Elad Riven Youth Awards: Teens who care - opinion

Despite what you might have heard about today's youth, good deeds seem to be the norm throughout Israel.

 ORIYA ACCEPTING her award, with Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Dr. Tzvia Riven, Elad’s mother. (photo credit: BARBARA SOFER)
ORIYA ACCEPTING her award, with Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Dr. Tzvia Riven, Elad’s mother.
(photo credit: BARBARA SOFER)

Worried about the next generation? Catch a rerun of the Education Ministry’s Elad Riven Youth Awards for Volunteering, broadcast on Educational TV on March 6.

I was privileged to attend this year’s ceremony because our granddaughter Oriya Rahamim was one of the 12 teen awardees.

The prize event takes place each year at the Hebrew Reali School of Haifa. That’s where Elad Riven, for whom the prize is named, was a student. On December 2, 2010, Riven was in class when he noticed smoke rising from the Carmel Forest, in the direction of Beit Oren. A serious 11th-grader who wanted to be a pilot when he grew up, Elad was a devoted volunteer for an organization called Fire Scouts. 

Established in Israel in 1959, Fire Scouts was based on similar programs in the US and France. Teens undergo a 50-hour training course in which they learn to assist Fire and Rescue Services. When Elad saw the smoke, he phoned his mother, Tziva Riven, a physician, to please bring his scout uniform and gear to school. Elad was so insistent that she left work to get what he wanted, and drove them to the school where he was waiting impatiently to join the firefighters.

Elad was among those who tried to rescue the Prison Service cadets trapped in the Aleppo pine forest. He was identified among the 44 men and women who died in one of Israel’s most tragic civilian disasters. The fire took three days to put out even with the assistance of foreign firefighters. Elad, an only child, was 16 at his death.

 GRAYEVSKY TOOK one of the last photographs of late president Shimon Peres. (credit: NOA GRAYEVSKY) GRAYEVSKY TOOK one of the last photographs of late president Shimon Peres. (credit: NOA GRAYEVSKY)

Then-President Shimon Peres named Elad posthumously as one of the teen volunteers of that year, and later the prize – as well as Israel’s first aerial firefighting squadron – was named for him.

TO QUALIFY for the prize, teens take part in an umbrella program, called Personal Development and Social Involvement, with 340,000 Israeli teens doing volunteer work within this framework last year.

The awards take place at Beit Biram, the high school branch of the Reali school named for Arthur Biram who in 1913, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, established the heralded school on behalf of the German Jewish organization EZRA, and in close connection with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. At the ceremony, the families of the winners are outnumbered by their supportive friends and classmates. 

The Reali auditorium is abuzz with teens meeting and greeting – until the announcement that TV cameras will roll, as the ceremony is broadcast live. Unlike most events, this one is delightfully emceed by two poised high school seniors. Among the speakers that they summon to the stage are city officials, educational leaders and of note, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. Elad Riven’s mother Tzvia brings emotional greetings.

I frequently have the pleasure of attending dance recitals, choir performances and school events in which our grandchildren are involved. In most cases, I have eyes only for our own grandchildren. But this time, the range of winners that Oriya is among makes the event even more thrilling. Despite what you might have heard about today’s young people, good deeds seem to be the norm throughout the country: in cities, periphery towns and villages of Israel.

For example, Yasmin Hano is a student at the Druze High School for Science and Leadership in the town of Yarka in the North. She publishes a feminist magazine with articles to encourage girls and women to follow their dreams. Profits from the sales go to support women at risk. 

That alone wouldn’t have won her the prize. She also established a start-up called Legenius, which develops products to reduce the use of plastics that pollute the environment. She’s involved in a volunteer project in a hospital, volunteers in Magen David Adom rescue service, and takes part in student government. Five of the 12 outstanding volunteers come from Druze, Arab and Bedouin communities.

One 12th-grader is the spokesperson for inclusiveness. He’s on the autistic spectrum. Two students work with the hearing impaired. At least one is hearing-impaired herself. There’s a teen from Netivot and another from Nahariya, involved in a cluster of volunteer projects. 

That’s what characterizes them all. They’re not just one-time volunteers, but have initiated projects and have made volunteering a constant part of their busy lives. All these teens are balancing their volunteer activities with the demanding matriculation examination schedules, try-outs for National Service and IDF units, and also striving to pass their driving tests.

Like our Oriya. Among her long list of volunteer activities, in her intense life as a 12th-grader at Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls in Jerusalem, she was worried about the many isolated older people during the pandemic in Jerusalem. She recruited hundreds of teens to visit them and celebrate their birthdays. Although she’d finished her two years as a busy Bnei Akiva counselor, she took on another group to lead. Her volunteering included making a bat mitzvah for a girl from a troubled home and bringing challenged youth in the youth movement. 

A short film preceded each of the young people receiving the award, and when Oriya and I talked about what she should say, she was extremely uncomfortable about listing all her accomplishments. That’s another characteristic of these winners. They’re not braggarts – just good-hearted youngsters. What’s Oriya doing next year? A year of volunteer work before military service.

The teens, who met in person for the first time in Haifa, have a WhatsApp group. Oriya hopes to stay in touch with her like-minded new friends.

I’ve been thinking about something I read recently in a how-to book about behaviors to avoid when you get old. One rule is not to lecture the next generation about our “Baby Boomer good values.” Our young people, living amid a digital, multi-screen world, seem to have their own ways of doing good.

After Elad Riven died, his parents Tziva and Emil wanted to have another child. Tzvia was 39 when Elad was born, and 55 when he died. A married couple offered for the wife to carry the child, a breakthrough at the time for permitting married women to be surrogates. Two years later, not one child, but twin daughters were born. Liel and Liad do not replace Elad, says Tzvia, but have given them the joy of being a family again. 

When the twins ask questions about the brother they never met and why Tziva let Elad join the firefighters, she tells them how when Elad was determined to follow his good heart, there was no standing in his way. 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.