An honor to be of service

A look inside the English-speaking branch of the Association for the Well-Being of Israel's Soldiers.

english AWIS 224 88 (photo credit: Sarah Hershenson)
english AWIS 224 88
(photo credit: Sarah Hershenson)
Our sages tell us that when a person reaches 18, it is a time for major life changes. In Israel, by the time our young people turn 18, they have already received a draft notice. Many have already made decisions about how to do their service. The majority of the country's youth would tell you they view serving as both a duty and a privilege. There is an IDF saying that the army takes children and makes adults out of them. Certainly, the process is not easy. The Association for the Well-Being of Israel's Soldiers (AWIS) is a volunteer group that looks out for these service men and women of the IDF, especially when they are off duty. The organization's main purpose is to provide basic comforts, a touch of "home away from home," such as clubhouses where soldiers can relax and recharge. There are approximately 90 AWIS branches, divided among three commands: Northern, Central and Southern. But the Central Command (Tel Aviv and Sharon area) boasts the only English-speaking one in the country. The branch, based in Netanya, was formed 20 years ago by immigrants from English speaking countries who wanted to serve Israel's servicemen and women. "If it weren't for these boys and girls in the IDF, we would not be able to sleep at night," says Hetty Matz. She and her late husband, Simmy, began volunteering when they arrived in Netanya 16 years ago from Johannesburg, South Africa. Matz describes the AWIS English Speakers as a bunch of retired and middle-aged South Africans with a sprinkling of Englishmen who were the "get-up-and-doers," supporting Israel and the IDF in their "old" countries. However, she points out, one cannot just call the army and say, "I want to help." One has to go through the proper channels - in this case, Poli Liebowitz. Liebowitz was born in Israel, married and emigrated to Mexico, and returned to Israel soon after the Yom Kippur War as a widow with five children. For her, the Tel Aviv branch of the AWIS was her conduit back into Israeli society. She began volunteering and later working at the AWIS office in Tel Aviv. Liebowitz tells Metro that in 1982, a tremendous influx of tourists were asking to visit batei hayal (rest houses for off-duty soldiers), and the educational and recreational centers supported by the AWIS. Liebowitz, who was then working in the AWIS Overseas Public Relations office, could not handle all the requests. In desperation, she turned to a friend and asked if she could persuade a few English speakers to be trained by the IDF as guides for tourist groups. Shortly thereafter, the volunteer guide project was running successfully. Givat Olga on the country's coast was one of the first sites that the new guides toured with visiting groups. This center was home to "Raful's Children," a brainchild of former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan, who believed that the army was in a unique position to raise its standards by raising the educational level of some of its recruits. This intensive program gathered groups of soldiers, some of whom were new immigrants and illiterate in Hebrew and others who had dropped out of school, and taught them the basics of reading, writing, and Hebrew language skills. Some soldiers progressed far enough to take courses at Givat Olga for preparation for their matriculation exams. After showing groups what others had done for the IDF, the English-speaking volunteers decided to do work that would directly benefit the soldiers. They envisioned an English-speaking branch of AWIS. Working with Brig.-Gen. Natke Nir, former national chairman of the AWIS, the group's plans soon got under way. Liebowitz recalls that the English speakers had a different approach to organized fundraising than their sabra counterparts and presented the army and the AWIS with a list of guidelines for their work. The group stipulated that every cent collected go to a specific project, and every donor would know where his money has gone. These donations would include everything from furnished clubhouses on bases to gift packages for the holidays to crockery and kettles - and whatever else was needed. "Whatever is needed" covers a great deal, Liebowitz points out. And the English-speaking AWIS branch does not have sole discretion to decide who needs what. Any project it funds must receive approval from both the national AWIS and the IDF. "There are hard choices," admits Joyce Miller, current chairwoman. "The army presents us with a detailed list of projected costs for each project and those [that are] most urgent. The committee members must voice good reasons why or why not a project should be undertaken." In the two decades of its existence, the AWIS English speakers - who operate on a strictly volunteer basis - have raised over $1.2 million. Their first priority is to serve the men and women. Among other projects, the branch supports annual summer vacations at Netanya's Beit Goldmintz, an IDF rest and educational center in Netanya, for widows and children of fallen soldiers. Families are invited in groups organized by the units in which their loved ones served for a day's activities that include classes, outings, trips to spas, delicious meals, and entertainment. In addition to a break from routine, they are introduced to a core of supportive friends. "This is one of the ways the army shows that it cares about people," remarks Miller. "And we, the English-speaking branch of the AWIS, are only too happy to be involved... It is our honor to be of service." Miller remembers the branch's first fundraiser, called The $120 Club. One hundred and twenty tickets were sold for $120 each. These 120 tickets were put into one collection, or "unit," and three were drawn for prizes. Over the years, the draw has increased to five units and 15 total prizes. Another annual fundraising project, The Calendar Club, sells dates on a large calendar where families and businesses can print greetings. The calendar proceeds fund the construction of a new, fully equipped clubhouse on a different IDF base each year. Miller explains that the personal touch makes all the difference. "We don't just send a check," she says. "After we have completed a project, we... invite the donors and members of the $120 Club to fill a 50-seat bus." She says that the purpose of these visits is not only to view the projects, but to show support for the soldiers serving. Recently, members traveled to a base in the center of the country to open a new clubhouse. The army served the group a gala meal and made sure that at each table sat two or three soldiers to answer questions. At the end of the day, a young female soldier recognized one of the AWIS volunteers. "I remember you and your friendly smile," said the soldier. "You're one of the volunteers at Beit Goldmintz, and would always say something to make my day! Would you like to serve with me here? There's a free desk right next to mine." For further information about the English Speaking branch of the AWIS contact: Ruth Omsky, Public Relations 09-835-2212; Poli Liebowitz, Project Convener 09-862-7650