Jerusalem — Summer vacation in Israel began July 1, but the after-school homework help program at the Mercaz Kagan community center in Katamon Tet, a poor neighborhood in Jerusalem, was still buzzing with activity a week later 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 over the age of 50.
Marla Gamoran, 58, created the program after discovering that the vast majority of Israel-based volunteer programs are for the 30-and-under set.
“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, searched for opportunities online, all she found was Sar-El, a popular IDF volunteer program for seniors, and a program for dentists.
“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 Present Tense Global Institute for Entrepreneurs. The vast majority of the participants were in their 20s and 30s.
Since going live a year later SVFI has made 130 placements for 115 volunteers (some are repeats). Some utilized their existing expertise while others opted to try something new, in a variety of sectors.
Volunteer opportunities include working in a multicultural pre-school, 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 options 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 marking tool kit, while a third — an art curator specializing in Japanese art — researched the background of a collection of Japanese woodcuts for the Ramat Gan museum.
Some volunteers choose Hebrew-speaking venues in order to improve their Hebrew while others prefer an English-speaking environment. Although having some even basic Hebrew is useful, especially when working with children, many positions require no Hebrew, Gamoran said.
Volunteers can serve via three “portals”: the first enables individuals, most of them over 50, to volunteer 15-20 hours per week for three to four weeks, leaving them with a lot of free time. Cost: $250 not including airfare/accommodations.
The second, a work-study program, enables participants to spend half the day volunteering and half the day studying at the Conservative Yeshiva of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Jerusalem. That program attracts people of all ages. Cost: $800 for three weeks not including airfare/accommodations
The third, a group pilot program that will run Feb. 15-March 5, 2016 in Tel Aviv, will combine volunteering with enrichment activities, a speaker series on Israeli society and social action. Cost: $1800 plus airfare/accommodations
At the 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 both the children and SVFI’s 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.
Some of the kids French tutors “have never received one-on-one help. Knowing we’ve come all this way to spend time with them makes them feel special. It’s good to make a difference. ”
For information: http://skillvolunteerisrael.org