Baby Boomer volunteers make a difference in Israel
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – For many people, “Israel” and “volunteering” are a natural fit. But for all the opportunities available, most are designed for teens and young adults. Baby Boomers must look harder for suitable programs.
Two years ago, 50-something Madison, Wis. resident Marla Gamoran was unsuccessful in her own quest for a volunteer opportunity, and created Skilled Volunteers for Israel as a response. The program is a customized volunteer-placement service designed for adult professionals 35 years and older, specifically focused on engaging the North American Jewish community.
Skilled volunteers use their work-related knowledge and expertise in a volunteer opportunity that is tied to genuine needs within an organization, says Gamoran. The volunteer projects are specifically developed to apply the volunteer’s professional skills and interests to strategic needs in an Israeli non-profit or educational organization. Volunteers integrate themselves into Israeli society, working side by side with Israeli colleagues, and experiencing Israel from the inside.
Over the summer, West Hartford residents Vickie Fuchs and Lois Koteen joined the ranks of experienced adult volunteers making a difference in Israeli society.
Koteen was looking for a way to improve her language skills after studying Hebrew for two years at Beth El Temple in West Hartford. While researching educational options, she learned about Skilled Volunteers for Israel through United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s summer programs and enrolled in the Volunteer & Study program, a collaboration between the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Skilled Volunteers for Israel. She was placed with the Jerusalem-based Shutaf, an organization promoting inclusive programs for children and teens with special needs. On the occasion of its fifth anniversary, Shutaf was seeking help with strategic planning and organizational development, Koteen’s professional bailiwick.
For the month of July, she rented an apartment in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, experiencing the country “in a way that I had never imagined doing at this stage of my life,” she says: being on her own, navigating her way, making friends, and speaking Hebrew.
In the short time she was there, Koteen witnessed the fruits of her labor. “I could not have asked for a better placement,” she says. “It takes many organizations a year or more to put together a strategic plan, and in three weeks, the small staff and I had a plan and a basic outline of how to get from the present to the future. Before I left, the two founders had applied for a grant to fund infrastructure and on my last day in Israel, they learned that they had received the grant – so they now have some funding to help them put their plan in motion.”
Fuchs travels to Israel several times a year with husband Stephen Fuchs, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. “I decided to find some place where I could, as my father used to say, ‘Make yourself useful,’” Fuchs wrote on the Skilled Volunteers for Israel website, and was placed at Melabev, an organization that provides services to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
While Fuchs had no previous experience with that particular population, she brought skills from a career as a teacher in urban schools. Over a three-week period, she worked three days a week with two groups of people with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s, playing word games and leading seated exercises.
“Melabev is a wonderful place, where the ethos is kindness and respect,” she wrote. “Everyone who works or volunteers there demonstrates this and there is a peaceful and happy air about the place. I feel privileged to be able to help the angels who run Melabev make the lives of their clients, who have been through so much… feel safe and happy.”
Both women plan to volunteer again with the program.
If Israel can use the extra help during peacetime, the demand grows even more when the country is at risk. The recent Pillar of Defense operations in the south of Israel has led to an increased demand for civilian volunteers on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bases, a need filled by programs like Volunteers for Israel (VFI). Wesleyan University professor and West Hartford resident Vera Schwarcz will spend two weeks with that organization in December.
Schwarcz was teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem last spring when she suddenly understood first-hand what it feels like to live under the constant threat of terrorism. While speaking about history and trauma in modern China, a bus was bombed in downtown Jerusalem. “It was the very bus my daughter used to take from her seminary to my apartment,” she recalls. “She was not on it that day. But what if?”
Schwarcz travels to Israel frequently to lecture about Chinese and Jewish history, but now she is moved to do something different, “something more basic, more grounded, and more urgently needed at the moment,” she says. For two weeks in December, Schwarcz, currently on leave from her teaching position, will join VFI, performing non-combatant civilian tasks on an IDF base.
Since 1982, more than 30,000 American civilians have helped by packing medical supplies, refurbishing electronic equipment, repairing machinery, and performing logistic assignments wherever they are needed.
Since Pillar of Defense operations, VFI has put out a call for volunteers in December and January.
Schwarcz learned about VFI from a friend who has participated in the program, and saw it as a way that she could “act upon a strong desire to serve, quite literally from the ground up,” she says. “I think we are most needed on army bases in Israel where supplies have thinned during Pillar of Defense operations. Restacking reservists’ bags does not require a PhD in Chinese history and a writer’s passion; nonetheless, I hope I can add a bit extra to those I work with and expect to write about the experience as a way to encourage others.”
For more information:
Skilled Volunteers for Israel: www.skillvolunteerisrael.org
Volunteers for Israel: www.vfi-usa.org / (866) 514-1948
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