Strengthening the IDF
LIBI gives Israeli at-risk youth a second chance
By Cindy Mindell
When most American Jews hear the phrase “Israeli soldier,” chances are that they think of a young, strong, proud figure in uniform. There are iconic images: Three exhausted but triumphant young soldiers at the newly liberated Western Wall in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. General Moshe Dayan doing just about anything. And more modern images: authoritative women officers, paratroopers at an induction ceremony, soldiers saluting fallen comrades in military cemeteries. The Israel Defense Force is often the symbol of pride that unites Israeli and Diaspora Jews, the symbol of a strong and viable Jewish state.
What many American Jews don’t know is that the IDF plays an essential role in strengthening Israeli society as a whole. In 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared that, in addition to defending the country, “the IDF should also be the center for Zionist education for Israel’s youth, children, and immigrants.”
Every 18-year-old Jewish citizen, barring a religious exemption, is called to mandatory military service. In return, he or she is fully inducted into Israeli society, with all its privileges and perks, including educational and employment opportunities.
By 1980, Israel had come into its own as a thoroughly modern country, and was facing the associated challenges of a society where not everyone thrived. In a country that valued every 18-year-old for his or her mandatory military service, there were those who weren’t making the cut. At-risk and troubled youth were being kicked out of the IDF, left to face a future on the margins of society.
That year, IDF chief of staff Brigadier General Rafael “Raful” Eitan started “No’ar Raful” (“Raful’s Kids”), and filed a petition to provide basic military training for kids rejected by the IDF. The organization grew into LIBI, an acronym for L’Maan Bitachon Yisrael, “for the security of Israel.” In Hebrew, “libi” also means “my heart.”
“Our focus is to make Israeli society better and we use the army as a means to that end,” says Fairfield resident Paul Lipof, chairman of American Friends of LIBI, Inc. Lipof and his wife Yael recently returned from a 25-member North American LIBI mission to Israel, together with eight fellow congregants of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield.
In addition to helping underprivileged youth integrate into the military, LIBI offers educational tutoring, assistance to new-immigrant soldiers, crucial medical care and equipment on the front lines, and assistance to disabled soldiers and families of fallen soldiers. The American Friends of LIBI is a fundraising arm of the organization, which helps supplement a strained Israeli governmental budget.
“Part of LIBI’s effectiveness is that kids know it’s their last chance to make it in the military,” Lipof says. “If they act up or disrespect their commanding officers, they can go to jail. They’re not bad kids; they just come from bad backgrounds, and LIBI opens the door for them. Some become combat soldiers and officers, others receive training in mechanical trades and become truck drivers, truck mechanics, airplane mechanics – manual skills that they can build a life with.” Indeed, LIBI boasts a 90-percent success rate, integrating some 1,200 at-risk kids a year in the three-month training session.
The Lipofs learned about LIBI in 2004, when Col. Moshe Arad spoke at Congregation Beth El, the same year the American Friends of LIBI was founded in Boston.
“He explained the program and I said, ‘This is for me,'” Paul says. “I was struck by several things: The fact that the organization is all-volunteer, the fact that it’s not about giving kids welfare but giving them a way out and a chance to be self-sufficient, the fact that the whole spectrum of Israeli society gets help – the Jewish, Druze, Christian, Beduin, Ethiopian, and Russian soldiers who serve in the army. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and team spirit, and the kids learn to make themselves better both for their own sake and the sake of Israeli society as a whole.”
American Friends of LIBI has raised $4 million since 2004, much of it for high-tech medical training and equipment. All projects are prioritized and approved by the IDF chief of staff’s office, Lipof says.
For more information about LIBI, visit www.libi-fund.org.il. For more information about American Friends of LIBI, Inc. and upcoming local events, contact Paul Lipof: (203) 612-6234 / firstname.lastname@example.org.