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Israel – a land of volunteers

“Well involved citizens are the immediate, evolving solution to the situation of volunteerism.

Their energy and willingness form the pedestal upon which civil society rests. Communal and social involvement is gradually becoming the core concept of civil society and a prerequisite for a healthy life in today’s changing conditions.

Volunteering can therefore be regarded as the ultimate expression of involvement.

The act of volunteering reflects all that is good in the human spirit: the independent choice of individuals to work selflessly for the benefit of others. To volunteer is to improve, to achieve goals for a common cause. It stems from the finest traditions and the roots of humanity.

During the course of time it has become one of the key values of Israeli society and a driving force of its democratic identity.”

(The National Council for Voluntarism in Israel (cvi): Code of Ethics)

I wonder if any other country has as effective a Code of Ethics for its volunteers as does Israel.  Having recently returned from a short holiday there – sadly far too short – I realised yet again how interesting, provocative, confrontational, challenging, fascinating, inflammatory, and even crazy so many of the Israelis are. Loud, boisterous and assertive, they are simultaneously among the warmest and most caring nation, evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of them who unselfishly and generously give their time and energy to any one of the myriad of organisations working for the welfare of their fellow citizens.  There are more than 24,000 volunteer organizations, which, helped by locals and arrivals from all over the world, have worked to shape the environmental, social, economic, and cultural make-up of Israel’s changing face.

Volunteer programmes exist in almost every sphere of Israeli life.  I discovered a number of superb “one-on-one” programmes in kindergartens, day-care centres and schools where little ones and juniors are tutored in a variety of subjects and topics.  Many disadvantaged children benefit from the tutoring given by university students, who become their role models; and from an organization like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Israel, which recruits and supports adult volunteers who commit to long-term mentoring relationships, meeting weekly with children from isolated single-parent homes. The volunteers are trained, supported, supervised; and  derive enormous satisfaction from seeing the very tangible changes in the children.

Students also volunteer their services to the handicapped, many through SHAI (Society for the Rehabilitation and Support of Disabled Children), which is devoted to the development and integration of physically handicapped Israeli children, and also gives the children’s families a brief respite while the children are under the direct care of the organization.  The majority of the 300 children, youth and young adults between the ages of 12 and 30, suffer from muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. The 300 student volunteers between 22 and 28 years old are motivated solely by their deep sense of responsibility and love for the young people; and they help them to learn to cope with and overcome their physical pain and impediments.

Despite the poor publicity Israel gets internationally, and the many attempts made to delegitimise and demonise the country, nothing can detract from the outstanding work done by the many volunteer rescue teams which are always at the scenes of emergencies both inside the country and elsewhere across the globe. Sometimes working with IDF helicopters and mountain climbing equipment, they often risk their own lives to save the lives of hikers and others who become lost, injured or trapped. Volunteers from these units are also generally the first ones present after natural disasters around the world, giving invaluable help to Haiti, Turkey, Kenya, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Kosova, Greece, India, Sudan, Indonesia, Burma, Ghana, Thailand, Cote D’Ivoire – and most recently Kenya, after the horrific terrorist bombing there, and Syria, where Israeli doctors in disguise have entered the country in order to help a populace which is being decimated in the most brutal, vicious and inhumane manner by its own government.

Environmental and ecological problems are among the most critical issues confronting the world today.  As well as Israeli scientists initiating excellent environmental technologies which they share with the world, thousands of Israelis now work with the GoEco volunteer organization which has introduced the concept of “voluntourism,” a movement encouraging the socially and environmentally conscious traveler to participate in ecological and humanitarian volunteer programs across the country.  GoEco operates in co-operation with Arab and Jewish bodies, and its many volunteers assist Druze children, intern on eco-hospitality projects, or work with professional coral reef conservation experts in Eilat – just three of many projects.

Through the office of the Ministry of the Environment, tens of thousands of volunteers have joined the “cleanliness system”, helping to keep Israel clean, whether on its roads, nature reserves, beaches, city centres or open areas.  The results of this are proof positive that environmental consciousness is growing and that it is possible to change public attitudes toward the environment. Just imagine how beautiful South Africa could be if a similar initiative were introduced here.

Helping hospital patients, the handicapped, the disabled and the elderly is an absolute for many Israelis.  Thousands of volunteers offer their services to Yad Sarah, one of the country’s largest voluntary organizations, which provides a spectrum of free or nominal cost services designed to make life easier for these people in need and their families.  Today Yad Sarah has 103 branches throughout Israel run by more than 6,000 volunteers, whose mission it is to keep the ill and the elderly in their homes and out of institutions as long as possible.

Poverty remains a major problem in Israel, with thousands of families living on or below the breadline, and desperate for whatever relief and support they can get.  As a result of this, the NGO Table to Table began some years back with the aim of collecting excess food by day and night throughout the length and breadth of Israel, and donating it to the needy families.  Food is garnered from a number of corporate cafeterias and army bases, as well as from between 100 and 200 catered events per week for distribution the following morning to the needy, including thousands of children who receive school lunches.  A number of Israel’s farmers allow volunteers to pick and gather all their fruit and vegetables not harvested, and redistribute them where most necessary; while many major manufacturers, who often have an excess of fresh products to be discarded as their expiry date approaches, also encourage volunteers to collect and distribute them.

Because Israel’s security needs call for voluntary efforts, several thousand Israelis have joined join the Civil Guard, which operates under the Israel Police. During Israel’s wars, volunteers filled the gaps, taking the place of enlisted men in the social services, in hospitals and wherever else necessary.  Today, volunteers with the Guard assist and reinforce existing civil guard forces, by providing security services for educational institutions, public transportation, public malls, neighbourhood patrols, and border patrol.

Almost one third of all Israelis are volunteers, with voluntarism an integral part of the Israeli ethic.  “Israel itself”, wrote Esther Herlitz and Matti Weill, “may be regarded as the result of a very successful voluntary effort. Zionism, the movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, rallied political support and engaged in practical work, entirely on a voluntary basis. Moreover, the Zionist movement created voluntary agencies to serve the individual and the community while still under British rule.”

The list is endless, the need overwhelming, the satisfaction incalculable. And of every volunteer the late great Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”



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