Serve Your Country, and Get Close to Nothing in Return

In National Service, for which he insisted on volunteering, Daniel found love and appreciation for the first time in his life, but how can you live on NIS 900 a month?

Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai

The great promise represented by 19-year-old Daniel could be fulfilled. He could contribute to society, to the legal world and to many other areas in which he is talented.

By the same token he could fall into places from which it’s very difficult to climb back up. At the moment he is exactly at this crossroads. The right jump-start would enable him to forge ahead. Its absence, on the other hand, is very dangerous.

Daniel is doing National Service in the Be’er Sheva Legal Aid office. Each weekday morning for the past year he takes two buses from the mobile home he rents in the Eshkol Regional Council and reports to work.

The work he does, from handling bills to processing mail, benefits everyone including Daniel himself. He feels that he is touching his dream of studying law. So close to the halls of justice. He aspires to be on the side of the law, not on the side where those deprived of opportunity fall.

Daniel left home, where he says the atmosphere was harsh and violent, when he was 14. He says that a close relative’s health crisis destroyed his family. For three years he roamed the streets. He lived in a series of homes for at-risk youth, from Etnachta in Jerusalem to Shanti House in Tel Aviv, from Beit Miriam in Be’er Sheva to The House on Haim Street in Haifa. He did not feel at home anywhere.

“I kept wandering back and forth, between the street and attempts to return home and another residence and from there to the street,” relates Daniel, who is quite eloquent and clearly very intelligent. “At 17 I came to a violent place called a post-hospitalization boarding school. The whole situation gave me emotional problems,” Daniel says, noting that he has been a ward of the state since he was 16 and a half, when he was removed from his home by court order.

“When the state is your parents you get boarding school and pocket money, 30 shekels for two weeks.” When I sigh, he adds in a whisper: “That’s only part of the story. When I was on the street I had to work in prostitution, I was raped more than once. When my parents found out it caused an even greater rift with them.”

After all Daniel has been through, his decision to volunteer for National Service is admirable. At 18, after aging out of the system, he became the master of his own destiny. He must have been very strong; otherwise he would presumably not have had the fortitude to apply to take the national matriculation exams ‏(with only partial success, but he is determined to continue‏) and to insist on contributing to the state even after receiving a laconic notice of exemption from mandatory military service. He doesn’t know the reason and can only guess. “I realized that I still want to contribute,” he says. “I contacted the Volunteers’ Association [of the National Service,” after an Internet search. In effect, I provided an opportunity for other children at the boarding school who decided to volunteer.”

Daniel’s decision brought him to Legal Aid in Be’er Sheva. He speaks warmly of the assistant office manager, who took him under his wing, and says he feels wanted there. Daniel has high praise for other employees as well, who give him warmth and love “to the point where I get up every morning happy, and that’s so unfamiliar to me.” Five days a week, nine hours a day, a dream come true. But now it’s about to be shattered.

Ineligible for nearly all aid

Daniel asked us to publicize his story, because he is suffering what he calls “system collapse.” And here begins the absurd part of the story, which developed so nicely until this point.

Daniel pays NIS 1,400 a month for his trailer home. He also pays for his own transportation to the courthouse. There is no question that he is a “lone volunteer,” but as opposed to a “lone soldier” − soldiers whose families live abroad or are incapable of supporting them in the course of their army service − he is ineligible for nearly all state assistance. He receives a monthly stipend of slightly more than NIS 900 a month, which does not even cover his rent, never mind food, utilities, transportation and other living expenses. Daniel is NIS 20,000 in debt, and he is afraid. He has no idea how he will get out of the hole, and he wanted so very much to get his life together, to live like a normal person.

“There’s no definition of a lone soldier when you do National Service,” Daniel says. “In the office they helped me check. I discovered that Amidar [Public Housing Authority] gives assistance to lone soldiers, but they told me that I’m ineligible. I’m alone, but I want to contribute. Even in my most difficult periods I volunteered at a soup kitchen. Why do I have to be poor today, why do I give and the state doesn’t give anything back to me?”

At a time when public discourse in Israel revolves around the issue of equal sharing of the burden − usually taken to mean drafting ultra-Orthodox men − this differentiation between military and civilian national service seems absurd. Daniel, for example, is not entitled to temporary accommodations at soldiers’ hostels. He is not entitled to benefits that even soldiers who are not “lone soldiers” receive.

“The National Service coordinator is in daily contact with me, but they don’t have any funds,” says Daniel. He has been trying to pick up occasional jobs, but his work schedule makes that all but impossible. He also says he knows he would be hard-pressed to find the kind of support he receives in the National Service anywhere else.

“I’m collapsing and I don’t know what to do,” Daniel says, adding that his bank calls him “every day” and that he is now in the sights of check collection agencies and the Bailiff’s Office. “My life is complicated, I’m going from bad to worse. Even a person my age who has parents can’t manage with the sum I get, and I have no base and no home.”

But for the grace of national service? Homeless in Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Bar-On