might check out the IDF's Bamachane magazine or something similar," says Lev, a 12th grader who has been attending Aharai for a year and a half. Lev made aliya with his parents from Uzbekistan at the age of five and plans to be an instructor in Aharai, "just like Roy."
"I love this country and I believe that if you have a worthy goal you'll achieve it and contribute your country," Lev says.
"Roy came to my school last year and explained about Aharai, and immediately I knew this is what I was looking for, but didn't know where to find it," says Neomi, 17, a 12th-grader from Jaffa who intends to serve in the IDF's women combat unit, the Karakal. "I feel attached to this country and I love it," she says, adding that her mother is a bit afraid that she will serve in a combat unit but her father supports her aspirations. "They don't try to stop me, they know I'll do what I feel is right," she says.
Neonella, 18, is the daughter of a foreign worker from Moldova and an Israeli man. She just received her Israeli identity card, two-and-a-half years after she arriving. She is waiting for the Interior Ministry to grant her permanent residency so she can serve in the army.
"I want to serve in the IDF because I feel like any other Israeli and I want the same rights and obligations. Besides, this is the only way you can truly become an Israeli," she says.