Israeli service-learning NGO Yahel expands with regional hubs as volunteering takes off post-Oct. 7

'It was actually one of our funders who said, "This is your moment. You need to figure out how to step in,”' Dana Talmi, the founder and executive director of Yahel, told eJP

Volunteering has often been a regular component of organized trips to Israel — picking produce for Leket Israel, serving lunch at a soup kitchen or entertaining disadvantaged youth — but in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terror attacks, it has taken far greater significance as visitors to the terror-rocked country look to help in a practical, hands-on way.

For the service-learning nonprofit Yahel, which pairs visitors to Israel with volunteering opportunities, this period has been a time of major growth as it expands and transforms its operations to meet the increased demands.

“It was actually one of our funders who said, ‘This is your moment. You need to figure out how to step in,’” Dana Talmi, the founder and executive director of Yahel, told eJewishPhilanthropy recently.

“At first, I was daunted by that thought and then I realized, [they were] right… This is our time to take what we’ve learned and share it to make sure that when volunteering is done in Israel, it’s done responsibly and meaningfully,” she said.

To that end, Yahel is altering its structure, shifting from a “program-oriented” approach, which focused on different types and durations of volunteering programs, to a “regionally oriented” one with different hubs overseeing volunteering programs in those areas, Talmi said.

The organization already has one hub up and running, in the northern port city of Haifa. It is in the process of opening a second hub in Ofakim in the Western Negev, one of the two large towns that were infiltrated by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, and has plans to open a third hub in central Israel in the near future, either in Rishon LeZion or Lod. Talmi said there are also plans to open a fourth hub in Jerusalem, but this is still a long way off.

By establishing these permanent hubs in different locations, Yahel hopes to develop deeper ties to those communities in order to better understand where and how volunteers can help. 

“You can’t just barge into a community and figure out what you’re doing. It needs to sit on relationships and on know-how,” Talmi said. “In Haifa, a couple years ago we started a hub together with [Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies] and the Leifer [Family Fund]. We have a hub manager, and she manages relationships with 65 different partners, which means that at any given moment it’s pretty easy for us to set up volunteering… Basically what we’re doing now is duplicating that.”

This new initiative is being backed by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Schafer Family Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest.

Talmi established Yahel in 2009 after a stint working with the American Jewish World Service while she and her family were living in the United States. When they returned to Israel, Talmi said she was asked by a number of people to run service-learning programs similar to those of AJWS. She was also concerned by the many AJWS alumni she knew who were “smart, young, ‘social justice Jews’” and “wouldn’t touch Israel with a 10-foot pole” because they saw a disconnect between their social justice instincts and Israel.

“To me, that was very worrisome. I didn’t need them to make aliyah, but I at least [wanted them to] be in a conversation [with Israel and Zionism],” she said.

Talmi said she envisioned Yahel as a way to bring these social justice-focused people to Israel where they can learn more about the country and develop ties to its citizens.

In the 15 years since, Yahel has developed a nine-month fellowship for recent college graduates, an academic program with the University of California, Berkeley (which is currently on hold due to the State Department’s travel advisory for Israel) and a number of other initiatives of varying lengths, “from nine months to two months, one month, two weeks to one day,” Talmi said.

Participants in nine-month fellowships can serve in more significant roles in the organizations that partner with Yahel; those performing one or two days of volunteering typically focus on less intensive efforts, such as packing food boxes, beautification projects at community centers or running “happenings” for disadvantaged youths. 

Yahel sustains itself through a combination of philanthropic support and providing services to other organizations for a fee. Ramah, for instance, pays Yahel to organize the volunteering components of its Israel trips, Talmi explained.  

The organization also has 700 alumni of its longer programs in its network, many of whom reached out after the Oct. 7 terror attacks. “We had so many alumni asking us, ‘What can we do? What can we do?’ So on Oct. 11, we opened a fundraising campaign and we raised NIS 500,000 ($133,000), which for us was a lot, just from crowdsourcing,” Talmi said.

For Yahel’s alumni, who often hail from social justice backgrounds, Talmi said the past nine months have been particularly fraught, as they do not necessarily fall neatly into the “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” camps as they’re often understood.

“If you spend nine months in Lod [a mixed Jewish-Arab city with a relatively low socioeconomic ranking], for example, you have a critique of Israel — and I think it’s a valid and important critique — but it’s sometimes hard for them they feel that the conversations are a bit surface level. You’re either for or against [Israel],” she said. 

“I think that for them, sometimes, the Yahel community is where they can be at ease, so we’ve had several Zoom meetings that were initiated by alumni who just wanted to be together and speak to each other,” she said.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Yahel temporarily halted its fellowship program and pivoted to coordinating more local volunteer efforts, particularly for new immigrants. Yahel was eventually able to restart its long-term fellowship and most of its other programs, and with its new hub model is preparing for an influx of volunteers, even as the total number of visitors to Israel is expected to drop.

“We realized as time went by that there might be less people coming to Israel but of the people who are coming to Israel, more want to volunteer,” Talmi said.