Jewish Journal

Peace Corps at 50 draws volunteers over 50

by Leslie Berliant

Posted on Feb. 22, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Lillian Mizrahi is not your typical Peace Corps volunteer. She first considered joining 40 years ago, when she moved to Los Angeles from the Bronx, but her life became busy with children and a career.

“Two years ago, I got a postcard that said, ‘Baby Boomers, we want you,’ ” said Mizrahi, 69, who worked as a talent executive with E! for nine years.

She attended a few Peace Corps meetings, even bringing along a friend who went on to volunteer in South Africa. “I took the steps thinking somewhere along the way it wouldn’t work, but it worked,” Mizrahi said.

With her children grown, Mizrahi felt it was the right time to help restore America’s former good image abroad. She was sent to Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, where she now works with KONEKT, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to increase philanthropy among Macedonians. She also tutors adults in English.

“I’ve been here 17 months, and it’s a wonderful experience,” Mizrahi said in a phone interview.

On March 1, the Peace Corps will commemorate 50 years of promoting peace and friendship around the world. Los Angeles will be one of the first cities to celebrate this milestone with a series of events March 2-5 at UCLA, including a panel discussion, “Peace Corps: The Next 50 Years,” moderated by Chris Matthews, MSNBC host and former Peace Corps volunteer, and an international festival. Other events will be held nationwide throughout the year.

The Peace Corps, which was started in 1961 through an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy, traces its roots to a 1960 challenge from then-Sen. Kennedy to the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country by living and working in developing countries. The Peace Corps’ purpose is to promote peace and friendship by sharing skills, helping promote a better understanding of Americans and helping Americans develop a better understanding of other people.

More than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries, with more volunteers coming from California than from any other state.

Mizrahi is among the 7 percent of current Peace Corps volunteers who are over the age of 50.

“They are encouraging more seniors to join because of their wealth of experience,” she said.

Mizrahi said joining the Peace Corps after working in entertainment was like “going from the ridiculous to the sublime.” “TV is a young people’s business,” she added.

Mizrahi, who took courses in nonprofit management and fundraising at UCLA Extension, says fundraising is difficult, but she loves the Robin Hood concept of taking from the rich to give to the poor.

“In the Peace Corps, we take trained individuals and give them to the untrained to transfer skills which will still be there after [they’ve] left,” she said.

So far, Mizrahi has helped organize a philanthropy conference for the Balkan region, an Earth Day celebration, harvest festivals and 5K runs as well as helping with a spelling bee and a Habitat for Humanity building project.

The Peace Corps provides her with an apartment and a stipend for living expenses. Mizrahi says her son and daughter share her sense of adventure and are proud of her, and that being so far away is made easier with technology like Skype and e-mail.

Although she had offered to take an assignment in a rural community because of her prior experience living on a kibbutz, Mizrahi believes that the placement in a city ended up being a perfect fit.

In Skopje, Mizrahi is also part of a small Jewish community made up of Americans, Israelis and Macedonians. She has held seders and hosted a large Chanukah party this past year. She attends holiday services at the local Jewish community center, and will be there for the March 7 opening of the Macedonia Holocaust Museum, which has been in the works for 10 years. Funding for the museum has come primarily from a special fund created in 2000 from the assets of Macedonian Jewish families who perished in the Holocaust and left no heirs. Additional funding comes from Israel and the United States, including a group of early supporters in Pasadena.

Mizrahi hopes the Peace Corps has a long future, and she encourages other older adults to join without hesitation. She says people should think about what they could handle and where they will be comfortable, but ultimately the organization does a good job of making a match. 

“If you want to do it, it’s a wonderful experience,” she said. “And your kids will be impressed with you.”

For more information about UCLA’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Peace Corps, visit http://spotlight.ucla.edu/peace-corps-50th/events.

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