Service with a frown

The minority of National Service volunteers who are unhappy in their positions complain of being asked to wash patients of opposite gender.

service 521 (photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
service 521
(photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
While 19-year-old Meira (not her real name) may appear small for her age, after just one conversation it is clear that she is more intelligent and sophisticated than most young women her age.
Graduating toward the top of her class at Jerusalem’s prestigious Horev Religious High School for Girls, Meira opted to do a year of National Service after commencement in lieu of enlisting in the army. Since more than 95 percent of Horev’s student body typically chooses National Service over IDF service for religious reasons, Meira’s decision was in line with that of her peers.
However, now six months into her service, she has several regrets about not enlisting.
What is certain in her mind is that she does not have a sense of fulfillment from her choice of placement. In fact, she says, “I am not making a difference serving my country in this position.”
Not only is she unhappy in her service but she is also convinced that her supervisors are taking advantage of her presence, using her to do unpaid secretarial work instead of hiring full-time help.
According to Malkiel Dahan, the director of National Service’s Supervision and Control Branch within the Ministry of Science and Technology (which took over the National Service portfolio last year), while no scientific studies have been carried out by his ministry, the overwhelming majority of the 11,700 young women (and 800 young men) who undertake National Service on a yearly basis say that they are satisfied in their positions.
But what about those women under the radar like Meira, who feel that they are wasting the most precious year and, in some cases, two years of their lives? And what about young women who feel they are being taken advantage of to perform tasks that are not in line with their stated volunteer job descriptions? The most extreme case of dissatisfaction with her service was expressed by 18-year-old Sarah (not her real name), a volunteer at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Sarah was initially excited when assigned to one of the hospital’s intensive care wards, but her enthusiasm was short lived. While she was initially tasked with helping nurses manage equipment a n d fill pres c r i p - tions for p a t i e n t s , according to Sarah, it wasn’t long after that she was asked to assist nurses in bathing bedridden patients of both sexes and changing adult diapers.
When asked why she didn’t complain to her volunteer coordinator assigned to her by the Ha’aguda Lehitnadvut placement organization at the start of her service, Sarah says that she felt “intimidated by my hospitalappointed supervisor [a nurse], who yells at the volunteers often,” and adds that she doesn’t “want my supervisor to find out that I complained and hold it against me.”
While washing male patients and changing adult diapers make Sarah uncomfortable and make her “want to quit every single day,” her most traumatic experience took place in October.
According to Sarah, while passing by a recently deceased patient’s room, the on-duty nurse summoned her into the room and asked that she assist in wrapping the dead body for transfer to the morgue. The image of wrapping this patient following his death, someone whom she had spent time with just days before, haunts her to this day.
MEIRA IS currently doing her National Service within a government ministry. An aspiring engineer, she wanted to learn firsthand how the governm e n t f u n c - t i o n s , despite the rumors she heard that working in a government office is “one big coffee break.”
For the first few months, Meira was extremely satisfied with her position. The fact that she is bilingual in Hebrew and English allowed her to play an important role in the translation of documents for the ministry. In addition, she was involved on a daily basis in doing research towards the implementation of policy. She was fascinated to see, as she puts it, “government officials actually busy at work despite the rumors that government employees do nothing.”
However, after three months on the job, the departure of the ministry’s director-general and an internal restructuring left Meira’s department understaffed, which put her supervisor under a lot of pressure. Thus Meira went from being a researcher/translator to her boss’s personal assistant.
“If I knew that I would be doing only secretarial work, I would never have signed up for this,” she says. “Also, I am now extremely bored here, and don’t feel fulfilled at all.”
She adds that she felt like her placement was “taking advantage of me as a volunteer by using me as a secretary instead of hiring a full-time employee, since it is much cheaper to have a volunteer on staff.”
According to Dahan, volunteers are given a monthly stipend between NIS 730 and NIS 810, which is similar to the stipends issued by the IDF for its soldiers but well below Israel’s minimum wage of NIS 3,850 per month. That being said, Dahan discredits Meira’s claim, since “it is illegal for organizations to hire National Service volunteers to carry out the tasks of paid employees.”
When asked if she spoke up about her predicament, Meira says that while she explained the situation to her placement coordinator, when the coordinator informed Meira’s supervisor that she was “bored” in her position, “they simply took that to mean that I could use some more secretarial work and started piling on the workload.”
Following her supervisor’s recent request to make coffee for the office staff, Meira has decided to explore alternative organizations to finish her service.
When told of Sarah’s complaints including the “body wrapping incident,” Ita Zilberman, the director of Shaare Zedek’s Volunteers Services Unit, said the claims were “simply ridiculous.”
According to Zilberman, the hospital is vigilant in not allowing the volunteers to assist in “bathing opposite-sex patients, changing diapers, and certainly not to wrap dead bodies.” She says that the hospital would allow volunteers to assist in bathing patients of the same sex, but only with their express written consent. “I’ve been working at this hospital for over 30 years,” says Zilberman, and I can tell you that our staff highly values the role that National Service volunteers play here. In fact, we simply couldn’t run this hospital without them. What you are talking about is simply craziness.”
In response to Zilberman’s reaction, Sarah, specifically referring to the “body wrapping incident,” said that “Ita obviously doesn’t know what’s really going on. I am sticking to my story – I was asked to wrap a dead body.”
In addition, the Shaare Zedek Spokesperson’s Office issued a formal written response, which denies Sarah’s allegations.
According to the statement, “The washing of opposite-sex patients and the wrapping of cadavers is not by any means in the job description of the volunteers. The girls are aware of this as are their supervisors. If something resembling these incidents did occur, the young woman should have gone to her hospital supervisor or her volunteer coordinator and issued a formal complaint. There is no doubt that we would have dealt with such matters most stringently. Our policy doesn’t even call for the volunteers to assist in the bathing of female patients without their express consent.”
Ayelet Cohen, who serves as a volunteer coordinator for Ha’aguda Lehitnadvut and is overseeing Sarah’s work, says she is aware that sometimes volunteers in any placement can be taken advantage of but insists that overall the staff where she works at Shaare Zedek is “amazing” when it comes to interacting with the volunteers. Cohen, who works directly with Zilberman at the hospital, when asked about girls’ interacting with patients is also adamant that washing opposite-sex patients and changing adult diapers is not part of the volunteer experience. In regard to the “body wrapping incident,” Cohen also adamantly denied that such a thing could happen.
In addition, she stressed that if the volunteers have a problem or a complaint, “I am available 24 hours a day to help resolve their issues.”