December 24, 2006, Updated September 14, 2012

‘The Personal Commitment program is about getting the students to relate to the social needs of their community and to promote their social involvement.’The first time Israeli teenager Rotem Dolev, 16, arrived at the social club for blind adults near her house in Rishon Lezion last year, she was very uneasy. “That first day was really hard,” says Dolev, a student at the Gymnasia Realit High School. “I felt like such an outsider.”

It wasn’t until a few months afterwards that her weekly visits to the center were rewarded with the first signs of acceptance from the group. By the end of the year, Dolev had made three very close friends at the center: three women to whom she read books, with whom attended lectures, and just talked – about everything, from the things she learned in school, to the challenges of the women’s every day lives.

“Working with them gave me a little window into their lives. I learned so much about them – from how they write a check, to how they send a letter at the post office, to how they take the bus – these things that we do every day are so much more difficult for them,” says Dolev, who recently won an award from the Mayor of Rishon Lezion for her work at the center. “Their lives are like anyone else’s; they are no different from you and me. Only they are amazing.”

Dolev is one of around 70,000 tenth grade students, comprising about 70% of the tenth grade population in Israel, who in any given year are volunteering for their communities via the Personal Commitment (‘Mechuyavut Ishit’) program.

The community service program was established in 1980 by the Ministry of Education. 80 schools immediately began to establish ‘Personal Commitment’ programs. Within five years, a majority of schools across the country followed suit, and now the program operates in more than 250 high schools nationwide.

Placements are based both on the community’s needs and the interests of the tenth grade students, who spend at least two after-school hours each week volunteering at their placement.

“As much as volunteering is mandatory for students, they can choose where they want to do their service, based on their individual interests and abilities,” Alma Kafri, Director of the Personal Commitment Program at the Ministry of Education, told ISRAEL21c. “There is constant contact with the community organizations and groups that receive these voluntary services, and if a student is interested in a placement that does not yet exist, the Coordinator at his or her school can try to set it up on the students’ behalf. In the event of difficulties, students also have the option to switch their placement.”

No matter the placement, however, the idea behind the program is the same. “The goal of this program is to strengthen youths’ feeling of commitment to their communities,” says Kafri. “It’s about getting them to relate to the social needs of their community and to promote their social involvement; to help them develop important decision-making and conflict-resolution skills, pluralistic attitudes, and to make the social contacts needed to get along as adult members of their community.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Take Orr Davidow, 18, a student at the Leo Beck High School in Haifa, where the minimum number of Personal Commitment hours is 80 rather than 60. Not that that’s relevant in Davidow’s case, since he completed 80 hours in the first two months of the year, between his three Personal Commitments: the Haifa City Youth Band, for which he played saxophone in various community concerts throughout his grade 10 year; ‘The Approach’ (‘Hagisha’) one-to-one tutoring program, where he helped a learning disabled and socially troubled grade seven student at the Leo Beck Junior High School with his homework; and ‘The Happy Group’ (‘Sevet Ha’vai’), where he still serves as one in a group of traveling performers who do variety shows for residents of retirement homes, children’s hospitals, and women’s shelters.

“What can I say? I enjoyed every minute of all of it,” says Davidow. “When I saw the impact I could have on the people in my community, well, that’s what gives you the strength to go on.”

One of the biggest lessons Davidow says he took away from his Personal Commitments is one on coexistence. Because the community of Haifa is such a mixed Moslem-Jewish population, volunteering in his community gave Davidow a real chance to intermingle with Moslem youth. For instance, The Happy Group visits both Moslem and Jewish children in hospital, on both the Jewish and Islamic holidays.

“Visiting the people is a very special experience. For a few hours, we help people forget their troubles, and for a short time they get to be young, or healthy, or normal again.”

But Davidow says the biggest impact he thinks he had was on his one-on-one student. “The student I got was pretty much me in the seventh grade. He liked the same foods, TV programs, and sports. Only he was failing in Math, and having difficulty in Arabic, and had problems socially,” said Davidow, explaining that he and his fellow peer tutors received training from a social worker from the University of Haifa before beginning to meet with their assigned student on a weekly basis.

“In addition to the scheduled meetings, I gave him my phone number, so he could contact me whenever he wanted. Almost a year after we worked together I got a call from him out of the blue. He said that he was calling because he never got a chance to formally thank me. He said it was my help that got him into the advanced math program at his school, and my influence that gave him the confidence to make friends. It made me so happy.”

Laura Tsukerman, 16, from Mekif Chet High School in Rishon Lezion, also says her greatest contribution via the Personal Commitment program was her influence on one kid in her neighborhood. Every week of her tenth grade year, she worked for three hours with needy students, aged 6-12, mostly from Ethiopian and ultra-Orthodox families, at a nearby after school program run by the Ministry of Welfare.

“There was one fourth grade student named Yitzhak who I became really close with,” says Tsukerman that in addition to playing with him, she helped him learn how to read. “He always cried that it was too difficult for him, so I tried to help him understand that it was really important, and if he would just sit down and try, then he would succeed. And he did.

“It’s sad that these kids have such difficult lives. Their parents don’t really care about them and the government doesn’t do enough to help them,” she says. “It’s important to give them lots of love. If their families don’t take care of them, and the government doesn’t take care of them, then we – people like you and me – have to take care of them.”

According to Kafri, Tsukerman’s realization is one of the program’s primary goals. “Through the program, youth become familiarized with community life and needs that are not covered by state and local functions,” says Kafri.

Like Tsukerman, 17-year-old Julia Rayhman, from the Rabin High School in Kiryat Yam, learned this lesson well. In addition to working with needy kids after school at a local Ministry of Welfare facility, Rayhman worked at a similarly funded retirement home in her neighborhood.

“It made the people in the home so happy when I came to visit them, and it was so nice to see them so happy,” says Rayhman that there was one woman in particular to whom she grew quite close. “We spoke to each other in Russian,” says Rayhman. “It made her feel so good to speak to someone in her native language.

“Working with her made me think of my own grandparents and parents,” she says. “I don’t want them to find themselves alone in a home like that one day.”

For some Personal Commitment volunteers, this realization of the government’s limitations inspired them to create new volunteer-based social institutions. For instance, ‘The Happy Group’ was established by Davidow’s older brother eight years ago.

“The program gives you the tools not just to volunteer, but to expand existing programs, or to create new ones,” says Davidow that he too intends to create a new Personal Commitment volunteer opportunity at his school before he graduates.

“This would be my biggest contribution – not the programs I have participated in, or that I am participating in now, but the ones I hope to lead in the future.”

According to Davidow, Israeli teenagers tend to look out at the society around them more than teenagers in the US, where she lived for five years.

“In Israel, it’s not just about you and your life; it’s about the society you live in,” she said.

Tsukerman also says the program forced her to grow up. “It helped me understand more the importance of helping people,” she says. “Since doing the program, I have stopped thinking only about myself. I am less egoistic. It really affected me.”

“I think my whole class got more mature after their year of service,” adds Rayhman.

“The program brings the goodness from your heart and helps you prove to yourself what you can do when you set your mind to it,” says Davidow. “They call it ‘Personal Commitment’ for a reason; because you are not just helping your community. You are enriching yourself.”

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