Preparing Immigrants for Army Service And A Brighter Future

April 11, 2012


When Malash A., 21, an Ethiopian Israeli, received his draft notice from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) three years ago he was filled with shock and worry. His family had moved from a rural village in Ethiopia to Jerusalem only a few years before and was still struggling to adapt to the cultural realities of life in Israel; his parents did not have the personal experience to advise him through the recruitment process.

Malash’s instinct was to wait until his friends received their notice and follow their lead. Little did he know that not showing up to the army base on his assigned recruitment date could land him in jail. That’s when JDC stepped in to help, bringing Malash in an army preparedness program that would change the course of his future.

Because civilian life in Israel tends to naturally separate into distinct cultures—with separate neighborhoods, communities, and schools—disadvantaged new immigrants, impoverished Israelis, and others from vulnerable backgrounds have little chance to understand the role of army service in Israeli society. JDC’s army preparedness programs aim to fill this critical knowledge gap.

JDC works with immigrants, ultra-Orthodox, at-risk youth, and other population groups to help them smoothly integrate into army service because the IDF is such a critical rite of passage for all Israelis. The IDF acts as an equalizing force in Israel, bolstering young men and women from all walks of life with the vocational training, skills, credentials, and personal growth opportunities needed for a successful future.

Beyond being a source of honor, army service offers critical preparation for entering Israel’s competitive job market. IDF service can be especially advantageous for young adults from vulnerable backgrounds because it offers them a “second chance” to become a part of Israeli society by gaining the skills and social connections they did not acquire through their homes and schools.

Malash speaks Hebrew well, despite a thick Ethiopian accent, and he was eager to join one of the army’s elite commando units—if given the chance.

His counselor Alon (also an Ethiopian) called him as a routine intervention of JDC’s program and explained to him the importance of showing up for the draft date. He informed him that immigrants go through a special preparation period created by the army to help them succeed, and advised him on how to talk to his family, too.

“My parents did not understand the process, what would be expected of me, what would happen to me,” says Malash. “I made a point of calling them every day until they became calmer and more relaxed about it. Alon helped me find a way to explain to them what was going on.”

The assuring guidance of someone from his own community helped Malash to understand the real intention of the army and he showed up on his assigned draft date.

After three weeks of learning about army service and preparing himself physically, Malash tried out for the selection and was accepted to the Paratroopers—one of the most sought-after service positions. He was the only Ethiopian in his immediate platoon.

Today Malash is an exemplary soldier, serving in the IDF’s elite and demanding Paratrooper Unit. He is only a few months from completing his service and he looks forward to a brighter future.

“I continue to speak with Alon regularly,” says Malash, referring to the support the program continues to provide him.

Through the credentials garnered by serving in high-performance IDF roles like his, Malash is certain to gain access to networks that would otherwise be out of reach, giving him entrée to increasingly higher levels of the nation’s academic, professional, and economic life.

Each of the populations that JDC works with to enable entry into the IDF faces unique challenges.

For example, to empower members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community, JDC works with the army to make it possible for Haredi men to serve under religiously acceptable conditions and to provide specific training for the professional roles they can fill This training can help them long after their release from the IDF; the simple act of having served opens up avenues to employment itself.

Yitzchak L. exemplifies this: He was born and raised in the Haredi enclave of B’nei Brak and was educated in one of its most prestigious yeshivas. Through JDC’s army preparedness program, Yitzchak entered the IDF and trained in software quality assurance in the air force. He served in the army for the next two and a half years, during which time he participated in an advanced communications systems-training program sponsored by JDC. Within a week of completing his service, Yitzchak was hired by Matrix—one of the leading information technology and software solutions companies in Israel.

“My career advancement was extraordinary. Every place I applied accepted me!” Yitzchak proudly shares. “Before my army service I didn’t have much of a future career wise. I would never have been eligible for this type of job. But the army opened up so many possibilities for me … JDC gave me the opportunity to work in a great, high paying field without formal degrees.”

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