Wednesday, March 9, 2016


 Reprinted by courtesy of the Jerusalem Post

Narrowing the socio-economic gap among soldiers improves morale.

Eighteen-year-old Esther is the sixth daughter in an Ethiopian family that arrived in 2002 and settled in the South. Neither of her parents work, and as a result, the family lives in abject poverty.

Due to the complexity of life in her socio-economically challenged and violent neighborhood, Esther was removed from her home as a young child and spent time in a number of homes and institutions. Two years ago, she returned home. With tremendous tenacity, and boundless energy, she managed to pass her matriculation exams and is now preparing for military service.

Recently, Esther packed a bag of clothing and left home with no intention of returning. Israeli welfare services had found her a place to live up until a month ago, when she achieved lone soldier status. For the duration of her military service, she will live at a soldiers’ home in Beersheba, but she has had a hard time finding work.

“Esther lacks even basic items people need to live – underwear, hygiene products, shirts,” her social worker told the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

“And neither does she have all the equipment she’ll need for the army. She’ll receive only the bare minimum at the IDF induction center. She needs undershirts and flip-flops for the showers. I need to find a way to get her all the things she needs for the army so that she’ll be able to function properly.”

The next day, Esther met the IDF social worker in charge of making sure her requirements are met, and received a voucher for NIS 350 to buy the things she’ll need in the army. From now on, Esther is one among many soldiers who have been adopted by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

In 2015, the IFCJ established itself as an important factor in the IDF’s decision- making process. According to the 2016 defense budget, NIS 400 million will be allocated to the IDF Individual Services Department, and outside organizations will be responsible for another NIS 50m. But not all of these funds are earmarked for fighting poverty, and this is where the IFCJ comes in.

In 2016, with the expansion of its programs, the IFCJ will allocate NIS 5.4m. to Individual Services for members of the IDF and another NIS 3m. for lone soldier apartments. In addition, the organization will continue to provide assistance to needy families and lone soldiers by donating kitchen appliances and grants to cover electric and water bills.

Over the past two years, the IDF has shifted its strategy, allowing the IFCJ, run by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, to function as the main body for assisting needy soldiers – and lone soldiers – during their compulsory service, says Lenore Elkayam, director of strategic plans at IFCJ.

“Our guidelines for offering material assistance to soldiers are professional, and maintaining the dignity of the recipient is of utmost importance to us,” Elkayam explains.

“We want the soldiers to hold their heads high, to believe in their own worth, and to know that they are trusted members of the IDF. Many soldiers worry that their status will be tarnished if they talk about their families’ financial problems, and that divulging this information could be detrimental to their status as soldiers. All IDF soldiers need to know that they can trust their commanders, and that we can help them solve their problems,” she says.

Lt.-Col. (res.) Dana Nof, an IDF military defense attorney who has represented hundreds of defectors in military courts, says that, “It’s not so uncommon that soldiers feel torn between their commitment to help support their families and to carry out their obligation to their unit. Their needs vary from case to case.”

In her experience that “the socio-economic status of soldiers’ families directly impacts on a soldier’s ability and motivation to serve in the army.”

The IFCJ offers grocery store vouchers, available through commanders ranked lieutenant-colonel and above.

This is in addition to an existing program in which battalion commanders have a budget of NIS 60,000 to distribute to needy soldiers for shoes, food or personal items.

Another IFCJ program is Friendship Vouchers, which are distributed on basic training bases. The IFCJ gives each base NIS 50,000 to distribute to needy soldiers so they can purchase hygiene products, underwear and basic items.

At recruitment centers, soldiers can also receive NIS 350 vouchers for the Ricochet chain of stores so they can buy the necessary equipment before they are inducted.

THERE’S ALSO the Friendship Cruiser, which goes to bases in outlying areas.

The Cruiser brings snacks for soldiers, shows movies, offers Internet access from their laptops, and mobile charging stations for cell phones.

“We like to treat the soldiers, offer them a hug and give them a boost of energy that will help them complete their service,” Elkayam says.

“This program helps create a feeling of equality, which is an extremely important component of a successful team, and helps the soldiers fulfill their missions in a positive spirit.”

The IFCJ helps fill in the economic gaps between soldiers who grew up in underprivileged neighborhoods and other young people who grew up very differently. It has invested more than NIS 1m. that IDF social workers dig into to help soldiers buy basic supplies they need to feel comfortable, such as shampoo and socks.

“We’ve developed a great relationship with the IDF Manpower Directorate and with the Soldiers’ Welfare Association.

Together, we’ve created a program that optimizes everyone’s strengths. We’ve identified new needs and found solutions for them,” Elkayam says.

Recent protests seeking to raise soldiers’ stipends have made headlines, and since January, conscripts have begun receiving a 50 percent increase in their monthly stipend.

Combat soldiers now receive NIS 1,616; combat support soldiers receive NIS 1,176, and soldiers serving in non-combat units receive NIS 810.

There has been a 130% increase in family grants to conscripts carrying out their compulsory service. However, according to forecasts, the number of soldiers coming from needy families is expected to increase.

Data from the IDF Manpower Directorate show that one in every five soldiers is poor. In addition, there are 6,260 lone soldiers, 3,000 of whom are eligible for family grants. Twenty thousand soldiers have received permission from their commanders to work during the hours they are not serving in a military framework. Due to these numbers, the conditions for receiving work permits have been made more flexible over the past two years, and soldiers can now get permission from their immediate commanders.

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