Friday, June 23, 2017

Serving the Public

As proclaimed by the United Nations, June 23rd is “Public Service Day.” In honor of this designation, today’s Jewish Treat introduces Sherut Le’umi, the national Public Service system of the State of Israel.

Since the state’s founding in 1948, Israel has had a national draft for all citizens 18 years or older. The fact that the Israeli Defense Force included both genders, however, was highly problematic for more traditionally observant Israelis. Life in the military was a great deviation from the standards of modesty with which their daughters were raised. Both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis at the time (Rabbi Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Benzion Uziel, respectively) actively opposed female military conscription.

In 1953, a positive alternative was proposed: The establishment of a compulsory national service corps for those young women who had obtained a religious exemption from military service. While the idea was accepted, the actual program did not come into existence until 1971. At first, the program was specific to young women from religious homes, but, in time, the program expanded to include others: conscientious objectors, those with medical exemptions, etc., as well as Arab youth who wished to serve the country but not be part of the Israeli Defense Force.

While serving in Sherut Le’umi, these young women and men receive housing, a small living stipend, classes/programming and a number of other small benefits. They work in a wide variety of areas, including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, absorption centers, and more. Many of the Arab participants are allowed to work within their own community.

As has been found in other countries with similar programs, Sherut Le’umi offers several important benefits to the country beyond resolving the disagreement about female conscription. The B’nei Le’umi (“Children of Service”) often provide assistance to underprivileged citizens. Additionally, the participants receive potential vocational experience while learning about “giving back” and about the diversity of their country.

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