Producing the Next Generation of Stef Wertheimers

A program funded by the industrialist-philanthropist equips disadvantged youth for life after military service.

Ofer Vaknin

Bar Shirkolker always dreamed of being a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. The 18-year-old from Ramle looked for a pre-army preparatory course (mechina) to prepare him for his military service. It wasn’t something the teenager took lightly. After all, he also had to help support his family, while many friends were receiving exemptions from military service because of their criminal records.

Along the way, Shirkolker dropped out of high school and started studying in the Hila Project, an alternative secondary education program. Only then did he manage to find his place in the educational system. “It was hard for me at Tel Nof [High School], I didn’t fit in there,” he recalls. “But the Hila Project helped me a lot. They gave me extra [lessons], let me choose hours convenient for me to study. They did a lot, so I could finish 12 years of schooling,” he adds.

Before he was drafted, Shirkolker searched online for pre-army preparatory programs and came across a program called  Zur Shalem in the Western Galilee, which prepares students to serve as combat soldiers in the Nahal infantry brigade, while also providing professional training so the students can find jobs in metalworking and machining after their army service. The program is based on the initial job training of the man who devised the program idea, and is now practically its sole funder – industrialist Stef Wertheimer.

The first days were a real shock, admits Shirkolker. The students had to acquaint themselves with a new environment and demanding routine. This is also what makes Zur Shalem unique: The students don’t come from well-off homes or middle class families, but from a low socioeconomic background and with problems adapting to educational frameworks.

The 10-month program sees the students stay at dormitories in Lavon, near Carmiel, and includes “fitness training, hikes, trips, social events, and a values-oriented study program that emphasizes love of the State of Israel and technical training,” according to Zur Shalem’s website. The program, including living expenses, social programs and accommodation, is free. It’s part of a larger initiative at the same site called Zur Lavon – also funded by Wertheimer – that provides other industrial training programs.

Wertheimer, of course, is the founder of Iscar, which manufactures industrial cutting tools and was sold to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in two stages, in 2006 and 2013, for a total of over $7 billion. Wertheimer has also launched six industrial parks in Israel, and one in Turkey.

“This a special and exceptional project,” says Dan Porat, who was the first head of the preparatory program and today runs Zur Lavon’s educational and training programs.

“We want to do something that is not like school. To take children who didn’t succeed in the system – children from a weak to very weak socioeconomic background whose military details are such that if they would be drafted, it would be in combat support roles. We are really saying, ‘Let’s see if they really are such failures.’ The word ‘mechina’ is not really right, since it’s a four-year program and [the preparatory year] is just its first part. The boys come of their own volition; it’s not a school that forces them to attend. We tell them, ‘Look, you are not a child from the strong upper class who can enjoy the enrichment activities. If you don’t go to work and earn money, or don’t enlist in the army because you must, then we want to give you a good deal so you can start life stronger.’”

Ofer Vaknin

A picture of the future

The first eight months of the program focus on preparing the students for military service: Physical fitness, being punctual and meeting goals, lessons in Israeli history and tradition, and more – all on an isolated mountaintop near the Lavon Industrial Park.

The students also get a taste of industry through machining classes in the workshop. After 28 months’ military service in a combat unit, they return to work on a professional qualification. First, they learn what it means to be a professional metalworker, says Porat. They need to adapt to their daily routine: Up at 6 A.M., with lights out at 11 P.M.; workshops and training all day long, while they are completely cut off from their previous and familiar surroundings. They even have to leave their phones in their rooms all day. The participants receive a lot of individual attention, with one counselor for every 11 students.

One of the first things the staff does is develop a “picture of the future” for the students, as Porat puts it. “They need to imagine what they want to be. They came from somewhere where they were always being thrown out, received a message that they were failures – and then they didn’t see anything when they looked ahead,” he says. Sketching that picture is the first step in the process, he adds, and they must be given “self-confidence, little victories, and you must explain it is a long road – you can fall, but you need to know how to get up.”

In order to draw that picture Porat describes, the staff must deal with a large number of problems along the way. Israel Segal, the current head of the preparatory program, says there is sometimes friction among the students: Of the 54 who started the program in July, up to 10 will probably drop out.

“In the first two or three weeks, the group says it’s too much for them – and they’re right. There are guys who’ll be removed in the future because of a lack of cooperation,” says Segal.

Finding the right students is not easy, either. “When we locate the students in the educational system, they’re at the end of the corridor or in the basement, so to speak, and they spend their time there. But it’s hard to criticize the system, and in many places you feel they’re just passing the problem on,” he notes.

Many of them used to help support their families. How do they deal with that separation?

“This is a painful and recognized issue. In my view, a child doesn’t have to take care of his parents at this stage. Let’s assume you’re a pizza delivery boy working full-time and earning 5,000 shekels (about $1,270) a month. You don’t have a profession. You have a good job, but not a profession. This is work until a certain stage. You cannot support the home, and that’s not your job.

“Students must understand that if they show resilience and learn a profession, they’ll get stability. I tell them that waiting tables is not a profession – it’s work. Find a profession, be professionals in something, you’ll have a lot more opportunities.”

At the same time, because many of them help their families out, there is the possibility to work on weekends, adds Segal. “We help them find jobs related to our profession. We are connected to Iscar and it can hire a certain number of students who need and want to become more professional and advance,” he says.

“They study the profession twice a week and on Friday they can go to Iscar and see how it works in the real world – and get paid,” says Segal.

After they finish their professional training, the participants are given a mentor to help integrate them into the job market. At first, they make about 10% to 15% more than minimum wage, giving them an advantage over most newly demobilized soldiers. Then, the wages start to accumulate as they gain experience – all dependent, of course, on their motivation and skills.

Even though the entire program is free, the Education Ministry doesn’t provide any funding because the program doesn’t meet the definition of a pre-army preparatory program (as defined by the law in 2008). Such programs are intended primarily to prepare the participants for their army service and “social and civic involvement,” and cannot offer any diplomas or certificates. The ministry said it is implementing changes to the regulations, and if the program applies it will consider providing funding.

Even at the beginning of the program, Shirkolker knows that, despite his difficulties in adapting, the program represents an opportunity. “It’s a bonus. I didn’t plan on learning a profession. I have only 12 years of schooling – that’s not a lot,” he says. “They’re offering me a profession here. That’s the only way I can progress in life. Except for that, what do I have?”