US women coming to Israel for Sherut Leumi face poor living conditions

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: The lack of adequate housing has put a damper on a two-year-old initiative through the national service program for young North Americans to immigrate and integrate into Israel.

 ONE OF THE apartments that were provided to the B’not Sherut was in active construction while the girls are living there. (photo credit: NOA ABLIN)
ONE OF THE apartments that were provided to the B’not Sherut was in active construction while the girls are living there.
(photo credit: NOA ABLIN)

When mold from the wall of her government-assigned apartment appeared on her clothing, including her bra, one young North American volunteer decided it was time to give up her dream of serving Israel and return home.

“This is the main reason I left,” she said about her time serving this year in the Bnot Sherut program, part of the Sherut Leumi (national service) program.

In an interview from the US with The Jerusalem Post, the former volunteer said she was fearful to have her name used, as were most of the other volunteers who had been similarly issued substandard apartments.

The lack of adequate housing has put a damper on a two-year-old initiative through the national service program for young North Americans to immigrate and integrate into Israel.

What is Sherut Leumi?

Sherut Leumi has long been an alternative route to serve the country for young Israelis who are ineligible to serve in the IDF, or who do not want to serve in the military, due to their religious or political convictions. Volunteers have the option to serve for one to two years in the Sherut Leumi framework.

Current Lone National Service Volunteers helped by ‘Ori' program. (credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
Current Lone National Service Volunteers helped by ‘Ori' program. (credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)

Those who come from abroad, or who are outside a family structure, are known as Bnot Sherut or lone volunteers. Approximately 25% of the 200 such volunteers are from North America.

Julia Brown, 20, from Houston, Texas, stayed in the program even though she found dark green and gray spots covering the ceilings, kitchen, and walls behind her bed when she walked into her government-assigned apartment. It was to be her home for the two years she planned to volunteer for Israel.

“It was a mess, it was literally horrible. It wasn’t cleaned from the year before. They left crumbs and trash everywhere. I wanted to cry,” Brown relayed.

Since Brown made the choice in May 2022 to become one of some 200 lone Bnot Sherut participants, she had dreamed of that moment when she would open the door to her new home.

Like many of the North Americans in the program, she had viewed photographs of what her new home might look like by National Civic-Service Authority representatives.

“They showed us specific apartments that we supposedly were going to get, and that is not what we got. They told us that right away we would have a washing machine, dryer, WIFI, and oven. But we got none of them and were in a completely different place,” Brown said.

Instead, when Brown first entered her apartment after traveling for 24 hours, a wretched smell caught her nose from the black mold, trash, and dust in her new home.

It was clear from the array of the previous volunteer’s belongings – such as books and clothing spread throughout the apartment – that no one cleaned or prepared the apartment for the new occupants.

The couches were covered in a thick layer of dirt and emitted such a toxic smell that she and her other five housemates have been unable to be near the couches unless they covered them with sheets.

The deplorable, unhealthy conditions were reported to the apartment caretakers, but it took about six months for a professional to come and remove the mold in the main rooms and bedrooms, but not the bathroom, Brown said.

Brown and others interviewed for the article have attributed the health complications they experience upon arrival in Israel to their poor living conditions.

“At the beginning of the year, I started having trouble breathing and I was coughing like crazy. So a friend and I had to go to the doctor to get it checked out,” she said.

She lived in one of eight Jerusalem government-assigned apartments that housed 36 program participants, that The Jerusalem Post observed and confirmed their state.

In response, the National Civic-Service Authority said it had been unaware of complaints concerning the apartments and investigated the matter when approached by the Post about the issue. The authority also spoke with two of its non-governmental affiliates, Bat-Ami and Aminadav, that were responsible for those apartments.

“The National Civic-Service Authority is dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable living space for all of our volunteers and will continue to do so,” a representative said. “It closely monitors and ensures that the living conditions for our volunteers comply with the standards set by the authority.”

The Authority noted, however, that “defects were indeed found in some of the apartments in the Bat-Ami Association, which took full responsibility for this. We are working immediately to improve the situation.

“We are sure that the women who will start their service at the beginning of September will benefit from renovated and much better-maintained apartments,” the authority spokesman said.

THERE ARE approximately 18,000 Israelis participating in Sherut Leumi, which began in the 1970s. Since 2007, it has been operated by the National Civil Service Authority, whose oversight was bolstered by legislation in 2014 and 2017. It is now under the auspices of the National Missions Ministry; the Diaspora Affairs and Education ministries are also involved in the program.

The overall National Civic Service program has an operating budget of about NIS 1 billion. Some NIS 37,000 is allocated per volunteer for the year, to pay for housing, salary, and other expenses. Volunteers from abroad can also be reimbursed after 11 months of service for a flight home to visit their family.

Aspects of the program, such as housing, have been decentralized. Other parts of the program have been subcontracted to public and private organizations, which receive funding based on the number of participants they service. In some cases, a subcontractor in turn subcontracts the services, making oversight a complicated affair.

There are some eight non-governmental organizations that are subcontracted to provide services to National Service volunteers; four of those work with those lone Bnot Sherut.

Supervisors are assigned to each apartment building housing the Israeli National Service volunteers, including the North Americans, to guide the young women and help them with whatever they need. Due to budget cuts, there is only one supervisor for about 40-50 young women.

Young Israeli participants in Sherut Leumi also have similar issues with their government-assigned apartments, but they have the choice to stay at home for their service if they are assigned to a nearby location. If their service location is far away, they head home on the weekends.

“We knew beforehand our apartments aren’t going to be good and we go home every Thursday night to Sunday morning, so we aren’t really living there full time,” said Nomi Spindel, an Israeli Sherut Leumi participant.

For North American participants, however, these apartments are their only home in Israel seven days a week. The monthly stipend provided to them by the Sherut Leumi program of NIS 720 is not large enough for them to find alternative housing. Those funds are slated for groceries, medical expenses, or anything extra they might need.

In one situation, four young women were placed in an apartment undergoing massive renovation projects as part of TAMA 38.

According to one of the construction managers, work began in August and lasted into November and then was resumed again last month.

The Authority said that after checking with its subsidiary Aminadav, who placed the girls in the apartment, it understood that construction had been ongoing for the last month.

“Because of this, the Aminadav association immediately offered alternative housing to the female volunteers, and they chose to stay in the apartment. At the end of the month, it was decided to terminate the contract with the apartment, and it will not be used in the next service year.

“The girls living in the property expressed their satisfaction with the treatment given to them and the quick and caring response throughout the year, both from the coordinator who is in close contact with them and from the association that accompanies them,” the National Civil Service Authority said.

The National Civil Service Authority said that its staff, along with the subsidiarity bodies contracted to work with the program, engage in many activities to maintain an appropriate quality of life for the young volunteers.

“In the last few months, various works were done to maintain the apartments, such as painting, purchasing furniture, renovating a shower room, and more.

“A month and a half ago, National Civil Service Director-General Reuven Pinsky visited several apartments to examine their condition” and  “immediately dealt with a number of necessary adjustments.”

“The Bat-Ami Association reports that immediately after the visit, WIFI was installed in several apartments and equipment was purchased. This week, contractors are scheduled to fix some problems that arose during that visit. A lot of time and financial resources are invested in this in order to give the service women a good and homely experience as much as possible, and to cherish their work,” according to the National Civil Service Authority.

Pinsky said that “lone Bnot Sherut were only just recognized two years ago by the government of Israel” and that their situation was improving.

“Only once the state recognized them did they receive funding from the government or a personal salary. Almost all Bnot Sherut prefer a job in Jerusalem, including Israelis and non-Israelis. Since these programs are only two years old, the housing is still a work in progress,” added Pinsky.

However, the Bnot Sherut who live in these apartments told The Jerusalem Post that neither a supervisor nor representative from the organization has checked up or inspected their apartments for the past three months. They are still currently dealing with mold, and lack basic necessities which they were promised.

The Nefesh B’Nefesh organization’s Ori Program is one of the supervisors of the lone Bnot Sherut. It has received numerous complaints involving the lack of cleanliness of the apartments, even though the Ori framework is not responsible for housing the participants.

Karen Richman, manager of the Ori Program, works very closely with the apartment supervisors. “When I hear of people giving away good appliances or furniture, I am happy to help with the moving costs. I am always in touch with the coordinators as well. We work together for their needs,” Richman stated.

She said that appliances and furniture in good condition should not be a secondary priority when providing apartments for young women who are new to a country; rather, they are basic necessities.

Brown said she has not let the housing issues dissuade her from remaining in the program. “Israel is still my home; that’s why I signed on for another year. But I am moving to an apartment similar to the ones they promised us to begin with – a place where I am comfortable and happy to live in.” •