Garin Tzabar helps soldiers without family in country

Spokeswoman says program has grown 500 percent in last five years.

IDF cadets 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF cadets 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In its largest group yet, 160 young men and women have come from abroad this summer for the Israel Scouts' Garin Tzabar, a kibbutz-oriented program that brings returning Israelis and new olim to serve together in IDF combat units, easing the hardships for soldiers with no family here. "In the last five years the program has grown by some 500 percent," said Luz Sapir, Garin Tzabar's spokeswoman. "When it started in 1991, we had 30 people. Now we have 160 and it's growing every year." With volunteers from North America, Australia, South Africa, Britain, Belgium and beyond, the program is drawing unprecedented enthusiasm from both the children of Israelis living abroad and new immigrants who simply want to join up. Sapir said the program's success was rooted in increased financial assistance from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which upped the annual budget to NIS 2.5 million in 2003. "The Jewish Agency and other groups have helped as well," she said. "But it's very simple, the State of Israel put its stamp of approval on the program, and it's been getting stronger ever since." The program's original goal of assisting children of Israeli families living abroad has remained intact. Faced with difficult adjustments associated with returning to Israel after spending their formative years outside of the country, Tzabar serves as a social network for young men and women as they embark on the daunting task of military service. "It's really a social factor," Sapir said. "And while most of our participants are still returning Israelis, more and more are new immigrants who do not come from Israeli families at all." Eighteen of the program's incoming members this year were new immigrants, she said. Eighty percent of those who served through the group ended up staying in Israel. Sapir said. Thirty percent of returning Israelis also persuaded their families to join them. "The government sees our program as a great way of bringing Israelis back to Israel," she said. "It's been very successful." "A lot of these kids grow up hearing stories about their mothers and fathers when they were in the army," she said. "But there's also the opposite - parents who never talked about the army and who are against their kids coming and serving here. Some of these kids come here against their parent's will." In the summer of 2006, she said, many parents were terrified as that year's group was headed to Israel during the Second Lebanon War. "We had parents who followed their kids to Israel just to make sure they were okay," Sapir said. Nevertheless, she said, the program gave its participants a positive experience. "We've had brothers come and serve together, twins even," she said. "This framework gives them the ability to come and serve, which is more difficult for those without family here. And it gives them the opportunity to serve together."