Lone soldiers’ sisters in service

While many Israelis celebrate our brave lone soldiers, most are significantly less aware of lone bnot sherut.

Bishvil members celebrate Independence Day (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bishvil members celebrate Independence Day
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After studying in Israel, 20-year-old Londoner Batya Levy knew she wanted to make aliya. She also knew that spending a year in an American seminary in Jerusalem was not enough preparation.
“I didn’t know what it was like to live in Israel. I wanted to give back to the country in my own way and to integrate, to learn the language and to learn to live as an Israeli,” Levy told In Jerusalem.
Levy returned to Israel as a lone bat sherut – a young woman doing a year of voluntary national service. Like lone soldiers, she has no parents in the country. She lives in an apartment with six other bnot sherut and volunteers full-time at Gan Dolev in Ma’aleh Adumim, where she assists the staff and serves as “the fun teacher” for 27 kindergarteners.
While many Israelis celebrate our brave lone soldiers, most are significantly less aware of lone bnot sherut.
Two young women are trying to change that. Shira Lawrence and Na’ama Ben-Pazi started Bishvil, a modest non-profit organization, five years ago. The pair did their own national service abroad and knew first-hand the challenges of trying to do national service in a country where the language and the bureaucracy are unfamiliar.
Realizing that lone bnot sherut face the same challenges in Israel, they initially tried to work within existing organizations. When that path proved less than completely effective, Lawrence and Ben-Pazi decided the best way to help was to start a new organization.
Working out of an office in Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem, the two women who founded Bishvil serve as managers. The pair shepherds a staff of 80 volunteers, of whom 70 serve as “big sisters” to the 250 lone bnot sherut across the county and 10 additional staff members work as coordinators.
Although the government provides each bat sherut with a Hebrew-speaking coordinator, according to Levy the staff of Bishvil is much more effective responding to the unique needs of lone bnot sherut.
“I came without speaking a word of Hebrew,” Levy recalled. “Bishvil was there on a more personal level. They spoke English and they offered much more personal attention.”
National service placements are generally arranged with help from staff at Israeli high schools. Since lone bnot sherut don’t attend high school in Israel, Bishvil provides assistance with placement. If the volunteer is coming from overseas, someone from the organization will be at the airport to greet her.
Bishvil’s main efforts are concentrated on meeting the daily needs of bnot sherut. Levy is particularly grateful for her relationship with Big Sister Michal Kleid. Kleid grew up in an English-speaking home in Israel and is completing her own national service with Bishvil.
“Every Tuesday night, Michal visits. She brings us extra blankets, extra fans, helps us with banking issues, whatever we need.” According to Levy, Kleid “would sit for nights helping me apply [to Bar-Ilan University]. Without her, there’s no way I would have been able to apply to university because I didn’t have the resources to do it and I didn’t know how the system in Israel works. She knows it because she grew up in it.”
Unlike Israelis who do national service, lone bnot sherut have no other home in Israel. They can’t take their dirty laundry to their parents or bring back food that’s left over from a family Shabbat. The Bishvil big sisters make sure the young women have everything they need – such as a functioning washing machine or oven – to live in the apartment full-time.
“We help each girl in three realms,” explained Kleid.
“Each lone bat sherut gets assigned a big sister. The organization helps forge a sense of community among the lone bnot sherut through activities such as Shabbat and holiday celebrations. Some girls eventually rent an apartment together with girls they met during the year at a Bishvil event, and some girls we help emotionally, with issues like eating disorders, homesickness and financial problems.”
According to Kleid, 92% of last year’s lone bnot sherut made aliya. This time of year, Bishvil is helping those who are staying in Israel find a place to live between the end of their national service and the beginning of the academic year.
In that respect, Levy’s path is typical. She made aliya in June and will be attending Bar-Ilan University in the fall. Her brother is also in Israel, serving as a lone soldier. Although her parents remain in England, Levy expressed gratitude to them for being supportive of her chosen path in life. Bishvil operates on a modest budget. At this stage, all the money that funds services and activities comes from private donors.
“We try to get to all the girls and give them as much as we can. There’s no question that budget is the main limitation,” Kleid reflected.
With more resources, Bishvil could do much more. For example, Kleid spoke about how lone bnot sherut struggle with Hebrew at their work placements and in the apartments where they live with Israelis. The organization would like to build a center for lone bnot sherut where activities could be held during the week and where they could come to just relax and speak their mother tongue. Approximately half of the lone bnot sherut are English speakers and half are French speakers.
Despite financial limitations, the organization is growing. According to Kleid, Bishvil is serving 25% more young women this year than last year. Being a lone bat sherut has become a much more attractive option since Bishvil began providing support services in 2011.
“Now we see that girls go back to their countries and bring their younger siblings and friends to Israel,” reported Kleid.
Most lone bnot sherut are 18 to 21 years old. An unsolicited thank-you note from a parent provides a window into how much parents living outside Israel appreciate the support Bishvil provides to their daughters.
“Thank you and everyone who was involved in making this year so wonderful for our daughter! I don’t think she has ever been happier. If there is any way we can help Bishvil in the future, please let us know. I am willing to speak with other parents whose daughters want to take the same path as our daughter. I’m happy to discuss what a good experience our daughter had and how everyone involved in her year as a bat sherut helped her.”
For more information, contact Bishvil through their website: naamabenpazi.wix.com/english