Like thousands of young American Jews, Melissa Liberson was affected deeply by the news of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack. With Israel at war and hundreds of thousands enlisting for service, the 26-year-old Louisiana resident knew the Jewish state needed workers and she wanted to help.
As a Birthright alumna, Liberson received an email from Taglit-Birthright Israel inviting her to volunteer to pick and pack fruit and relief supplies. She had always wanted to return to Israel after her 10-day tour in 2019 with Birthright. She leaped at the chance to return to Israel not as a tourist but in a capacity where she could give back.
“I have always felt very connected to Israel,” Liberson told JNS, after spending two weeks volunteering in November. “I have close friends in Israel, so I wanted to support and help in any way I could concretely.”
Liberson told JNS that she was partly motivated by escalating antisemitism and anti-Israel hatred stateside, but she also knew that such volunteer work was a family tradition. Her parents met as volunteers at Kibbutz Gesher in 1990—mere years before the retirement of the national program, which dated back to 1967, when kibbutzim and moshavim (farms) that had been hard hit during the Six-Day War needed manpower.
Like parents, like daughter, the three—and many others like them—saw volunteering as a way to help the Jewish nation.
‘The only reason I am here’
The early volunteer programs suited the collective mindset of kibbutzim, particularly those that rejected payment for labor, according to Alison Bowes, sociology professor and dean of the social science faculty at the University of Stirling in Scotland.
As part of her research on communal society, including for her 1989 book Kibbutz Goshen: An Israeli Commune, Bowes spent time as a volunteer in 1974 and from 1975 to 1976 on a central Israeli kibbutz.
“The communal ideology was very strong at that time and so people didn’t earn money,” Bowes told JNS of the kibbutzim. “In many ways, having volunteers fit better with the ideals of the times than paying people.”
The volunteer program saw Israel through times of war and uneasy peace, and volunteers came willingly—as they are now—knowing that they were filling vital roles. They also knew they could be serving amid violent conflict.
Liberson’s recent trip evoked stories her parents shared with her from the 1990s when the Hezbollah terror organization was attacking Israel. One day, someone threw a grenade a few feet away from where Liberson’s parents were standing in a market.
“It just happened to be defective and not go off,” she said. “That’s the only reason they are still here and that I am here at all—that it was defective.”
Last month, she learned to adjust to the sound of rocket barrages overhead as she worked. “It’s weird how quickly you get used to something,” she told JNS. “I honestly didn’t feel scared during the alarms, I think because I knew I was doing what I needed to do. Beyond that, it was beyond my control.”
‘A need that Israel’s friends feel’
Gidi Mark, International CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel, doubts that the 1960s volunteer program has much to do with those who are donating their time and energy to Israel today, although he allows it could be “in the back of our minds.”
Birthright’s “Onward Volunteer Program,” which runs through February, invites Jewish 18- to 40-year-olds—with a preference for alumni of a Birthright program to Israel—to apply to participate in “food rescue operations to prevent shortages in the Israeli market” and to “sort, pack and distribute goods for civil and military personnel.”
Participants, who volunteer for four to six hours daily, are responsible for their flights to Israel, food and travel insurance, while the program—a partnership with Mosaic United and the Israeli Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism—covers most other expenses.
Like the program in decades past, the new initiative came at the request of Diaspora Jews. “We had thousands of people who wanted to do it,” Mark told JNS of the current volunteers. Many were alumni who were already donating money to help defray the cost of military equipment and uniforms for the Israel Defense Forces, he said.
Rather than drawing inspiration from the 1960s, today’s volunteers act with “an instinctive, immediate response” to Israel’s needs, he said.
Even earlier in Israel’s infancy, volunteerism played an important role, when some 4,000 Machal overseas volunteers defended the new modern state in 1948.
Birthright is working with a private organization that wants to organize a program for non-Jewish volunteers from Western countries. “It is a need that Israel has, and it’s a need that Israel’s friends feel as well,” Mark told JNS.
Liberson is already looking forward to returning to Israel next year, when she is slated to lead a Birthright tour.
“There were a lot of people who were moved to tears or really, really thankful that we were there,” she said of her volunteer trip last month. “I felt we were the ones who should be grateful to them—for serving in the military, for being on the front line, for holding down the homeland.”
“I went in very hopeful about the future,” she told JNS. “I came out with certainty that we will be OK.”