Like many others in the class of 2014 at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, Michelle Bensadigh of Englewood Cliffs deferred college to spend the 2014-2015 academic year — her gap year — in Israel.
But whereas everyone else chose a study or travel program, she opted to be a “bat sherut” — a Sherut Leumi (National Service) civil servant, an alternative to the military for Israeli high school graduates.
Living in a modest Jerusalem apartment building with 11 other female Sherut Leumi volunteers from North America, France, and England, her job was to assist the teacher in a classroom of 33 first-graders in a public school in Talpiot, a secular middle-class Jerudalem neighborhood.
“I was the teacher’s ‘right-hand man,’ doing anything from cutting and laminating to sitting one on one with students going over lessons and homework,” she reported.
Ms. Bensadigh said that she did not want to live in a structured American “bubble” during her gap year. “I wanted to feel like I was immersed in Israel, speaking the language and being part of the culture, and having a more flexible schedule,” she said.
The oldest child of immigrants from Iran, she already felt more familiar with Israeli culture than did many of her peers. Her grandmothers and other close relatives live in Israel, and she had visited many times.
“I knew about Sherut Leumi because my mom lived in Israel for 16 years and she spoke Hebrew at home a little bit,” she said. “And I knew of a Ramaz girl two years ahead of me who had done Sherut Leumi, so I got in touch with her and she had only good things to say about it — how she was really in the culture and felt she was doing a great thing.”
Men also may do Sherut Leumi, but the vast majority of participants are women.
Looking online, Ms. Bensadigh found that there are five Sherut Leumi agencies in Israel. Two of them have English-speaking coordinators on staff to facilitate the placement of volunteers from overseas as well as Israeli volunteers who have completed a year of service in Israel and want to do a second year in a Jewish community abroad. She emailed one of these organizations, Bat Ami, and was referred to Asnat Rotem, its English-speaking coordinator in Jerusalem.
“That worked out perfectly since I wanted to volunteer in Jerusalem,” Ms. Bensadigh says. “We had a Skype interview, talking about job possibilities and where to live.”
Her parents, Lili and Parviz, were encouraging, if somewhat hesitant at first. “My dad was a little nervous because it’s scary to send your daughter away for a year to live independently, but he saw that I wanted to do this, so in the end my parents supported me in it.”
Ms. Bensadigh got a one-year deferral from the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York, and took off for Israel at the end of last summer to become a bat sherut bodedet — lone civil servant — similar to a lone soldier with no immediate family in Israel.
“The commitment is usually one full year, September 1 to August 31, though I left at the beginning of June because I had to come back to take care of some pre-college requirements,” she said. She will start her freshman year of college in September.
“I had an amazing experience working at the school,” she said. “Working with Israeli faculty and looking at the children from an Israeli perspective, learning how they look at things and appreciate things, taught me so much about the culture. The kids were lively and bubbly, and I loved listening to all their little stories. They were almost taking care of me as much as I was taking care of them. They were always concerned about where I’d be for Shabbat.”
One cultural difference that struck her immediately was the informal way in which Israeli schoolchildren address their teachers. “In America, you call teachers ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ while in Israel you call them by first name or even by their nickname. It’s so relaxed and chill. People ask me if it’s better, and I say it’s just different.”
Most of her roommates were working in special education or with the elderly or the blind. “Even though I was in a regular school, it was just amazing for me because I felt I helped the children with the fundamentals of their future education. That was very rewarding.”
First-graders have not yet started mandatory English classes, so Ms. Bensadigh was grateful for her solid basic Hebrew. “Being forced to speak with kids who do not know English really enriched my vocabulary,” she said. “They didn’t know how to say much more than ‘good morning’ in English.”
Ms. Rotem of Bat Ami said that after the difficulty posed by being far from their families, language is the hardest challenge for a bat sherut bodedet. It’s also challenging for the institutions they serve, which can include preschools, elementary schools, nursing homes, hospitals, special-needs facilities, and offices that need English-speaking staff.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for the schools because of the language gap, but at the end they feel they help these girls get to know Israel and its culture,” Ms. Roten said. In fact, she added, one of the schools served by Bat Ami accepts girls only from abroad. “They want them to see the real face of Israel and help change the public image of our country.”
Living in two adjacent apartments in the “cute little neighborhood” of Givat Mordechai, not far from Talpiot, Ms. Bensadigh and her 11 cohorts were assigned an English-speaking counselor by Bat Ami to help them ease into doing their own grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry in Jerusalem.
“It was basic apartment living,” Ms. Bensadigh said. “It was definitely interesting but we were all going through it together.
“We were our own community. Each girl had a different job and all of us came home and talked about our experiences at the end of the day. That made it easier.”
Each bat sherut receives a monthly stipend to cover bus fare, cleaning supplies, and food. The apartment is provided free of charge. In addition, they get an ID card that allows them free or reduced admission to Israeli museums and tourist sites. There are vacation days and organized activities, such as lectures and trips, where everyone in Sherut Leumi gets to meet one another.
The first-graders need not have worried about Ms. Bensadigh’s Shabbat plans. She often stayed over with one of her grandmothers or her aunt or uncle on her mother’s side. “That was a great support system, and I got to know my cousins better than I did during my summer visits,” she said.
She emphasizes that Sherut Leumi is not for everyone. “No matter what program you do in Israel, you come home with something special, a personal revelation of some kind. If you’re looking for an atmosphere where you’re mostly learning, seminary or yeshiva is your best bet. If you’re looking for something more independent and can take care of yourself and handle a job responsibly, and are interested in serving Israel, you’d be an ideal candidate for Sherut Leumi. It’s an amazing opportunity to see Israel in a different way, especially if you are thinking about aliyah.”
Ms. Rotem says that 19 young women from abroad will start Bat Ami’s lone program in September, and an additional 10 women have chosen to live integrated with Israeli National Service volunteers under Bat Ami’s aegis.
“Every year it’s more and more, I think because people hear about it from friends,” she said. “It is a good fit if someone wants to be in Israel but does not want to pay for an American program and wants to be independent in a Hebrew-speaking environment.”
For information on Sherut Leumi, email Ms. Rotem at Asnat_r@bat-ami.org.il or Yocheved Yoskevic at HaAgudah LeHitnadvut, email@example.com.
There is more information about Sherut Leumi on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s website, www.nbn.org.il/sherut-leumi-national-service.