Israelis don’t have much of a reputation as big money donors, but one thing they are well known for giving, is their time. Voluntary work is a large part of people’s lives here. In fact it is considered such an important social trait, that all tenth graders are required by their school to participate in some voluntary activity for a minimum of two hours per week. They need to clock up sixty hours in order to receive their Bagrut (matriculation) certificate. This initiative, established by the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture, aims to create a relationship between young people and their local community, particularly the weaker segments of the population.
When visitors come to Israel, most of them are interested in the historical, political or religious experiences that the country has to offer. However, one aspect that is far less well known, is the number of opportunities to contribute to the well-being of Israeli society by visiting or dedicating a few hours to a specific project or community. These activities are generally free of charge and, for the most part, end up enriching the lives of the visitors as much as those they have gone to support. I cannot possibly outline all the different organizations that would welcome foreign volunteers (or local ones for that matter), but I have chosen to highlight a few where visitors have a chance to interact with those people they have come to help.
As life expectancy continues to rise, the number of elderly people in need of assistance increases. Yad LaKashish is a non-profit organization that enables seniors to feel they are making a worthwhile contribution long after they have retired and gives them a sense of self-worth and dignity. Through its multiple workshops that include bookbinding, paper recycling and ceramics, to name but a few, it “employs” over 300 elderly and disabled individuals, largely immigrants who came to Israel in their 50s, 60s or even 80s and reintegrates them into society. These are people on social benefit and the stipend and hot meal they receive, coupled with the sense of purpose they are given, enables them to find a reason to get up in the morning. Some of them have been coming to Yad LaKashish for more than 18 years. When visitors tour the facility and interact with them, they are imbued with a sense of importance and love meeting new people and showing off their talent. Their products are on sale in the gift shop and everyone is stunned by the high quality goods they create.
Another organization that assists the indigent elderly is Ezrat Avot. Many of those whom they care for are housebound and eagerly await the meals on wheels service that Ezrat Avot provides. As well as the tasty and nutritious food, they also appreciate the volunteers who bring a little of the outside world into their home. For those who are more mobile, Ezrat Avot also has a senior citizens center where they put on shows and activities. Volunteers can assist in the preparation of the meals by cutting up fruit and vegetables, baking, or packing up food parcels. In addition, drivers (even those with a rental car who can spare an hour or two), anyone with performance skills to provide entertainment, or home improvement skills to carry out home maintenance and repairs, are all highly sought after and much appreciated.
If you follow the Israeli news, you will know that last summer was characterized by the wave of social protests that swept the country. Whilst all strata of society are affected by the high cost of living, it was the middle classes that were the backbone of the demonstrations. Many of those who had managed perfectly well financially, suddenly found themselves in trouble as a result of the economic recession. Carmei Ha’Ir recognizes the sense of shame experienced by those unexpectedly thrust into a situation of dependency and aims to preserve their self esteem. Their open restaurant in downtown Jerusalem serves everyone, whether or not they can afford to pay for the meal. It looks just like any other restaurant, with set tables and wait staff. No-one who dines there knows whether those on the next table are out for a regular meal with their friends or are benefitting from charity and eating their only hot meal of the day. Volunteers can help prepare the food, wait on tables, or help to clean up at the end of the day. In addition, Carmei Ha’Ir operates a clothing store, a wholesale food market, provides sandwiches for school children and delivers meals to the homebound. If you would rather sample the food, you can do that too and, at the end of the meal, leave a donation to help cover the cost of some of the other diners’ meals.
Neve Michael children’s village provides refuge and a loving home for over 250 children and youth at risk, many of whom have suffered mental, physical or sexual abuse. The children range in age from 4 -18, and, in many cases, come from families where their parents are drug addicts, alcoholics or suffer from mental illness. The staff aim to provide these youngsters with a loving family environment and to break the cycle of violence which has characterised their lives. Their multidisciplinary center tries to help the children overcome the trauma they have experienced and go on to a better future. The campus, ten minutes drive from Caesarea, has a 24-hour emergency crisis center, a teenage girls’ crisis center, an elementary school, day care facilities that also serve disadvantaged children in the area, a therapy enrichment center tailored to meet the individual needs of the children, and an external crisis center and therapy counseling unit which helps keep families at risk intact, even under the most trying circumstances. Visitors can tour the campus and meet some of the children, who love receiving guests. If you think you might want to stay and join them for lunch, this can be pre-arranged.
Standing Together wants to show Israeli soldiers just how much their army service is appreciated both by those who live in the country and those who come to visit. News headlines worldwide frequently condemn the Israeli military and question its actions. Such negativity affects those who are serving, so when they are visited in their army base by people who express their care and voice their admiration for the risks they are taking and the fact that they are putting their lives on hold to serve their country, it acts as a great morale booster. Standing Together asks for a donation of $650 to arrange an unforgettable evening at an army base. They will collect you from wherever you are staying in the Jerusalem area and drive you to the soldiers where they will provide all the ingredients for a barbecue or whatever food you decide upon. You will cook the food and run the evening together with help from Standing Together volunteers. This way you will be able to meet the soldiers and give them a wonderful treat at the same time. The organization can also arrange for activities during the day at bases throughout the country.
Obviously, these are just a small sample of the ways in which you can add an extra dimension to your visit to Israel. Whether you are a frequent visitor or a first timer, this kind of interaction gives you an insight into Israeli society that you would otherwise miss. All of the places I have mentioned can adapt their activities to different ages, so that both the very young and the young at heart can contribute and participate. If your interest lies elsewhere, be it a project involving animals, helping to improve the environment or almost anything else you can think of, let me know and I will try and set up an encounter with the appropriate organization. Wherever you choose to visit, you can be sure it will be one of the most memorable highlights of your stay!
NB. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS ACCOMPANYING THIS BLOG ARE FOR ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES ONLY AND HAVE NO CONNECTION TO THE ORGANISATIONS MENTIONED ABOVE.