JERUSALEM, June 14 (JTA) — In the year 2013, a group of fervently Orthodox Jews met with Finance Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid to try to convince him to back their religious political agenda. Instead, the aging minister convinced them of the importance of secular political interests, and the group founded a new political party with a platform calling for the separation of synagogue and state and the enlistment of all yeshiva students in army service. The author of this dramatic scenario is not Lapid’s public relations expert, but a yeshiva high school student. Moshe Oster, 17, of the Horev school in Jerusalem, was one of five winners of a national essay contest on Israel’s future. Some 100 Israeli high school students entered the contest, called “Youth Thinking Tomorrow.” The essay contest is one of several programs run by Atidim, a relatively new project designed to inspire young Israelis from minority communities with the vision and the means to transform Israel. Atidim, which hopes to narrow socioeconomic gaps in Israel by helping the youths get a higher education, is a joint initiative of Israel’s Education Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces, the Jewish Agency for Israel and private philanthropists. The essay contest, held in honor of the 100th anniversary of the death of Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, resulted in a mix of colorful, fresh visions for the future of the Jewish state — “Altneuland” revisited. In Herzl’s “Altneuland,” or “Old New Land,” published in 1902, he imagined the future Jewish state as a socialist utopia where science and technology would give rise to a new society in the ancient Land of Israel. “We thought it’s about time to refresh the vision of the state,” said Itzik Dvash, who was behind the idea for “Youth Thinking Tomorrow.” “Just as Herzl did not hesitate to dream, we believe youths will not hesitate to dream. Youth are not bound by conventional thinking,” he said. One of the most ambitious of Atidim’s programs, which aims to change the face of civil service in Israel, comes from a group of Israeli industrialists headed by Eitan Wertheimer of Yiskar Industries. Nowadays, news of corruption in Israel’s civil service would be monotonous if it weren’t so depressing: Police have recommended charges against Hadera’s mayor, Yisrael Sadan, for allegedly offering bribes to buy political allies. The head of the intensive-care unit at Assaf Harofeh hospital in Tzrifin was arrested for using hospital services for his private clinic. And Gabi Barabash, director of Tel Aviv’s Israel’s hospital, Ichilov, was questioned in connection with bribery charges. Wertheimer is trying to close the gap between the reality of Israel in 2004 and the vision that Herzl imagined in “Altneuland” with Atidim – Winds of Change, which aims to introduce in Israel a cadre of young, earnest civil servants. Students who win one of the Winds of Change scholarships receive three years of tuition and living expenses at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in exchange for a commitment to work in Israeli civil service for at least five years. Once the students complete their studies, they are expected to join a government ministry, municipality or other civil service agency. The first 32 students to participate in the program have completed their first year of studies. Another 50, selected from among 300 applicants, will start in the fall,. Sponsors say the idea is to expand the program as much as financial resources allow. Each student in the program costs nearly $30,000, and most of the donors are Israeli. Shira Shato, 23, who is studying political science and international relations, is one of Atidim’s stars. She emigrated from Ethiopia when she was 3, served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and is an expert paramedic. Shato says she joined Winds of Change for more than just the scholarship. “I came to do something, not to talk,” she said. “I feel that I can invest my own self in a project and not become just one of many students who get lost in the big university.” Winds of Change is considered the jewel in Atidim’s crown. In addition to school, students get on-the-job-training at government ministries, courts and municipal councils. Avi Cohen, 25, a student in economics and accounting, just completed a stint at the Finance Ministry, where he says he found the gridlock astonishing. “I visited there about 12 times, only to find out the same group of people discussing the same thing over and over again,” he said. But he said he found a way to introduce private business principles into the civil service. “Obviously this creates constant tension, but much to our surprise, the people we met there were not threatened by our presence, even though it could very well be that we would replace them in five years,” he said. “I think this is the right way to do it,” said Lishai Mishali, 25, who is a second-year law student. “First we study the civil service, then we join it. It’s like signing to be a career officer, only without the uniform.” This summer, students are hosting fellow students in their home towns in a program that will send student task forces to study local municipalities and civil-service institutions. When they return to school, the students will analyze their findings and make recommendations for change. The students realize it may be a little presumptuous to believe that several dozen young people, no matter how talented, can change the face of Israel’s civil service. But “we do have the tools,” Mishali noted. “We can identify the places where the wheels get stuck,” Mishali said. “If each year the university produces a cadre of 50 people with the same skills, things may change.” Some dream of going into politics, though the program bars them from partisan politics for the duration of their enrollment. Students say the problem they’ll face is that politicians inevitably will pass over bright university graduates for party activists who can ensure their re-election. “Let’s face it,” Cohen said. “One can change much more through the political system than in public service. “Yes, I will complete the project, but eventually I would like to enter the political system,” he said. “I may end up becoming a Knesset member.” A century after Herzl’s death, perhaps the Knesset, too, could use some Atidim dreamers.
Turning Herzl’s vision into reality