HELPFUL BY DESIGN
How do we show up for Israel right now?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that volunteering “is an expression of shared responsibility for common good. It is personal engagement in pursuit of an ideal. It is active citizenship of the highest order. It softens the contours of random fate.”
The attacks of Oct. 7 and the ensuing war have left Israeli society and the larger Jewish community devastated. At the same time, we have seen an unprecedented civic response here in Israel and around the world. Over the past few weeks, I have come to see how important these volunteer efforts are. They are building our resilience and giving us a sense of agency, channeling our deep devastation into acts that are indeed softening the contours of fate. They give us hope.
For the past 20 years I have staffed, created and built many volunteer programs, first through American Jewish World Service and then for the past 14 years through Yahel, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to bringing volunteers from around the world to Israel for meaningful and impactful service experiences. I deeply believe in the power of volunteering and know that it is one of the best ways to connect, grow and show up for causes we care about. I have also learned over the years that volunteering programs need to be built thoughtfully and responsibly, particularly during and after moments of crisis.
So, what does showing up for Israel look like right now, and where specifically does the volunteering of non-Israelis fit in?
In this moment, focusing on the empowerment and resilience of Israeli society should be our main goal. In philanthropic support and in volunteering, we need to be tactical, patient and strategic in our efforts to rebuild Israel. International volunteers coming to Israel are a wonderful opportunity to support Israelis in their rebuilding efforts. The key is to build volunteer experiences that empower Israeli communities and citizens. Wherever possible, let’s create situations where we are volunteering together, because these connections have never been more important. Israel does not need saviors right now. It needs friends who stand in solidarity, ready to rebuild together.
It is also imperative that we return to the basics of ethical volunteering and ensure that our volunteer efforts answer real needs. All too often, volunteer experiences are built with the volunteer in mind — what will be most meaningful and fun for them. This can be part of the design of the experience, but the anchor has to be in understanding what the needs on the ground are and making sure they are not already being met. Partnerships with grassroots organizations or communities are the best way to build experiences that answer real needs. Local partners know the needs best and have a bird’s-eye view of how foreign volunteers can be a part of the bigger picture. This is our time to be creative and build experiences that start before the volunteers arrive in Israel and continue after they leave.
In recent weeks I spent time in Ofakim, a town in the south that went through horrific experiences on Oct. 7 and is still recuperating. In Ofakim, I learned a lot about what resilience means, and specifically about the need of individuals and communities to feel like they have agency over their reality. One piece of resilience means residents knowing how to make their voices heard and communicate their needs.
For instance, while I was involved in food packaging efforts for the community, the organizers learned that there was a subcommunity of Ethiopian Israelis in dire need of food assistance but whose dietary needs were different from those answered by the regular food packages. We listened to these needs and coordinated adapted food packages with items that the community asked for. We then went a step further and organized a food packing day, together with a different Ethiopian-Israeli community further north, for those families in Ofakim. The community in Ofakim made their needs known and received what they needed, and another community built its resilience as well through the act of coming together, creating these packages and lending a helping hand.
I am hoping that many people from around the world will want to come to Israel in the coming months to help us recover and rebuild. It is crucial that we ensure that the volunteer work they undertake aligns well with their skills, experiences and abilities. Last week we had close to 250 volunteers, some working in agricultural fields and some in food packaging, and this week we have many similar projects around the country. One of the things we have learned is that not everyone can work for days in the fields, and many people are not equipped to support evacuees from the south in their long journey of healing. It is important that we match volunteers carefully and offer them the support they need to be most impactful.
As is the case with all immersive volunteer experiences, there is a tremendous opportunity here for contextual and values-based learning. When packaging food, a group of volunteers has a wonderful opportunity to learn about food insecurity and how it has been exacerbated because of the war, to learn about the communities receiving the assistance, to delve into civic initiatives dealing with this challenge and much more. This presents an excellent opportunity to reflect on universal questions of leadership, root causes and systemic change. Additionally, volunteers can explore the ethical dimensions of these issues through a Jewish lens, fostering a deeper comprehension of the broader context and contributing to a more nuanced perspective on the challenges at hand.
Intertwined with the learning is an additional need for thoughtful reflection in such experiences. Volunteers will be exposed to difficult stories and will need help to make sense of the Israel they are encountering. In order for these experiences to be a meaningful stepping stone in the development of the volunteers themselves, reflection has to be a part of these experiences and staff must be trained to be able to facilitate these sessions well in order to help volunteers make sense of their experience.
Not everyone will be able to come to Israel, and that is fine — showing up for Israel at this time also means doing internal work in communities around the world. Making sure young people know the difference between being empathetic to the Palestinian people and supporting a vicious terrorist organization is crucial right now. So is fighting antisemitism.
This is a moment in time we will all remember. My hope is we will remember it as a time when we came together, built each other up and together strengthened the fabric of the canvas on which the Jewish story is being written.
Dana Talmi is the founder and executive director of Yahel.