The 5767 school year marks a milestone for the National Service program, as 48 young women from Arab villages have joined its ranks for the first time in its history. "Volunteers are leaders," explained Miki Nevo, organizational head of Isracorps, a volunteerism advocacy organization founded in 2004 that runs the volunteer program through which the young women joined the National Service.
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According to Nevo, the program works to counter the current social imbalance of volunteerism. "Most volunteers come from the social elite," he said, "dividing society into givers and receivers.
As long as leaders come from one specific social group, a child in the periphery [of Israeli society] will only see leadership coming from the outside." For that child, volunteerism becomes "a gentle kind of patronizing," he adds.
Thus, Isracorps works to develop volunteerism that emerges from the periphery itself by turning members of peripheral social groups into leaders in their own right. In Nevo's words, it seeks "to change the profile of volunteerism in Israel."
The initiative to incorporate the Arab women into the National Service came from the Education Ministry, and has stirred some controversy over the issue of Arab citizens' service to the country. But Nevo is quick to reject any political motivations behind the program.
"We don't deal with politics, just volunteerism," he declares emphatically. "We just work to develop high quality volunteers, youths who want to do good things in their communities." While the program has only just begun, Nevo is optimistic. "None of the Arab volunteers drop out," he said.
"These guys are incredibly high quality individuals." Asked about their reception in their communities, he said they are largely seen as "local leaders."
The leadership of Isracorps' Arab program is composed of Israeli Arabs charged with training the youth and organizing the volunteer activities. The 2006-2007 school year marks the second year in which the three-year-old organization has worked with Arab volunteers, and the first year of its work with the National Service.
Isracorps sends some 500 youth volunteers to work in programs in the North and South of the country. Eighty young women from the Ethiopian community who were not accepted into the National Service program are also taking part in Isracorps' volunteering framework this year, along with soldiers, disadvantaged youth, and 90 Arab women.
The 42 Arab volunteers who chose not to join the National Service framework will work within the framework of the "volunteer year" available to all Israeli youth through the Education Ministry.
Over 3,100 high-school graduates participate in various one-year National Service programs throughout the country each year. The youths train for their volunteer year during the summer break and start work with the beginning of the school year. Some 25 percent of them choose to continue their work in a second year of service.
National Service projects include helping teachers in the field of special education, working with immigrant schoolchildren, aiding disadvantaged families from poor communities, and, in Jewish communities, teaching about the Land of Israel and Jewish traditions in schools.
Some 800 National Service volunteers were assigned to help in educational and social service projects in the North for the duration of the 5767 school year.
Of the 800, 300 started working during the summer months, helping to run summer camps under the auspices of the Education Ministry for children displaced by the rocket bombardments on the North.
The National Service volunteers joined some 1,000 teacher-soldiers, mostly young observant Jewish women who spent their army service teaching in schools around the country and in running educational programs in northern bomb shelters and community centers during the fighting.