June 10, 2020

Shalem Grad Sara Gazith ’19 Selected as One of Forbes Israel’s “30 Under 30” for Lone-Soldier Initiative

Shahaf founder Sara Gazith ’19, flanked by Shahaf COO and Shalem student Nir Levenberg ’20 and former Shalem student and Shahaf staff member Oz Leshem.

When Sara Gazith ’19 decided, at the age of 18, that she wanted to become a full, contributing member of Israeli society, she knew that enlistment in the IDF was the ticket. To be sure, a childhood in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community is far from the usual background of female soldiers; moreover, service as a “lone soldier,” without the active support of a family in Israel, is especially challenging. But Gazith was determined, and she walked into a local recruitment office “insistent that they take me, and more so, that they make the best possible use of what I could offer,” she explains. That same determination and unwillingness to be constricted by either background or circumstances is what led, in the years to come, to her successful service as a sniper instructor, and then to her decision to apply to Shalem College.

And it’s only natural, she explains, that when you combine those two experiences—transformative service for one’s country, and the training provided by Shalem in identifying society’s key challenges and determining how to fix them—you’re going to end up with a great idea for a social initiative.

That idea, an innovative leadership-training and welfare program for Israeli-born lone soldiers called Shahaf, (seagull) was launched last year, while Gazith was a senior at Shalem. And this past February, in recognition of Shahaf’s impact on the lives of its participants and its contribution to the country they serve, Gazith was selected as one of Israel’s “30 Under 30” in the celebrated Forbes Israel annual issue.

“Shahaf grew out of my own experience as a lone soldier, or to be exact, my understanding of what Israeli-born lone soldiers really need. And it’s not,” Gazith makes clear, “just a bed on which to crash on the weekends or a laundry machine for dirty uniforms. Or at least, it’s not only that. In fact,” she insists, “the IDF is really great about answering the physical needs of this population, which is made up of soldiers from foster homes, from Haredi backgrounds, or from dysfunctional family circumstances, meaning that they lack for a home off base and a community for support. What this population needs is help realizing their innate abilities and potential, and developing the skills that will leverage both into meaningful service and productive citizenship.”

Those needs, she explains, can take the form of a belief in one’s abilities to overcome challenges, or that one’s background can serve as a source of strength and a means of contribution. “Israeli lone soldiers are generally viewed as a group that needs society’s help, as opposed to the other way around,” Gazith continues. “But in truth, these soldiers are incredibly motivated. The fact of their being in the IDF is in many cases a testament to their remarkable ability to rise above difficulties and to their profound desire to make a contribution to society. If we invest in this very idealistic and motivated group, we will gain not only more competent and dedicated soldiers, but also more involved and influential citizens, too.”

How to cultivate this group of citizen-soldiers into leaders for Israel was the first question Gazith and the other Shalem students—Nir Levenberg, Oz Leshem, and Elior Mulay— who helped get Shahaf off the ground asked themselves. And it was, Gazith laughs, “almost the easiest one. Launching a nonprofit takes an enormous amount of work, and an enormous amount of support, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without both Shalem and my incredible peers.” Indeed, continues Gazith, along with the opportunity offered by her studies to reflect on the right kind of contribution to make and how to ensure the most sustainable impact, there were the endless hours of professional guidance and practical support she and her fellow students received from Shalem’s Impact Office. A four-year, comprehensive program funded by The Paul E. Singer Foundation, the Office aims to grant students the tools they need to influence Israeli society from within a range of fields.

“The Impact Office helped us put together a business model and a fundraising strategy, set us up with mentors, and connected us with individuals and organizations in our field with the resources and expertise necessary to help us make Shahaf a reality,” says Gazith. “But to be honest, when I’m asked about the role that Shalem played, I always come back to the time that we succeeded in setting up a meeting with a potential donor, and Gila Rockman, Shalem’s director of the Department of Service and Citizenship, connected us with a fundraising consultant who prepared us over multiple sessions for that fateful meeting. She walked us through answering complex questions, presenting our ideas in a succinct manner, everything we needed to know. It was truly above and beyond the call of duty.”

“That,” she continues, “and the time Jonathan Mensch, Shalem’s vice president of finance, met with us to help us put together a budget. It was as if the entire college were recruited to our cause. I can’t think of another institution that would go to such lengths to help a student succeed.”

And succeed she did: Today, more than 300 soldiers are the beneficiaries of one of Shahaf’s events, and a core group of 15 lone soldiers lives together in a designated dorm on Kibbutz Maaleh Hahamisha when not on base. Each soldier is matched up with an adoptive kibbutz family and staff that provides support and counseling throughout his or her service; in addition, soldiers take part in a full schedule of leadership-training lectures and workshops, designed to encourage personal growth, meaningful service, and a successful integration into society afterwards.

In the coming years, Shahaf plans to create a living-and-learning community for two additional groups of lone soldiers on two more kibbutzim.

“Like the students with whom I was privileged to study at Shalem, the lone soldiers with whom I served in the IDF were among the most motivated people I know,” concludes Gazith. “They have the power to lead this country forward. And like at Shalem, when you teach them what they need to know—about themselves, their history, and the reason to strive for change—they go out and lead. They are the hope of the Jewish state.”

To learn more about Shahaf and support its work, you can visit it on Facebook at  https://m.facebook.com/shahaf.idf.

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