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A Shared Passion: Baltimore and Ashkelon connect through volunteerism

Many have heard that volunteerism is growing in popularity all over the world. But fewer know that volunteer projects based in Israel are maintaining that same pace. In fact, UJC/ Jewish Federation of North America leaders have been steadily boosting their focus on volunteer projects coordinated between federations and their partner communities in Israel.

According to leadership, the latest projects have a fresh new flavor. While in the past, volunteer opportunities were highly structured and often initiated by federation staff, today’s federation members get into the trenches – initiating programs, strategizing with staff, and working to implement every last detail.

The result – something inventive in the world of Israel Diaspora relations: Original grassroots volunteer projects that seem to be multiplying by the day, adding a hands-on element to the vital role of Jewish Federation donors in Israel causes.

Another main characteristic of this trend is the innovation of young people, many of whom are on the forefront of the volunteer wave. According to a recent UJC study, “Young Jewish and Working for Change,” volunteer service could play a key role in developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. It is no wonder that in many cases it’s the highly motivated younger generation of federation members who are making volunteering a regular part of their commitment to Jewish causes.

THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Baltimore’s five-and-a-half year relationship with its partner community of Ashkelon has evolved as a result of this trend, according to Maia Hoffman, THE ASSOCIATED’s Director of Missions and Israel Projects. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” explains Hoffman, “We no longer have to ask people to help out on projects; they come to us and want to know: ‘when can we go to Ashkelon and volunteer again?’”

“Our relationship with Ashkelon has had a dramatic impact on the civil society of the city. It has also strengthened the Jewish Zionist identity of Baltimore,” explained Planning Associate Jonathan Strausberg.

Baltimore and Ashkelon teens create international volunteering network

The story of this partnership’s move into the realm of volunteer activities begins with the youth of both cities. Linda Hurwitz and Michael Lapides, the original co-chairs of the Baltimore Ashkelon partnership, saw the value in increasing opportunities for youth volunteer activities within the city of Ashkelon. With funding from Baltimore, Ashkelon’s JDC Amen program, which provides volunteering opportunities for teens, grew significantly.

Helmed by coordinator Dafna Biton, the Amen program created an infrastructure for local Ashkelon teen volunteers who began to sign up to work with the elderly, new immigrants, and needy children, among other projects. Soon the number of teen volunteers in the city shot up drastically, moving from 900 to 5,000 volunteers in the past five years. Ashkelon now ranks third in cities with large percentage of youth volunteers.

When Operation Cast Lead broke out in December 2008 and the residents of the city were forced to spend a great deal of time in underground shelters, the Amen teen volunteers were equipped with a plan of action, using the a model of volunteerism from the Second Lebanon War. The teen volunteers spent full days in the shelters, planning and running programs to keep the community’s children calm during that difficult time.

“All they had was a boom box, crayons, and their own creativity. Yet they kept a roomful of children busy all day, so that the parents could go to work with the knowledge that their kids were in a safe, structured environment,” remarked Mark Neumann, chair of THE ASSOCIATED‘s Center for Community Engagement & Leadership

While JDC’s Amen fueled Ashkelon’s interest in volunteering and increased the opportunity for teen volunteerism, a teen exchange program, the Community Service Initiative (CSI), later renamed the Diller Teen Exchange, gave both Baltimore and Ashkelon teens the opportunity to volunteer in both communities. The annual program began in 2005 and allows young people from both communities to visit each other and spend quality time volunteering, learning about Jewish topics, and traveling.

The initial exchange in 2005 created important connections between the teens. After the first group of Baltimore youth returned home and the second group of teens were off to Ashkelon, the original CSI graduates decided that they too wanted to go back to the city to which they felt so connected. They spent months making plans for a potential visit and writing a funding proposal. Their work paid off and at the beginning of this summer the group soon found themselves back in Ashkelon focusing on volunteer activities, such as teaching English, working with the elderly, and making the Michael Lapides Ashkelon Baltimore Park a more beautiful center for the community.

“This is a group of college students taking ownership of their Jewish identity. They said that they wanted to strengthen their relationship to Israel and with each other,’” said Leslie Pomerantz, Vice President, Center for Community Engagement & Leadership of the CSI graduates.

What started as a group of teens getting to know a new community has evolved into a much more elaborate and expansive exchange program between the youth of the two cities. Some of the Israeli teens from Ashkelon have even chosen to become Jewish Agency Shinshinim, young shlichim, who help strengthen the Jewish Zionist identity of the Baltimore community.

The enthusiasm of Baltimore and Ashkelon’s young people for their volunteer projects and for their new found friendships was infectious. It soon spread to their parents, who decided to join the city’s youth on their foray into volunteerism. 

The Lyn Stacie Getz Playground and Moms on a Mission continue the volunteering trend

In December 2007 a group of 250 Baltimore mission participants joined with about 500 Ashkelon residents to help build the Lyn Stacie Getz Playground in the Michael Lapides Ashkelon Baltimore Park. The goal of the joint project at that time was to use the experience of building the playground as a platform for creating relationships.

The concept took some getting used to. Working in a physical way to make an impact on a community in Israel was a new and slightly unfamiliar idea for most. Hoffman remembers a pivotal moment during that first mission in which THE ASSOCIATED President Marc Terrill urged each member of the group to pitch in and “be a leader.” This marked a shift in the federation’s priorities, when volunteering became an important part of the agenda. Click here to watch a video about Baltimore and Ashkelon building the playground.

Once the Baltimore community had begun its new pursuit, volunteer fever hit the town. Shortly after that first trip, a delegation of Baltimore women, dubbed “Moms on a Mission,” decided to travel to travel to a Jewish community with the goal of volunteering. The natural choice for a destination was none other than Ashkelon.

As the moms arrived in Ashkelon, great efforts had been made to match the women with local counterparts who shared similar interests. Jill Max, initiator and Chair of Moms on a Mission sees the people-to-people aspect as pivotal in creating the relationships that later lead to further growth.

 “If we can put the right people together and they actually want to be friends, then the project will come together. It’s not the volunteer project that necessarily keep people together, but the relationships,” explains Max

The electric energy between these two communities has not gone unnoticed by local officials. The new mayor of Ashkelon, Benny Vaknin, recently said that he hopes to build a Baltimore- Ashkelon volunteer center to be based in the city with the goal of expanding the volunteer opportunities in Ashkelon to include adult and senior volunteer projects. In the near future THE ASSOCIATED will make apartments available for individuals from the federation who want to make volunteering a part of their next trip to Israel.

“When I recently asked some people from Baltimore how many times a day they think about Ashkelon, they can’t answer because it’s become a regular part of their lives – on Facebook, through personal connections. It’s constant,” said Sigal Ariely, Director of the Baltimore Ashkelon Partnership.

For more information, visit THE ASSOCIATED online.


Baltimore Moms on a Mission volunteer in Ashkelon together with local women.
The CSI Diller alumni happy to be back in Ashkelon.