Sharing experience in Israel
The after-school homework help program at the Mercaz Kagan community center in Katamon Tet, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, buzzes with activity, thanks in part to the Skilled Volunteers for Israel program.
Launched in 2011, the program matches experienced North American Jewish professionals with meaningful skilled volunteer opportunities in Israel. Most participants are active people older than 50.
Marla Gamoran, 58, created the program (skillvolunteerisrael.org) after discovering that the vast majority of Israel-based volunteer programs are for the 30-and-younger set.
Marla Gamoran created Skilled Volunteers for Israel four years ago after discovering the paucity of volunteer opportunities in Israel for older people.
“It was 2009, and I wanted to spend a lot of time in Israel because I had more flexibility in my life and career,” Gamoran said during a visit to the community center.
But when the longtime workforce developer, who lives in Manhattan, N.Y., searched for opportunities online, all she found was a program for dentists and Sar-El, a national project for volunteers for Israel.
“I was perplexed at the limited options for people my age,” Gamoran said. “I realized that I represented a demographic, a niche within the North American Jewish community of older adult professionals looking for a skilled volunteer experience in Israel.”
When Gamoran floated the idea of a volunteer program for older people with the Jewish Agency and other bodies offering volunteer programs, “They said this is a great idea but that they were focusing on younger adults as a means of promoting Jewish continuity and aliyah. That’s understandable,” she said.
Hoping to start her own program, Gamoran participated in the 2010 PresenTense Global Institute for entrepreneurs. The vast majority of the participants were in their 20s and 30s.
Since going live a year later, Skilled Volunteers for Israel has completed more than 150 placements for more than 125 volunteers (some are repeaters). Some utilized their expertise while others opted to try something new, in a variety of sectors.
Volunteer opportunities include working in a multicultural preschool; tutoring English; leading drama, music, art or sports workshops; or assisting children with special needs. Social action volunteers may work with Israel’s African refugees and asylum seekers or advance religious pluralism and women’s rights.
Those with a marketing or communications background can advise Israeli organizations about how to develop their social media and branding strategies and develop materials for website and donor communications. Other opportunities include working in an adult rehabilitation center, a club for the memory-impaired, community gardening, and painting and maintaining educational institutions.
There are also options for custom placement based on a volunteer’s specific interests and skills.
“One of our volunteers, a psychology professor, developed a psycho-social course and trained 10 leaders in the refugee community how to identify the signs of anger, depression and alcohol abuse, and how to refer them for help,” Gamoran said.
Another volunteer helped a Tel Aviv nonprofit develop a marketing tool kit, while a third — an art curator specializing in Japanese art — researched the background of a collection of Japanese woodcuts for a Ramat Gan museum.
Some volunteers choose Hebrew-speaking venues in order to improve their proficiency in the language while others prefer an English-speaking environment. Although having even some basic Hebrew is useful, especially when working with children, many positions require no Hebrew, Gamoran said.
Participants can serve via two “portals.” The first enables individuals, most of them older than 50, to volunteer 15 to 20 hours per week for three to four weeks, leaving them with a lot of free time. The cost is $250, not including airfare and accommodations.
The second, a work-study program, enables participants to spend half of the day volunteering and half of the day studying at the Conservative Yeshiva of the Conservative/Masorti Movement in Jerusalem. That program attracts people of all ages and costs $850 for three weeks, not including airfare and accommodations.
At the Mercaz Kagan community center, Ellen French, a semi-retired Manhattanite, taught English to a 9-year-old student, a girl from Katamon Tet. Pointing to the girl’s head — and then her nose and mouth — she asked the girl if she knew the English words for these body parts.
“Ellen makes learning fun,” the third-grader said when asked if she enjoyed learning English, a mandatory subject in public schools. “I know the colors in English.”
Judith Bar-Zemer, director of the after-school program, said the children and volunteers benefit from these interactions.
“The children learn English but they teach the volunteers some Hebrew, too. And the children learn about giving back and not just receiving.”
French said the program, which required her to rent an apartment and take a bus to the center, has added a new dimension to her frequent trips to Israel.
“Most of us have been here a number of times and we’ve done the tourist thing,” she said.
Some of the kids French tutors have never before received one-on-one help.
“Knowing we’ve come all this way to spend time with them makes them feel special,” she said. “It’s good to make a difference.”