by Abigail Pickus
Like many of her baby boomer generation, Marla Gamoran retired from a meaningful career, looked around and asked, “What’s next?”
Since she and her husband spend four months out of the year in Israel, where they own an apartment, she wanted to do some volunteering.
But she was disappointed with her options.
“I was in my early 50s. My husband and I are Hebrew speakers – we are not tourists, but we’re not living here. I couldn’t find any framework or body or organization specifically working with North American professional adults who wanted to volunteer [in Israel] and use the skills they have,” said the Madison, Wisconsin, native.
So she created that organization.
Skilled Volunteers for Israel, which Gamoran launched officially last summer, matches experienced professionals (ages 40+) with volunteer opportunities in Israel that utilize their expertise.
Gamoran is quick to point out that the volunteers are stepping in to help in specific areas of need – they are not replacing or competing with paid staff.
“We are not trying to duplicate or take work from Israelis,” she said. “We are trying to fit a need that an organization can’t do on their own.”
So far, her organization has connected with 60 nonprofits across the country – primarily in the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv areas – and has matched over 20 people to 16 nonprofits in everything from education and social activism to resource development.
“There is a movement in the States where people are retired from their primary careers and they move to encore careers to do something meaningful that tap into their passions,” said Gamoran, who worked for 15 years in the community college system. “It seemed to me a tremendous opportunity to tie those adults who want to come here with professional volunteer experiences. We’re not convincing people to come here, we are facilitating that process for those that do.”
The organization also fills a need within a changing Israel-Diaspora relationship.
“This is an opportunity to form a relationship of equals, of professional colleagues, but in a meaningful way. It goes very deep because the people who are doing this have a very deep connection to Israel. People tell me, ‘I’ve been looking for this and couldn’t find it.’ I am meeting a niche that wasn’t here before.”
And even if people have the desire to volunteer, they might not necessarily have the connections or know how to navigate the Israeli professional landscape, according to Gamoran.
The experience of working hands-on within an organization also gives the volunteer a chance to see another side of Israel, one that works on the ground to help children with special needs or to spearhead environmental solutions for a damaged planet.
Armed with her business idea, Gamoran first fine-tuned it as a PresenTense fellow, and then set up her organization in 2010 by enlisting a board, registering as an official nonprofit in America and hiring a volunteer coordinator.
Gamoran distinguishes between her organization and the veteran Volunteers for Israel, established during the first Lebanon War, which places volunteers on Israeli army bases.
“That is a great program,” she said, “but it doesn’t have to do with a person’s [professional] background.”
Targeting an older demographic, Skilled Volunteers for Israel offers a customized service where volunteers are matched with a nonprofit in need of their skills. After a rigorous screening process, Gamoran and her staff work with both the volunteer and the organization to define and clarify their roles.
“We help define the project with the volunteer and the amuta (nonprofit) before they get here so that when they get here there is a clear expectation for what they are needed to do and what the amuta provides,” said Gamoran.
Volunteers are expected to commit to a minimum of a month.
“We want to integrate people into the amuta (nonprofit) and to do that takes time,” said Gamoran.
Skilled Volunteers for Israel also remains on-hand throughout the duration of the project should either volunteer or nonprofit need support.
Lois Koteen, 65, an organizational development specialist from West Hartford Connecticut, had already been thinking about coming to Israel for the summer to study at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem when she found out that she could combine learning with volunteering through Skilled Volunteers.
“I thought, wow. If I can combine studying with doing something interesting that would be the best of both worlds,” she said.
This July, Koteen participated in a joint program between the yeshiva and Skilled Volunteers for Israel. She was matched with a nonprofit called Shutaf, an inclusion camp and year-round informal education program for children and young adults with special needs.
The five-year-old organization, founded by two women, was looking to figure out how to reach the next professional level. Enter Koteen, who helped them pinpoint their goals and craft a strategic plan.
“It’s been a fabulous experience. I could have not have asked for a better placement,” said Koteen. “[Shutaf] has been very open to change. I think I have been able to able to see a path to the future and what it is that they have to do to move forward. I guided them in their thinking to find the path that make sense to them.”
The experience has been deeply meaningful.
“It tapped into something I know and love, which is strategic planning in Israel with an organization I truly have come to believe is providing a service that is necessary. Here is a wonderful program that is on the cusp of moving forward and I’ve been a participant in that process,” she said.
Lionel Rabie, 50, who lives in London but who is originally South African, has been placed with a few organizations through Skilled Volunteers for Israel.
Semi-retired, he works for a charity in the UK and he also hosts at a restaurant.
During his three-month trip to Israel, he has volunteered for an organization called Microfy, which gives refugees and asylum seekers the tools to sustain themselves and become economically independent.
As part of his work, he interviewed a lawyer and judge from Africa who wants to open a bakery in Israel and is seeking in a micro-loan.
Rabie also worked with Aguda, the national association of GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) in Israel.
“What I found particularly good at Skilled Volunteers is they didn’t leave me without support. They are small enough to be there with you throughout it all. I really recommend it,” he said.
Rabie has already booked with Skilled Volunteers for Israel for next year.
Skilled Volunters charges a $180 non-refundable placement fee. Volunteers are responsible for their own travel and lodging. For more information, contact Marla Gamoran at: [email protected]