Jerusalem — On a summer morning the Library for the Visually Impaired housed at the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) was packed with volunteers sorting and cataloging.
Although the pace was easy-going, the volunteers — most of them over the age of 75 — organized the library’s thousands of large-print books, CDs and MP3 media files with the professional demeanor of paid librarians.
Seated at the library’s central table, Chaniett Lerner, 90, said she began volunteering at the library after her husband died.
“It keeps me out of the house, and I’ve met a lot of nice people who have become good friends. And I feel like I’m making a contribution,” Lerner said.
AACI counts on a small paid staff and hundreds of volunteers, the vast majority of them 55 and older, to keep its five branches running. Thriving, actually.
The leading grassroots advocacy and immigrant absorption organization in Israel, with more than 30,000 members, AACI is where English-speaking immigrants of all ages go for career counseling, information about their rights and obligations as dual citizens, a play or a book (there is also a regular lending library for adults and children).
This summer, in the AACI’s modern Jerusalem office, a converted industrial loft, the organization is offering lectures on buying or selling a home in Israel, the need for private health insurance, and how to put one’s personal information in order before an emergency strikes.
Many of these programs are offered by local English-speaking business people and others with expertise. Community events include a community program for English-speaking Holocaust survivors and monthly meetings of the Professional Women’s Network.
Members are also invited to a concert series, a film club, bridge, Feldenkreis, opera workshops, Exercise 50+, a blood drive and to subscribe to season tickets to the AACI J-Town Playhouse, a highly praised on-site community theater company.
In September the organization will hold its annual National Memorial Ceremony to remember the more than 300 North Americans who died in terror attacks or while serving in the IDF.
Julie Landau, AACI’s newly elected president, said the organization holds roughly 200 workshops and programs a month in addition to the professionally-run immigrant absorption services, scholarship and mortgage funds.
Landau, 80, said education and advocacy are two of AACI’s most important roles.
When the Affordable Care Act was initially conceived, Landau said, the AACI lobbied against the provision requiring all Americans, regardless of where they lived, to pay for U.S.-based health insurance or risk a fine. American expats in Israel are already covered under Israel’s universal health care system.
AACI members were also instrumental in pushing through laws against smoking in public places and for improved road safety, and in fighting the government’s planned cancellation of the IBA English News, which thousands of English-speaking Israelis, tourists and diplomats rely on.
Landau said the organization is apolitical, something not always easy in politically charged Israel.
“When it came to Obamacare we were careful not to take a stand on the law. It’s sensitive,” he said.
Recently, the organization held workshops to explain the legal necessity for expats to report their worldwide assets to the IRS or risk a huge penalty.
Decades ago, AACI helped establish an old-age home for elderly English-speaking immigrants, some of whom speak very little Hebrew or who, even after living in Israel for decades, prefer to live with English speakers.
Landau said the organization is a mecca for active retirees or semi-retirees “because they have time on their hands and they take on lay leadership positions.” The staffers, he said, tend to be younger.
One of AACI’s longstanding goals, the president said, is to attract a wide range of members. “We just started a young professionals group of 20-to-30-year-olds, he noted. Many young olim are already involved with the theater group while others enroll in the ulpan.
For the younger members, the organization holds a youth art show and in the summer, an ice cream party for kids who have read a minimum number of English books.
Regardless of their age, Josie Arbel, AACI’s director of klita (absorption) and programming, said AACI “wouldn’t be able to function without our volunteers, who do everything from office duties to management and policy-making.”
Who else, Arbel said, would wake up in the wee hours to welcome new immigrants (who arrive alone, not with Nefesh B’Nefesh) at the airport?
Sitting in the regular AACI library, where members have access to thousands of English books unavailable in most public Israeli libraries, Sarah Goodman, a volunteer, said working in the library gives her life purpose “and access to the books!”
“I’m not sitting in my four walls,” the retired bookkeeper, who has 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, said. “I feel useful.”
Lind Marcus, a retired reading specialist who also volunteers in AACI’s regular library, said AACI gives “Anglos,” or English-speaking immigrants, “a sense of security, an anchor when they move to Israel. Even after living here for seven years I still find it difficult to feel part of Israeli society, even though I identify as Israeli.”