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Volunteering in Israel: Transmit, Transform, Connect

by Judy Dvorak Gray

Throughout the years, Gina Milano of New Jersey has shared her teaching expertise by volunteering in countries around the world. Last summer, she thought, “Why not volunteer in Israel?” Because she teaches English to foreign students at a local university, Gina works with many African refugees seeking to improve their lives in the United States. She was aware of the challenges African refugees and asylum seekers who live in Israel face, and she wanted to do something to help. Thanks to a volunteer placement through Skilled Volunteers for Israel, Gina, who is Jewish, was able to share her experience by leading workshops in Tel Aviv and Eilat on behalf of HIAS (the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society). The classes are for African refugees and asylum seekers who teach English to their peers as a way to supplement their incomes. She was teaching the teachers.

“I had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger,” Gina said. “The students were eager to learn new teaching techniques. The group was receptive, contributing insights and laughter.” After making the group feel at ease with icebreakers, Gina taught some of the nittygritty of grammar and reading skills. When Gina sat with her students to chat and take pictures, a few opened up and described their painful journeys to the Promised Land. “I was moved by their stories and grateful to have been able to guide and connect with colleagues in Israel,” she said. She returned home with a better understanding of the challenges facing Israeli society.

Volunteering in Israel used to be about waking up at 5 AM to pick oranges in kibbutz orchards, but today’s volunteers can use their acquired skills and real talents in several nonprofit organizations. Teenagers and retirees, young professionals and experienced consultants contribute time and experience to the causes and issues that concern them. North Americans volunteers can be found working on Israel Defense Forces bases, creating art with Alzheimer’s patients, playing games with children in battered women’s shelters, working alongside disabled adults in sheltered workshops, assisting with fundraising, consulting on social marketing, and developing community gardens with local residents.

The word volunteer stems from the17thcentury French voluntaire, based on the Latin voluntarius – voluntary, of one’s free will. It refers to military service. The non-military use of the word is first recorded in the 1630s. Yet the spirit of giving of yourself for the benefit of others is a core value rooted in biblical sources. We learn in Deuteronomy 15:7-11: “If there is a person in great need, one of your kinsmen in any of your cities...you shall not harden your heart...but open your hand to that person.” The Talmud advises in Ta’anit 11a: “When the community is in trouble do not say, “I will go home and eat and drink and all will be well with me…Rather, involve yourself in the community’s distress…”

By volunteering, participants experience Israel in a more personal way than they could just by passing through as tourists. They form individual and professional relationships with Israelis, improve their Hebrew, support Israel in a tangible way, and connect with Israel’s past, present, and future.

Organizations in Israel, as elsewhere, often operate with limited staff and inadequate financial resources. Israelis who host North American volunteers often are surprised and touched by their dedication and appreciate their efforts. For instance, the Israelis who met Roseli Ejzenberg this summer when she worked at the Nitzana Youth Village in the Negev were impressed by her commitment as a Diaspora Jew to Israel. “This experience changed my life and changed the lives of many people,” she said. She already is planning her return visit next summer.

When Lisa Rubell Pengitore came to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem last summer, she also wanted to share her skills as a high school special education teacher. Through Skilled Volunteers for Israel, Lisa spent her mornings in a program that focused on strengthening the English skills of fifth and sixth graders who live in a low income neighborhood in Jerusalem. She also served as a consultant to Shutaf, an informal-education inclusion program for children and teens with special needs. (See Lisa’s blog entry.) In the afternoon, she studied at the yeshiva.

Lisa’s successful combination of study with volunteering led to the creation of a new program that the Conservative Yeshiva, part of United Synagogue’s Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, will offer this summer in cooperation with Skilled Volunteers for Israel. Volunteer & Study combines half a day of study at the yeshiva with half a day of volunteering with an Israeli nonprofit in the city. Students can choose to spend their mornings in an intensive Hebrew ulpan or studying Talmud, or to devote their afternoons to studying rabbinic texts, Bible, prayer, or halachah (Jewish law). Each participant will select one of four volunteer tracks: education, environment, caring for the community, and organizational development. Students not only will learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world) and gemilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness), but they will apply their earned knowledge through meaningful volunteering. The program is open to anyone 18 and over, no matter what their educational or religious backgrounds.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “It is not what you say but rather what you do that makes a difference in the world.”

For more information about Volunteer & Study, email Rabbi Gail Diamond at yeshiva@uscj.org. The yeshiva’s website is www.conservativeyeshiva.org. For customized skilled volunteering with Skilled Volunteers for Israel, email Marla Gamoran at mgamoran@skillvolunteerisrael.org. The organization’s website is www.skillvolunteerisrael. org.

Judy Dvorak Gray has lived in Israel since 1977. She divides her time between Jerusalem and Kibbutz Hannaton, and she is the Israel coordinator for Skilled Volunteers for Israel.

 
 
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