Credit: MDA Spokesmanship

It was the 7th UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Kofi Annan who said, “Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished. Let us ensure that all young people have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives of their societies.”

Israel is often in the news because of the conflicts with its neighbors as well as internal tensions. But beyond this surface picture, there’s a less visible side of Israel that is thriving while these conflicts continue to flare. Israel is the flourishing “Start-Up Nation” with a booming cultural art, music and culinary scene, and a burgeoning social entrepreneurship movement. Often young people can be seen initiating, leading and actively involved in some of the most interesting activities within these realms. Join me on an inspiring journey through some of Israel’s unique social activities being DRIVEN by youth; who are not only being prepared for the future, but shaping the present.

Our journey begins with 16 year-old Adi Altschuler. At 12, Adi started volunteering at ILAN – an Israeli NGO for children with physical disabilities. She became close to Kobi Kfir, a three year-old child with cerebral palsy; they developed a unique relationship that went beyond verbal communication. Throughout their years of friendship, Adi noticed that Kfir longed for friends to hang out with. Adi knew that Kfir and his few friends enjoyed independent social interactions without parental presence, but there was no existing structure to facilitate these interactions. In 2002 at the ripe age of 16, Adi joined LEAD, a non-profit youth leadership organization that provides Israeli teenagers with experience in planning, implementing and managing community projects. Within this framework, Adi was asked to consider an issue that troubled her as well as devise a solution. By the end of the year, Adi had launched Krembo Wings. It began small, organizing activities for Kfir and his classmates. She arranged everything, from transportation to communicating with their parents. Years later, as the president of what became a large and renowned youth movement, Adi recalls the reasons that drove her to establish Krembo Wings: “When people ask me why I established Krembo Wings, I always reply the same way: so that Kfir and children and youth like him, can have a social life; so they’re not lonely; so they have the same opportunities as everyone. But actually, it’s not just for them, it’s for me, it’s for us, so that we’re not alone.”

Krembo Wings is a youth movement being led by youths, dedicated to children with and without disabilities. Today, the movement serves more than 4,000 youths aged 7 to 21, from 47 branches in communities across Israel from the gamut of cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. Adi’s efforts to bring children with disabilities out of social isolation have paid off. At Krembo Wings, everyone is encouraged to participate, have fun and make friends.

Most inspiring is the youth’s active involvement in the organization – as participants, guides, instructors, managers and planners. The youth movement leaders are not trained caregivers, but 14-18 year-old Israeli children. Beyond providing an opportunity to interact with people they would otherwise never meet, the program’s mission serves to develop the leadership skills of the volunteer youth counselors. Krembo Wings provides the youth counselors with the skills necessary to enrich and empower children with disabilities through activities, while shaping them into young people who value social responsibility, diversity and tolerance, and who live and love to help others.

“In the beginning, we were just a bunch of 16 year-olds. We didn’t have a vision or strategy or business plan,” said Altschuler a few years ago. In 2009, Adi and Krembo Wings were awarded one of Israel’s most respected prizes, the Presidential Award for Volunteerism. In 2014, Adi was elected one of the six future world leaders by TIME magazine, and in the same year, she spoke at the UN about social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for growth in developing countries. This is an entire organization built on the idea that youth are both capable and should take charge of the society they live in – shape it and correct its wrongs. This seems incomprehensible – giving a teenage girl or boy responsibility for over 70 volunteers in addition to dozens of special-need children. “You feel that you’re in charge of something important and it makes you grow up fast”, says Shir Lazarovits, former head of the Modi’in branch of Krembo Wings. “You learn about management and how to deal with the difficult situations. Adults tell me they had to get to 30 before being in a position of responsibility over so many people”. What’s more incredible, no one is ‘giving’ these young people responsibility. Adi Altshuler was not assigned this project. She initiated it. She created it from scratch. And she was only 16 years old. Today Adi Altschuler is a respected social entrepreneur, and luckily, not the only one of her kind.

Magen David Adom (MDA) is another organization that relies on youth leadership. MDA serves as the Israeli Red Cross. Like Red Cross organizations across the world, MDA trains nurses; coordinates blood donation clinics; helps the disabled, the needy and the elderly, and provides ambulance and rescue services at sea, in cities, and on the road. In Israel there is one major difference; out of MDAs 14,000 volunteers who maintain the organization, 8,500 are teenagers aged 15 to 18! This is not a typo: Over 60% of the volunteers of the Israeli Red Cross, are teenagers. Since its establishment in 1930, Israeli youth have been participating in MDA’s operational activities: from youth brigades in the 1948 War of Independence, to evacuating casualties during wars and murderous attacks in the 70s, and in the unprecedented terrorism of the 1990s, youth were among the first to the answer the call. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who require MDA services each year see these young angels in action.

Other Western countries similarly have youth Red Cross volunteers, however, unlike other countries, Israeli MDA youth perform advanced level CPR; save people injured in car and work accidents; and care for the critically sick at critical times.  Overall, MDA youth volunteers invest more than 1,500,000 hours of volunteering per year – an enterprise of international scale. As part of their commitments, youth volunteers participate in advanced courses for handling mass-casualty events, leadership and training courses; administer treatment as part of a mobile ICU crew and more. At the end of their first year, the youth volunteers are eligible to participate in a summer course (during summer vacation) to be trained as “madrichim” (guides). These kids ultimately take on more responsibility such as supervising the training of volunteers, coordinating shifts and more. Therefore, these are no ordinary volunteers. They are young people, often confronted with some of life’s most difficult predicaments, and required to function like professionals.

In recent years, questions have surfaced regarding youth’s extraordinary involvement in Israel’s ambulance service infrastructure. Can they handle it? Should youth be charged with such grave social responsibility? Regardless of the claims on either side of the debate, the fact remains that Israeli youth are highly involved, physically and emotionally, in all medical events in Israeli society. They volunteer in shift work, assist on ambulances, which would otherwise go unassisted, and they’re eager to learn and help.

In my recent post about the Israeli scouts –Zofim – I described the scale of youth movements in Israel. However, through my research about these unique youth movements, I learned about additional social activities involving youth and realized they all share a single common denominator: youth are an integral part of society. And as such, they have both privileges and responsibilities. They are not future adults waiting to become active citizens. What they are is an active segment of all major organization – political, social, educational or other. They are expected to take responsibility for how society looks today and how it will look in the future. No doubt ambulance services present challenges, some of which are not welcome by parents. But the fact that teenagers aged 15-18 can be found throughout the country, assisting residents in their time of need, illustrates that in the social sphere, youth are perceived as co-citizens and not as children. This constitutes a very unique perspective.

Another such organization is LEAD. LEAD is an apolitical association dedicated to cultivating young leadership in Israel. Considered a globally unique project, the program focuses on youth-oriented methods developed and implemented by an interdisciplinary group of experts from the fields of social leadership, psychology, and education. Once they reach 16 years old, youth can join the program regardless of background. The two-year training initiative for the “ambassadors” comprises trialing independent projects – from conception, to planning, execution, and management – that are socially oriented and implemented in communities and private spheres. Upon graduation, (corresponding with the end of high school), the “chanichim” (apprentices) join the graduate community and continue to be active until aged 34 (the current age of the first alumni). In fact, the alumni program makes LEAD the longest leadership-development program in the world.

LEAD, and other organizations like it, don’t believe in waiting. They view youth as a thinking, capable and motivated force in our society that should be harnessed rather than ignored. Like other youth movements in Israel, LEAD aims “to encourage youth to develop leadership that is critical, moral and brave, characterized by public and communal responsibility, that is visionary and democratic”. LEAD uniquely facilitates meetings and trainings with leading professionals from fields such as academia, science and social sciences, business, government, education and more, who dedicate their time to educating the future generation of leaders, even if they are only 16 years-old.

Finally, there are two additional programs, just as impressive, if not more. We met Gvahim and Magshimim in my piece about the Skills of the Future. Here we discussed the distinct methods that enable young people to improve their abilities and skills in an exponential manner. Now we complete the circle as we approach these programs as youth organizations. Israeli youth are eager to act and embrace these responsibilities. As they are neither perceived nor treated like children, young teenage Israelis have an opportunity to generate real change in society. Like adults, they can fail and they can succeed; the point is that they give it a go. And it’s no wonder organizations encouraging youth to take charge and embrace their social leadership are commonplace in Israel.

Sagy Bar, former head of human capital development at the Israeli Military Cyber Headquarters, and currently CEO of the National Cyber Education Center, explains the reasons behind the establishment of the programs. “The programs stem from a lack of human resources at the military cyber branch. There just weren’t enough people who were capable of doing the job. The irony of the programs’ success is that in 2010 hardly anyone saw the need for them, but by 2013, the Ministry of Defense was already lobbying for them and its leaders personally strove to nationalize them. The obvious relationship between these programs and an entrepreneur’s world”, says Sagy, “is this ability to create something that no one wants and bring it to a place where it creates a significant change, where it becomes an inseparable part of society.

These programs today are an integral part of the Israeli culture. This to me, is the essence of entrepreneurship – to identify a problem, come up with a solution, and make that solution not only relevant, but vital.” Today, Sagy continues to manage the programs at an operational level, as part of his work at the Rashi Foundation, who are partners to the programs. These programs have become so successful and substantial, that civilian companies are requesting program graduates. Companies even invest funds (through donations) into these programs because they understand they are developing a future force in the field of engineering and cyber. “A force the market is craving,” says Sagy. “What we have here is a social, financial, educational, security change. And we’re continuing to grow and expand into different strata of the population and age groups.”

Programs like Gvahim and Magshimim demonstrate the extent to which Israeli youth are seen as colleagues. They are not only the future, they’re the present. “This attitude views children as people with an incredible ability to absorb, understand and deal with challenges. We encourage their creativity and entrepreneurship, then we let go and see what happens. They always take it much farther than we’ve ever imagined,” says Sagy. Although it started out as a government sponsored program, today Magshimim has also become kind of a youth movement. “It has its own ecosystem,” says Sagy. “The graduates and the 17 year-olds are training the 10 and 11 year-olds. They are responsible for a substantial part of the summer activities, for example. We didn’t initiate the graduate community that emerged, it was all their idea.”

The children in the Gvahim and Magshimim programs are free to choose their path. They are not obligated to join a certain military branch, nor do anything with their skills in the future. “We simply provide them with the necessary tools to fulfill their dreams – whatever they are. We take their potential and we channel it toward something concrete, which they later can work with in whatever way they see fit. It’s another opportunity, another key to success, which we give them as early as their high school years.”

Being part of the broader Israeli community is intertwined in the core values and philosophy of youth movements. Throughout the years, “chanichim” from different youth movements undergo a journey of self-discovery and growth, and with time, gain more and more experiences. Their journey entails community-based projects, whether through volunteering or initiating them. This in turn has created a society where different age groups contribute to community life in a manner equivalent to their age. There are countless examples of volunteer work being undertaken by the Tzofim, MDA, LEAD, and many other youth movements: helping the elderly, weekly sessions with holocaust survivors, food collection points, and much, much more.

Beyond volunteering and creating social value, the most striking feature about this phenomenon is the perception of youth in Israeli society. They are taught to live an entrepreneurial lifestyle from the moment they are born.  Youth are not the future; they are the present.