“Imagine you’re guiding a group of 11-year-old Scouts on a desert trail through the Eilat Mountains when suddenly — in the middle of the most difficult climb – one girl sits on a rock, begins to cry and refuses to budge. She’s hot, she’s tired, she misses home and she’s definitely not continuing. Get her on a helicopter, because she’s not moving anywhere.
“You’re 16 years old and you’re a first-year Scout guide. And apart from the girl, there are 12 other children in the group who are staring at you, waiting for instructions. So what do you do?”
Venture capitalist Izhar Shay shared this story recently, when he joined his 15-year-old son and his friends at the final stages of their preparation year in Tzofim-Israeli Scouts, toward becoming madrichim — guides or counselors.
This simulation made Shay realize the magnitude of responsibility placed on thousands of young girls and boys who guide the members of various youth movements in Israel.
Since before the establishment of the state in 1948, numerous youth movements were already building walls around new settlements, taking turns at the watch towers, volunteering in field hospitals, working in agriculture, helping with young children, and preparing mentally and physically for military service in one of the many paramilitary organizations, long before the Israeli Defense Forces were even conceived.
To this day, the majority of Israeli youth are members of dozens of youth movements, including over 246,500 young members and 26,800 young guides, and the numbers are rising each year.
And while the activities have changed slightly since 1948, the mindset of the youth movements remains the same: to help build and preserve the values, safety and wellbeing of Israeli citizens.
A major part of Israeli culture
The biggest youth movement is Tzofim, with more than 85,000 members spread over 205 tribes (troops). Tzofim plays a major part in Israeli culture.
The Scout movement was first conceived in Britain in 1907 by Robert-Baden-Powell to develop and train youth for adulthood. Scouting movements across the world — encompassing over 164 national organizations and over 38 million Scouts and guides — place an emphasis on outdoor activities such as camping, woodcraft, hiking, backpacking, and sports. Scouts are encouraged to volunteer, to learn by doing, to develop responsibility, self-reliance, collaboration and leadership skills, and much more.
On the surface, it seems that Israel is just another one of those countries that adopted the Scout method. But Tzofim was born out of dire necessity in 1918 to recruit working hands in such practical spheres as construction, security, agriculture and more.
In addition to practical concerns, pre-state Israel needed a framework in which to educate its youth at a time when educational institutions were far from established. It needed a way to bring together those young people who just arrived from different countries while nurturing the values of Zionism, Judaism, work ethic and perseverance.
In the absence of an organized bureaucracy, new immigrants were often forced to make their own way through this young social world. Amazingly, youth movements of that time worked to unite those diversified populations by appealing to a common goal: building the state of Israel.
This umbrella value also included constructing the country socially, and movements like Tzofim dedicated activities to providing a safe and tolerant space where youth from different social and national backgrounds could discuss the problems they faced in their daily lives.
For kids, by kids
One of the guiding principles evident in Tzofim is minimal adult intervention. The children and adolescents of the movement are completely self-sufficient, setting their own goals and ambitions.
Tsahi Ben-Yosef, an Israeli serial tech entrepreneur, is an alum and an ardent supporter of the movement.
“The children occupy almost all of the positions,” he explains, “from the youngest chanich [participant, apprentice] to the oldest madrich. There is the head of the tribe, usually a volunteering parent, who serves as the safety net of the tribe and gives a sense of a support to the kids, but other than that everything is in their hands.”
Tzofim graduates in 10th to 12th grade are responsible for education and organization within the tribe, from weekly activities to volunteer work to group discussions to summer camp for chanichim from fourth to ninth grade.
This structure is unique to Israel. In Scout movements throughout the world, the guides are aged 18 and up. This unique system, which charges youth with responsibility for their own education, is intrinsic to the perception of youth in Israeli society and to their current and future roles as citizens.
Every activity of the Tzofim is structured on the model of creative thinking, spontaneity and improvisation. Ben-Yosef explains how this approach is applied in daily activities.
“Thinking out of the box is encouraged in routine activities just as it is in yearly projects like summer camp,” he says. “Improvisation, spontaneity and an ability to adapt is evident in every activity, including those that are ostensibly planned in advance. Throughout the year, for example, there are set bi-weekly activities that the madrichim give their groups. The senior level of the entire tribe assigns the topics and values to be discussed.
“But other than assigning those very general topics, like ‘What is Justice?’ the senior level does very little. It is all in the hands of those 16- to 17-year-old madrichim. Rather than giving them a minute-by-minute lesson plan, they get to decide how to convey a certain topic to their group. They must adapt the question and tone to their group, be familiar with the abilities and preferences of their chanichim, as well as with their comfort zones and how to challenge them to overcome it … and make every session new, interesting and engaging for the children.
“And all of this is just the routine. When it comes to yearly projects like the Purim carnival or summer camp, that’s a different story. These yearly events are aimed at the ultimate goal of motivating youth to be creative, productive, novel and daring. Add to that the fact that every year the senior madrichim (who are now 18 and are preparing for their military service) graduate and get replaced by 17-year-olds who are eager to lead, innovate and make their mark.
“Wanting to do something that has never been done before, the new stratum comes up with unbelievably creative and sophisticated projects in summer camp. Instead of being assigned with a specific structure or activity, youth are given a platform to express and prove whatever they want to.”
Driving youth to innovate
The burst of creativity we see in Tzofim involves more than just providing youth with a platform; the very structure of the movement is part of what drives its members to innovate.
Precisely because the madrichim will move on after senior year and are an integral part of activities (as opposed to an adult who is only leading an activity), those in charge have a great urge to make their mark.
So leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship are built in to the core of the movement. However, entrepreneurship requires more than just creativity.
Narkis Alon, a 28-year-old serial entrepreneur from Tel Aviv, says that her exposure to entrepreneurship began in the Tzofim.
“For a planned project to actually work you have to go through several stages that are almost parallel to those you have to go through in the business entrepreneurial world,” Alon says.
“You have to make it presentable, recruit people to support you mentally and financially, recruit people to work on it physically, and finally you have to become a person whom people want to cooperate with, someone who can make people believe in her vision. It is an extremely powerful experience.”
As chanichim and madrichim progress in years and gradually assume more responsibilities, the challenges they face become more acute, which emphasizes for each individual what he or she is good at (and not only what he or she likes), and what still needs some work.
“In 11th grade,” Alon recalls, “there was a lot of emphasis on novelty, on doing things that were never done before. I was appointed Head of Structure and we were working on a chain-reaction machine. It was the first time something like this was done in my tribe. Our structure was elected the central structure in all the tribe, and we won second place among all the other tribes that were competing.
“I learned a lot from this project. I saw how good I was with recruiting people, with embedding a vision in them that will motivate them throughout the project. I also learned I had exceptional organizational skills, but at the same time, that I dislike being in the organizer’s shoes.
“The following year, I was again appointed head of project and again our structure was the central structure of the tribe. We still won second place, but this time we managed to be on schedule and, most importantly, at the end of the day the crew was happy.”
The lessons she learned from her experiences in Tzofim are applied to every aspect of her current entrepreneurial work.
“What I found to be unique in the Tzofim is the opportunity it gives you to get to know yourself. Because of what I went through… I am now aware of the value there is to matching the person with the kind of job that is exact for them – beyond doing what you love, it is important that the job would be tailored to the person. That is perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned regarding recruiting the right people.”
Israeli serial social entrepreneur Sharin Fisher, 28, is the founder of TechLift, a new youth movement focused on technology. TechLift is founded on the structure and ideology of the Tzofim movement.
“We are building a generation of leaders, a strong infrastructure of quality human capital that will lead the change in technological education,” says Fisher.
“We take an existential problem like water pollution and we invent a robot that can filter water and detect what is causing the pollution. Another fun thing we are working on currently is building an escape room that is both physical and virtual. This would be the first escape room of its kind, and will involve, for example, a task of cracking a computer code. This is something the chanichim work on together with their madrich, and in a few years from now they will become madrichim themselves.”
“What I am interested in,” she explains, “are the masses. And this idea, of reaching also the weaker population and helping them become active members of society, helping them become people who make a change by actually building something, this idea is what youth movements, the Tzofim in particular, and hopefully TechLift in the future, are all about.”
What is important to her is not that the actual knowledge of technology is preserved, but rather that the method of learning and working together to create something new is preserved.
The 11-year-old girl sitting on the rock in the Eilat Mountains, refusing to continue the trek, was persuaded by her 15 year-old Tzofim guide to join her friends and finish the hike successfully.
For parents wanting to know the secret formula, Izhar Shay says: “Let them be in the hands of 15- to 17-year-old youth movement leaders, and you’ll sleep well at night.”
Inbal Arieli was a lieutenant in the elite IDF intelligence 8200 unit and later took leading roles in the Israeli high-tech sector. She is a senior advisor to Start-Up Nation Central and is currently co-CEO of Synthesis. Featured as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Israeli High-Tech, Inbal is working on an exploration of how Israeli culture breeds entrepreneurs from a young age. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.