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Informal Living Bridges: UJC of MetroWest's members take on volunteerism initiative

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.

United Jewish Communities of Metrowest, New Jersey
 
 
“We have always had living bridge projects but they were a small piece of our budget,“explained Amir Shacham, Director, Israel Operations UJC of MetroWest.

“What’s exciting now," according to Lisa Lisser, co-chair of the MetroWest Partnership 2000 Steering Committee, "is that at the same time we transformed our partnership vision to one that focuses on living bridge projects, we have received specific requests from individuals in our community to facilitate new informal living bridge projects.  We believe these informal projects have developed as a result of the sparks we created in the past.” 

For federation leadership, the fact that people now take the initiative to create their own projects represents a strategic and historic development in Israel and Diaspora connections.  Lisser believes that this is inspired by the fact that every project we now fund is strengthened by a mutual sense of Jewish Peoplehood.
 
Diller Teens motivated to volunteer

 
Like their Baltimore counterparts, MetroWest Diller graduates have also taken the initiative, with their peers in partnership community Rishon Letzion, to create a second chapter of the program in which they participated. In July seven MetroWest youngsters joined seven youth from Rishon Letzion in Israel where they volunteered with needy populations and traveled together. The youth undertook to plan their itinerary. Federation staff then stepped in to fine-tune the details and to provide minimal financial support.
 
Among the Diller Next Phase volunteer activities, the group helped out at Tza'ad Kadima, a school accommodated for children with Cerebral Palsy. Andrew Yollek, a participant, took the initiative of starting a donation jar for the Tza'ad Kadima Organization.
 
“Although the amount collected was nothing near staggering, the level of gratefulness and pleasure with which it was received was unimaginably pleasing. It is these acts of kindness, generosity, and pleasure such as, but not limited to, this situation that encourages us as leaders to continue on our quest to do something that will make this world a better place,” said Yolleck.
 
Ofakim and MetroWest security teams develop ongoing connection
 
Ha’Shomrim is a group of volunteers in the local sheriff’s office, many of whom are also members of the UJC of MetroWest. During a recent visit to Israel by the group, the federation took them for a day-long visit to Ofakim where they were hosted by local police and security officers. A friendship developed and Ha’Shomrim then invited the Ofakim police to the United States, where the Ofakim officers were asked to participate in a national day for police officers in Washington D.C. The Ofakim officers were extremely proud to be recognized publicly in front of thousands at this national event.
 
Federation members volunteer their expertise in basketball and yoga to enhance life in periphery

 
Shacham has seen a new kind of volunteer project emerge, centering on the specific areas of interest of federation members. While it often begins with a formal partnership or a simple conversation between friends, it soon evolves into something new with infinite potential for further growth.
 
Local MetroWest Jewish schools were recently hosted by two of the federation’s partnership communities: Students from Solomon Schechter spent time in Merchavim while students from Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy went to Ofakim. After returning, one of the Kushner students passed on his positive impressions of Ofakim to his father, a basketball coach. The father soon contacted UJC of MetroWest with a request: Would he be able to volunteer his services as a coach on an upcoming visit to Israel? The answer from both the Ofakim community and the federation was a resounding yes. They saw it as something that could truly lend hope to the city, which must cope with economic and cultural challenges.

The federation arranged for the coach to spend three days volunteering his services at baseball and street ball clinics throughout the city. The clinic were such a success that the federation is now exploring a next phase of the project in which a group will travel to Israel next summer to conduct clinics with an Israeli group and then go to NJ to do the same there.
 
Another MetroWest federation member who had become something of a yoga devotee approached Shacham with her idea for bringing yoga to the peripheral community of Ofakim. The community was pleased to have her contribute and she soon gathered seven other yoga experts from the New York area to travel to Israel and conduct a week of yoga classes with kids, soldiers, and others. As in many such projects, the financial output is minimal for the federation: The instructors will pay their own way while MetroWest will provide housing in apartments in Ofakim for those who choose the option.
 
 
Rabbi and his crew bring construction and community to Ofakim
 
In what is the most daring but potentially most exciting project, a group of 15 Americans, headed by MetroWest-area Rabbi Joel Soffin, are headed to Ofakim in February to join with local Ofakim residents in jointly constructing a library in one of the schools. The group under the direction of Soffin has done a number of construction projects in various places in the world, but the library will mark the first such project in Israel. As in other such volunteer building projects, the group forms a community, praying together and building with the help of just two construction experts. Not a project for the faint of heart, those involved will be doing heavy manual labor for 12 hours a day.
 
 
Bar/Bat Mitzvah means chance to help out in Israel
 
The Bar or Bat mitzvah of a young person from MetroWest has become an opportunity to craft a volunteer project befitting the occasion. The youngsters choose an area they are passionate or curious about and travel to their partnership community to turn their interest into an opportunity for volunteering.
 
One upcoming Bar Mitzvah boy with a love for baseball will raise funds to purchase sports equipment and will organize baseball lessons for the town of Ofakim. Another family was so taken by the delicious food prepared by a local Yemenite woman in Merchavim that they have requested a Yemenite themed volunteer project which will include some intense study about Yemenite aliyah and volunteer work honoring that heritage.
 
According to Shacham, the fact that some of MetroWest’s partner communities are located in Israel’s geographical and socio-economic periphery enhances the natural connections created between individuals.
 
He tells of sitting with an elderly, non-English speaking Ofakim woman of Moroccan origin who told him she had become close friends with a family in MetroWest. After the MetroWest family stayed at the Ofakim’s family home, and vice versa, the son of the New Jersey family joined the Israeli army and became the “adopted son” of the Ofakim family, enjoying the family’s warmth despite being far from his family.
 
“I think this openness, willingness to share, the warmth is very special and it is particular to the periphery,” said Shacham.
 
“This kind of natural connection between people is the outcome of years of trying to bring people together from various communities and using the platform to allow the relationships to develop. What we are seeing is that, eventually, one community emerges. This is the true meaning of Jewish peoplehood,” he added.
 

For more information, visit UJC of MetroWest online.

MetroWest Diller Next Phase participants pick fruit as part of a volunteer project with the Table to Table food aid organization.
Smiles in Ofakim after a successful volunteer basketball clinic provided by a federation member in July.