In very little time, 31-year-old Jamie Garelick had to frantically pack her bags, sublet her apartment and say goodbye to friends, all to prepare for her two-month trip to volunteer in Israel.
Only weeks before she left, Garelick, who was one of 1,000 people whom the Jewish Agency for Israel hoped to get to volunteer, was happily settled. She worked as a commercial real estate lawyer with Liner, Yankelevitz Sunshine and Regenstreif, an employer she says has been very supportive of her decision to take two months leave of absence, get on a plane and do whatever Israel needs.
Why is she going now? "Well," she says, thoughtfully, "there's a war."
"I just couldn't watch the news anymore."
The work of security is great, and as thousands of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reserves are called up, their jobs on military bases, kibbutzim and elsewhere are left shorthanded. That is where American Jews come in. Garelick is among the first of a hoped-for wave of American volunteers. Following a widely disseminated e-mail sent out by Sallai Meridor, chair of the Jewish Agency, the Volunteering for Israel program is pushing Americans, age 18-65, to show their support for Israel by committing to at least three weeks in the country, providing moral support and working with services that support the military and other vital infrastructure in Israel.
Volunteers for Israel can choose from a variety of programs, places and types of service, depending on their abilities and interests. There is tremendous need for doctors and other medical personnel, and nonmedical volunteers (ages 18-25 only) willing to commit to two months are needed to assist Magen David Adom teams of medics and paramedics. The Sar-el program coordinates volunteers on IDF military bases, where possible work includes packing food, medicines and equipment for soldiers. A community service program places volunteers in day-care centers for the elderly, working with special-needs children, teaching English in public schools, working with immigrant populations, at-risk youth or in cultural centers. A fourth program serves Israel's welfare needs, working with special education or people with physical or mental disabilities. A fifth program trains and places volunteers to assist and provide reinforcement for civil guard forces, helping to protect educational institutions, public transportation and malls.
"When I called the Aliyah office and asked what I could do," Garelick recalls, "they said stay in the King David for a month and buy lots of stuff. Since I can't really afford to do that, all I have is my two hands. I thought I could offer my two hands and see what I can do."
Dr. Joel Magid, Jewish Agency's Israel Program Center director, who made aliyah after volunteering in 1973, acknowledges that Israel's current battle with terrorism is "a very different kind of war," but maintains that Israel needs U.S. volunteers now more than ever, as the United States is Israel's "last reservoir of support." He recalls previous wars: in 1967, 10,000 volunteers got on planes to help out. Magid attributes the large number in part to timing -- the mostly student volunteers came at the end of June, as school ended. Fewer came in 1973 -- 3,000, including Magid -- in part because the war started at the beginning of the school year.
Now, the Jewish Agency has expanded the age range of volunteers it seeks, and Magid says much of the current interest in serving has come from people aged 50-65.
College students are beginning to show interest as well. Phones have been ringing "off the hook," since news of the latest push for volunteers got out, says Tahg Adler of the Aliyah Development Project in Southern California. Adler, who regularly visits college campuses and conducts outreach for people considering moving to or visiting Israel, says he's been receiving about 100 phone calls and 80-100 e-mails per day about the volunteer programs. At a recent talk he gave to students at UC Irvine, 40 students signed up for more information.
Larry Tishkoff, senior representative for the Jewish Agency on the West Coast, noted, "If you've been to Israel anytime in the last year-and-a-half, you know, when they see North Americans, they are tripping over themselves to say 'Thank you, thank you for being here,' to the point where it's embarrassing, because we, Diaspora Jews, should be thanking them for staying, for raising children there." In just one day, at the Israel Independence Day Festival in Woodley Park, Tishkoff helped give out over 800 information packets to people considering going to Israel to help.
As for Garelick, she plans to volunteer for her three-week commitment, then spend a week visiting with her own family, spread across the country. And after visiting, she'll volunteer another month. "I don't think I'll accomplish any grandiose mission while I'm there," she said before leaving, "just whatever they need."
For more information on volunteer programs, call (323) 761-8915, or visit www.jafi.org.il/daily/vol.asp .