By Tamar Zilbershatz
We don’t need a ‘Jewish Peace Corps’, we already have one in Israel and around the world.
Instead of creating yet another organization or institution to compete for Jewish millennials’ attention, the Jewish world must leverage and promote the plethora of existing Peace Corps-like opportunities that are offered and subsidized around the world and particularly in Israel. It is extremely important to myself and my colleagues that you and your readers know about all of the service-learning opportunities available to them in Israel. And not just that, but that thousands of Jewish millennials are engaging with Israel not out of anger, but out of a genuine desire for personal growth and professional development.
Service to Israel is integral to helping participants of long-term Israel programs to truly experience Israel for all of its beauty and complexity. In exposing them to the challenges and issues facing Israeli society, service and volunteer projects foster participants’ personal connections to the land, the State and its people. They see Israel for themselves, ask difficult questions, form educated and nuanced opinions and learn to navigate uncertainty.
Every immersive Israel experience includes social action and community service components, as well as Jewish studies. Whether studying abroad in Be’er Sheva, learning at a yeshiva in Jerusalem or interning at a start-up in Tel Aviv, each participant of a 2-10 month Israel program has a meaningful and eye-opening service experience that informs his or Jewish identity and relationship with Israel.
More specifically, gap year and post-college service-learning programs encompass a significant segment of the vast programmatic offerings available in Israel. As I write this piece – and right now, as you read it – more than 1,500 Jewish millennials are living and learning the values of tikkun olam in Israel. They are working directly with disadvantaged Jews and impoverished Israeli Arabs, as well as African refugees and asylum seekers – in both central Israel and the periphery.
Youth movement and non-denominational gap year students are Diaspora Jews from around the world who come to Israel for a year of service and self-discovery after graduating high school. They live, volunteer and study in a few different cities throughout their year in Israel, including underprivileged communities like Bat Yam, Yerucham, Kfar Chasidim, and others.
College-educated individuals work in underserved elementary and middle schools across Israel, helping Israeli teachers to improve students’ English learning outcomes. They serve Bedouin communities in Rahat and Be’er Sheva and Israeli Arabs in Lod, as well as Ethiopian, former Soviet Union, and other immigrant communities throughout Israel.
Other service-learning programs like Solidarity of Nations – Achvat Amim, the Yahel Social Change program, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Israel Corps – Project TEN are specifically built around the issues of human rights, social justice and environmental activism. Diaspora Jewish participants of these programs work with local nonprofit organizations in various cities and communities. They also engage in renewed dialogue surrounding Zionism in the 21st century with their Israeli peers.
For Jews at risk around the world, heavily subsidized Israel programs provide those interested in making Aliyah with a soft-landing. From developing a foundational knowledge of the Hebrew language, to networking and relationship-building, to getting a foot in the door in one’s industry of choice or field of study, long-term Israel experiences serve as a pre-Aliyah immersion for thousands of Jews from places like Ukraine. For those who do not make Aliyah, they return home with extensive leadership skills and experiences and a built-in global network of global Jewish leaders.
Post-program research shows that alumni of immersive Israel programs of all ages, who come from across the Jewish spectrum, emerge more connected to their people and more invested in their Jewish identity. They are three times more attached to Israel and twice as engaged and informed about Israel than their peers. Empowered by a transformative, independent experience, alumni volunteer with Israel advocacy groups almost three times more than people who do not participate in similar programs and are 100% more likely to take a leadership role inside or outside the Jewish community.
Although long-term Israel programs are not the same scale as the Peace Corps, or maybe Yossi Beilin’s vision, a wide array of existing programs offer Jewish young adults numerous to take part in inter-racial, inter-religious and international humanitarian work in Israel.
So before we jump to write off the existing landscape of Israel engagement, perhaps we should take a closer look at the impact currently taking shape.
Tamar Zilbershatz serves as Masa Israel Journey’s Director of Gap and Service Programs. You can learn more about Masa Israel Journey’s volunteer programs by visiting MasaIsrael.org, IsraelTeachingFellows.org and PostCollege.MasaIsrael.org.