While ultra-orthodox political parties are threatening to break away from the coalition unless their demands – that yeshiva students be exempted from national service – are met, thousands of people who were either not called up, or are ineligible for military service are begging for the opportunity to contribute in other ways to the nation.

In recent years, young people from minority groups, youth with special needs, at-risk youth and even juvenile delinquents have been accepted as volunteers for National Service (Sherut Leumi) – and their numbers are growing.

Of the some 18,000 volunteers currently doing two years of civilian national service, 1,500 are people with specials needs, some of them with severe physical and/or mental disabilities; 1,600 are haredim (ultra-orthodox), working mainly in health services; and 500 are comprised of Druse and Arabs, according to outgoing National Service director-general Sar-Shalom Jerbi, who is stepping down after eight years at the helm.

The grandson of Rabbi Yehuda Getz, who for 27 years was rabbi of the Western Wall in the immediate aftermath of the reunification of Jerusalem, Jerbi said that national civilian service had been a key principle of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl in his book Altneuland.

Civilian national service was introduced some 40 years ago, and was initially a means of enabling religious Jewish girls to serve outside of the army framework, he said.

More than a quarter of potential conscripts do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces, mainly because they are not deemed suitable for one reason or another.

But some of them actually want to serve, and Jerbi, together with a number of NGOs that support this volunteer activity, as well as the minister responsible for civilian volunteers, do everything possible to enable their acceptance.

Hundreds of these volunteers gathered on Monday on the back lawn of the President’s Residence to honor 57 outstanding volunteers, representing Israel’s overall social mosaic. Their work in special education, formal and informal education, in kindergartens, hospitals, health clinics, in senior citizens centers, government offices, and with the police is vital, said President Reuven Rivlin, who has given his patronage to the National Service.

Rivlin emphasized that there are National Service volunteers working in every department of his office. “We would not be able to function without them,” he said.

Rivlin was particularly pleased at the significant growth of the number of volunteers with special needs, saying that their ability to integrate during their service proves they should be treated as equals after completing, having proven that their disabilities are not impediments.

Jerbi is a former secretary-general of Bayit Yehudi and has served under a series of ministers charged with responsibility for the National Service. The current minister in charge of the service is Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. Before him it was the late Uri Orbach, who headed the Senior Citizens Ministry, and before that it was then-economics minister Naphtali Bennett and then-science and technology minister Daniel Hershkowitz.

All these ministers came from the upper echelons of Bayit Yehudi.

Ariel, who has been battling the Finance Ministry, which wants to cut the National Service budget, told his very large audience not to take any notice of media reports saying there would be cutbacks.

It would not shrink in size, he promised, “it will expand.”

Ariel was convinced that all the volunteers had come with a sense of mission, which he said they had fulfilled admirably, and he saluted them.

Jerbi was equally confident that this would happen, saying that he had spoken to community leaders in all sectors of the population and had persuaded them of the importance of allowing each individual to make a contribution, and thereby realize their potential. His greatest triumph, he said, was in securing equal conditions and respect for civilian volunteers as are accorded to soldiers in the army.

Ariel said that not only had the 57 honorees demonstrated dedication and proficiency, but so did all the other volunteers who were giving so much of themselves to improve the quality of life for the less fortunate in Israel’s society.

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