October 13, 2020

Shalem Grad Works to Open “Window Onto a Different Society” as Director for National Nonprofit

According to a survey of Israeli attitudes published by the Israeli Democracy Institute this past August, 66 percent of Israelis described the national mood in pessimistic terms. On a personal level, however, more than half of those interviewed reported feeling optimistic about the upcoming Jewish New Year. To the outside observer, those numbers may seem like a contradiction. To Itai Ben Haim ’20, director of social-change programs for the national nonprofit B’netivei Udi (“In Udi’s Path”), the discrepancy reflects an all-too-familiar reality in Israeli society. But more important even, it points to an opportunity for change.

Itai Ben Haim ’20, director of social-change programs for the national nonprofit B’netivei Udi (“In Udi’s Path”).

“If you were asked to form an opinion about your fellow Israelis based on what you read in the news or saw on social media, you would undoubtedly think you were living in different countries. The media and the culture at large paint a picture of a society hopelessly divided along religious, ethnic, and ideological lines,” explains Ben Haim. “The truth, however, is that Israelis do agree on lots of issues and share many core values in common. When citizens from different backgrounds get together for a shared purpose, they almost always come away thinking that they’re alike in the ways that matter most. When you interact on a personal level,” he concludes, “the rifts don’t seem so wide, after all.”

Creating the conditions for those personal interactions is precisely what Ben Haim does for B’netivei Udi, one of whose primary goals is bringing secular and religious high-school students from around the country together to help members of their communities most in need. Established in memory of Yehuda “Udi” Elgrably, a soldier who fell in Lebanon in 1994, the nonprofit serves as a bridge between Israel’s popular—and diverse—youth movements, widely considered incubators for the country’s future leaders. Its programs seek to transcend ideological differences and connect participants around a vision of a better society for all.

“The key is in the doing,” says Ben Haim, who first heard about B’netivei Udi from a fellow Shalem student during his sophomore year. “Instead of foregrounding differences by talking about them, we say, ‘there’s work that needs to be done, and we’re going to focus our energies on that.’ Tensions resolve pretty quickly when there’s a shared challenge.”

Examples of challenges taken up by the nonprofit’s four different social-change branches in Jerusalem include directing an annual summer camp for disadvantaged children, renovating the homes and neighborhoods of impoverished residents, and attending to the physical and emotional needs of the city’s elderly. Participants also hold “medurot kehilatiot” (community bonfires) on Lag Baomer for religious and secular kids in communities throughout the city as well a yearly Hannukah camping trip for members of all the city’s youth groups. “It’s one of the only organized opportunities the city’s teenagers have to meet with peers from the other end of their city’s religious, ideological, or socio-economic spectrum,” explains Ben Haim. “It’s an eye-opening experience that we hope will help offset the negative stereotypes of their fellow citizens they’ll encounter as they grow older.”

The nonprofit’s branches have also played an active role in assisting home front efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, recruiting nearly 200 youth volunteers to call more than 500 elderly citizens isolated in quarantine on a regular basis. During the pandemic’s second wave in September, volunteers expanded their activities by dropping off food and visiting those senior citizens who could host them outdoors while maintaining social distance.

B’netivei Udi’s  activities are run in cooperation with the Jerusalem Municipality and the city’s network of community centers, which turns to the organization with requests for assistance on behalf of specific populations. Over the course of the coming year, Ben Haim—who begins studies for a Master’s in public policy at the Hebrew University this fall—plans to open 3 more branches in Jerusalem and 9 between Tel Aviv and Beersheva.

“Along with the importance of being an involved citizen, Shalem taught me how to run an organization. My ability to build an effective business model for sustainable growth is thanks in large part to the college’s Impact Office,” says Ben Haim, who mentions that he has an appointment with the office the next day to get feedback on his proposals. He also credits “the Shalem community” with helping prepare him for his current leadership role. “At Shalem, there are so many students who are managing nonprofits or launching initiatives that you always have a sounding board for your ideas. I could talk with students in the lounge between classes about a challenge I was facing in my position at B’netivei Udi and get half a dozen great suggestions in under an hour. It’s that kind of place.”

Finally, Ben Haim believes Shalem’s Core Curriculum played an important role in his decision to work at an organization like B’netivei Udi. “The subjects I studied at Shalem opened up a window for me onto different worlds of knowledge. The studies there encourage you to think about things in new ways and imagine alternatives to the reality you know. That’s what I hope to do at B’netivei Udi,” Ben Haim concludes. “We’re opening a window onto a different society, one that derives strength from its diversity. I believe that if I can help Israeli youth see the possibilities—they’ll seize them.”

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