The 2016 Sderot Conference for Society

Monday, December 05, 2016 10:54 AM

A meeting of KKL-JNF Youth for Informal Education

On November 29th, 2016, exactly 69 years after the UN’s historic declaration of the end of the British Mandate and the founding of the State of Israel, the Sderot Conference for Society took place with the participation of KKL-JNF World Chairman Danny Atar. The Education Programs for the Periphery Department of KKL-JNF’s Education Division set up a large marquee for the youngsters’ event on the attractive campus of Sapir College. Around 500 young people – pre-army national service volunteers, graduates of pre-military programs and graduates of KKL-JNF scout troops – gathered for a challenging discussion on “Informal Education as a Growth Engine in the Periphery”.
This important debate took place in the context of the Sderot Conference for Society, which for two days confronted the challenges that face society in Israel. KKL-JNF, in its striving for sustainable social development, has spearheaded informal education in Israel and created an educational ambiance that emphasizes leadership, Zionism and environmental and social sustainability, while devoting special attention to the country’s geographic and socio-economic periphery.

The teens arrived in groups, sustained themselves with light refreshments, got to know one another, laughed and absorbed initial impressions, and, most of all, awaited the summons of moderator Eyal Madani – editor and presenter of the popular radio program “Backyard,” which deals with social issues – who eventually invited them to assemble in the marquee. “You are the most important people here,” he told the youngsters. “Without you we couldn’t call this tent ‘the young KKL-JNF marquee.’”

The first speaker was Major-General (res.) Uzi Dayan, founder and president of the Sderot Conference, who welcomed the youngsters and told them that the aims of Zionism go far beyond the development of a strong and independent state: they seek to create a model society in that state, where the flag of social conscience will be raised as high as the flag of national security. He implored his hearers to become involved in Israeli society and to gain experience, because, he said, those who have no social objectives of their own end up serving the purposes of others. Major-General Dayan praised KKL-JNF for its efforts to keep Israel green, especially in view of the serious fires that had raged throughout the country during the week prior to the conference.

The next speaker to welcome the young people was KKL-JNF World Chairman Danny Atar, who said that Israel has to strive to ensure that all high school graduates participate in a pre-military program or perform voluntary service of some kind. “I’m a great believer in the importance of the role of informal education,” he said. “Only with its help will we be able to redefine the concept of ‘realization’ (hagshama). You are the flower of Israel’s youth, and thanks to young people like you and to the importance we attach to what you are doing, KKL-JNF has taken it upon itself to be part of the pre-military program project and promote youth movements in Israel.”

Atar spoke of the outbreak of fires that had taken place in Israel the previous week and described how KKL-JNF staff had worked day and night to combat the flames, fully aware as they did so that a prolonged rehabilitation process awaited every dunam that had burned. “We are in touch with Jewish communities throughout the world that are connected to Israel and want to donate and help with rehabilitation. For every tree that was burned, KKL-JNF will plant two more,” the world chairman assured his listeners.

A panel of experts

Journalist and well-known media personality Rino Zror was the bold and skillfulchair of the panel of experts. He began by telling his young guests, “People give you lots of advice, but my advice is: Don’t listen to any of it. Anyone who decides to devote a whole year of his or her life to voluntary service is already sufficiently well equipped, simply by virtue of having made that decision and of having acquired the experience it offers.”

After this he asked KKL-JNF World Chairman Danny Atar what kind of education KKL-JNF provides. Danny Atar replied that one cannot rely solely upon formal education, and that Israelis have to strive for social solidarity. If young people in Israel undergo the process that KKL-JNF offers, more and more people in the periphery will realize their goals, and this, he said, is the only way to ensure the future of the State of Israel and Jewish people in perpetuity.

When Ran, a student in the pre-military program at Nitzana, asked him about Israeli leaders’ responsibility for the current state of the country, Danny replied that he blames no one. On the contrary, he said, if we want to progress, each one of us has to assume responsibilities wherever we happen to be.

Shai Hajaj, Chairman of Merhavim Regional Council, objected to the term “periphery.” “If you take the map of Israel and divide it into two,” he said, “you’ll see that, geographically speaking, Sderot is right in the middle of the country. The term ‘periphery’ represents attitude, not essence.”
Hajaj did not deny the problems, but praised KKL-JNF’s ecological and tourism-oriented work in the Negev, and its informal education activities above all else. He made special mention of the MAOF educational project and of KKL-JNF’s educational leadership programs, which, he said, have worked wonders in the Negev.

Dani Zamir, CEO of the National Council of Pre-Military Leadership Academies, said that today 52 one-year and 32 sixth-month pre-military programs are operating in Israel. Religious youngsters, he said, currently enjoy more informal educational options that their secular peers, because of religious Knesset members’ greater commitment to informal education. “If we keep quiet and ignore what’s happening just because we don’t want to get into an argument, then we won’t be able to change an unsatisfactory situation,” said Zamir in response to one of the youngsters, who expressed reluctance to engage in dialogue that could lead to discord. “We’ve been granted a miracle, in that KKL-JNF has adopted us,” he said. “Now we can promote a great many projects that will culminate in two hundred families that graduate from pre-military programs and go and settle in Upper Nazareth and Arad. None of this would have come about without the help of KKL-JNF.”

Shlomi Castro, CEO of the Council for Youth and Children’s Organizations in Israel, presented some disconcerting statistics. According to the information at his disposal, only 30% of young people in Israel take part in values-related activities in youth movements, and in peripheral areas this number is as low as 17%. Another statistic reveals that only 1.4% of the education budget is invested in informal education. However, there is also some good news: 400 out of every 500 young people who graduate from pre-military programs want to serve in combat units. KKL-JNF’s entry into the picture as the adoptive parent of informal education has given youth movements a tremendous boost that will present a challenge to the education system all over the country.

MK and attorney Revital Swid of the Zionist Union praised the values that young people assimilate during their year in a pre-military program, and said that two of her own children had participated in programs of this kind. Rino Zror challenged MK Swid by asking what she, as a member of the Knesset, has done to promote informal education. She responded that the more students there are in pre-military programs, the greater the benefit to Israeli society, but added that the budgets allocated for the purpose are currently small. She promised to draft a bill proposing an overall budget for informal education, in order to improve the situation.

Yonatan Kishinovski, CEO of Ofek Preparatory Programs – six-month pre-military courses held in conjunction with the Jewish Agency – stood up in the audience and spoke about his responsibility towards 570 youngsters, mainly from the periphery, for whom no budget has been provided. Some of them were present at the conference. Danny Atar consulted with KKL-JNF’s Education Division and promised that the problem could be solved.

Seventeen-and-a-half-year-old Hanan Yazdi, Chairman of Israel’s National Student and Youth Council, told his listeners that only 15% of school-age youngsters had heard about one-year service and pre-military programs. He said that it was impossible to distinguish between formal and informal education, and objected to the commonly heard statement that today’s young people are the citizens of tomorrow. “But what about us today? Even at our age we have a tremendous influence on what happens in the country. Don’t forget that the State of Israel was founded by teenagers, not by adults,” he pointed out. 

Discussion groups

After the end of the panel discussion the participants enjoyed a performance by the IDF Central Region Troupe and the Pshutey HaRehov band, which made the walls of the tent shake and got everyone dancing. After the intermission the youngsters reconvened for group discussions and debates on informal education and how it should be promoted in the periphery.

After the discussion groups everyone convened for a final meeting presided over by Lavi Zamir, CEO of KKL-JNF’s scout troups.

The main conclusions the young people drew were that schools in Israel should raise awareness of the possibilities offered by informal education, and improve coordination between formal and informal instruction. Such coordination would make things easier for students and members of youth movements, who are currently obliged to devote valuable time to finding out for themselves how to join any of the various programs available.

The KKL-JNF youngsters pointed out that there are fewer youth movements in the periphery, mainly because of budgetary problems, financial strictures and perhaps also a lack of the emotional accessibility necessary for long-term commitment. There are also differences between the level of participation in pre-military programs, which cost a considerable amount of money, and one-year volunteer programs, which constitute a much smaller financial burden.

Lavi Zamir summed up the conference as follows: “I was happy watching you get up and speak, I took pleasure in watching you dance and I enjoyed observing you as you took part in the discussion groups. My advice to you is to look forward always and not to be afraid to say what you think is right. It’s important to challenge the adult world: it can cause the decision-makers to think again about their agenda and perhaps change direction. Keep doing that!”

The bottom line from the conference, said Lavi, is a demand that the ministry of education provide significant budgets for informal education. He concluded by thanking everyone who had taken part – and also KKL-JNF staff who had organized the conference – and wished the youngsters, who are due to enlist in the army soon, an interesting and challenging period of military service.