Going on holiday can mean relaxing or sightseeing, tasting new foods or learning firsthand about new cultures. A growing segment of vacationers, however, goes abroad to work for free.
Voluntourism — volunteering and tourism — has been cited as one of the fastest-growing sectors of worldwide tourism. Israel, a top destination for myriad reasons — from historical to cultural, biblical to religious — is proving to be a leading location for voluntourists as well.
People of just about any age can farm, perform dentistry, respond to emergency calls, serve in the army, work in animal or environmental conservation, pick fruit on a kibbutz or make a person in need smile.
“Volunteers can make a difference even if they come for an hour,” said Deena Fiedler, spokeswoman for the national food bank Leket Israel. “They’re in our fields or in our packing warehouse; they’re preparing sandwiches, rescuing surplus food. They’re making a difference. We couldn’t do what we do without the volunteers.”
Leket relied on more than 50,000 volunteers in 2013 to help glean fields, rescue leftover food and redistribute it. Many were visitors from overseas.
In a 2012 report, 35 percent of adults said they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component.
Do something good
The main premise of voluntourism is to travel while helping a cause. It also offers out-of-towners a personal feel for the place they’re visiting.
“It’s a nice way to get to know where you are,” Fiedler said. “When you’re in the field, you’re with an eighth-grader from Ashkelon or a group from a high-tech company on a bonding day. I don’t think you’d get that experience if you were a regular traveler. And I think that’s why a lot of people do it.”
The time-honored option of volunteering on a kibbutz for a few months is still a tradition that’s very much alive, as is the “wwoofing”(experience of working the land in Israel as part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms). But today there are dozens of organizations in Israel — and hundreds around the globe — offering short volunteering projects that can be included in a one- or two-week holiday.
At the Pantry Packers facility in Jerusalem, tourists 8 and older don gloves, aprons and caps in order to fill bags of rice, beans and other commodities for food baskets destined for needy families.
Tourists are sure to find inspiration at Yad Sarah — the largest national volunteer organization in Israel. Voluntourists in Israel for at least three months are welcome to help aid the disabled and elderly.
An experience for you, too
Voluntouring can also include professional exchanges. Licensed dentists from many countries come to treat underprivileged Jerusalem children through Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI).
“The experience of providing dental treatment to children in need is very rewarding,” said Dr. Karen Walters of Texas, who has returned five times to volunteer at DVI’s Trudi Birger Dental Clinic.
“The feeling you get from relieving a child’s dental pain and restoring their teeth so they can smile again is so satisfying. When my colleagues ask me why I go to Israel and ‘work,’ I can only reply, ‘Why not?’ The children of Jerusalem need this wonderful clinic, and I am proud to be a part of it.”
Aliza Solomon of DVI said interest in the program is high.
“The experience of volunteering gives them something you can’t get any other way. Quite a few dentists tell us that [treating underprivileged children] was their way of going back to why they went into dentistry in the first place,” Solomon said.
Another popular voluntourism opportunity is Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national emergency and blood service agency. Participants in the MDA Overseas Volunteer Program get hands-on experience in CPR, bandaging and dealing with mass casualties. They leave as certified first responders. MDA also has shorter tourist mini courses in first aid and CPR.
Environmentalists and socially conscious tourists have a whole range of eco-tourism options in Israel, too.
Project Bird Box is an educational wildlife nonprofit that works with farmers and schools. Volunteers are always needed to build bird boxes for natural pest control. GoEco matches volunteers with wildlife and desert conservation programs in locations such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Nazareth and the Negev desert.
“I hope that when people come to Israel with GoEco, they learn that Israelis are not only focused on the political situation, but they’re also focused on sustaining the land that is so holy and dear to so many people,” a volunteer coordinator said.
Want to voluntour?
If you want to voluntour but don’t know where or how to go about it, there are organizations in Israel that can help.
Ruach Tova (“Good Spirit”) is an umbrella organization for prospective volunteers, matching them up with programs in education, health, the environment, animal welfare and more.
The Israel Volunteer Center also helps tourists find a suitable place for their services.
Sar-El is another national volunteering project, offering opportunities to help in military warehouses with tasks such as packing equipment or fixing uniforms.