More than 3,300 Birthright Israel alumni have applied to volunteer in Israel during the national crisis resulting from the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas in southern Israel, with 100 arriving in the past two weeks and more than 1,000 volunteers expected in December.
The moves came in response to Birthright Israel’s mid-November announcement that called on its 850,000 alumni worldwide to assist the Jewish state in defending itself from the Hamas terrorist organization that runs the Gaza Strip.
The initiative to encourage volunteers, called the Birthright Israel Onward program, in partnership with Shalom Corps platform at Mosaic United, resulted from many Birthright alumni contacting the organization to offer to help. They had been highly active following the Oct. 7 attacks by donating money, sharing information on social media and attending pro-Israel rallies, but many reached out to ask how they could do more.
Applicants must be ages 18 to 40, with preference given to those who have already participated in Israel programs. All applicants will need to identify themselves as Jewish. They also must be able to volunteer in agriculture or packing centers.
Charlie Meshchaninov and Sam Bearden of Brooklyn, N.Y., got married in early November and had already booked their honeymoon when they saw the announcement of the Onward volunteering program.
“We first heard about this program from my mother-in-law,” he said from Israel. “We applied immediately, and I’m so happy we did that. We’ve been here just over a week. I’ve been working in a logistics center, packing food and clothing and donated items to those in need, primarily displaced families. My husband and I are just so grateful for this opportunity to be able to come to Israel and help the people we love.”
Judy Haller, 37, a firefighter and single mother, is also a volunteer from Brooklyn.
“When everything started on Oct. 7, I felt a tremendous amount of anger. I couldn’t do anything, and I didn’t work for four consecutive days,” she said. “I felt like I had to help with something. When I saw that Birthright Israel launched a volunteer program, I immediately realized that this was my opportunity to give back. I was a bit nervous at the beginning, but my son encouraged me to do it. I only wish I could bring him along with me.
“The truth of the matter is that I feel much safer here in Israel,” said Haller. “There are soldiers and police officers everywhere. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, someone tore off a sticker I had on my car that said, ‘I Stand for Israel.’ ”
The Onward program, in partnership with the Shalom Corps platform at Mosaic United, places volunteers on kibbutzim and moshavim to harvest crops in the absence of the thousands of foreign field workers who returned to their countries during the war. The volunteers make a crucial contribution to saving the hundreds of family farms whose residents were evacuated or called into reserve duty since the Israel Defense Forces’ “Operation Swords of Iron” started on Oct. 7, prompted by the events of that day. Participants also work in donation centers to help with sorting, packing and distributing boxes of supplies for civilian evacuees and military units. They work up to six hours daily, during which they meet Israeli peers who also are lending a hand in farms and warehouses.
They receive the following at no cost: Tel Aviv-area accommodations, all of which have fortified rooms; transportation from and to the airport, and back and forth to the volunteering sites; and health insurance. (Participants will cover the cost of their own flights and travel insurance.)
“We are living in historic times, and I urge every Jew to visit Israel, especially now. Most volunteers I meet here tell me that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, powerful and recommended experience,” said Gidi Mark, the CEO of Birthright Israel.
“This initiative is a meaningful and practical way to stand with Israel and to actively address a great need. It also fulfills the Jewish value of kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, which means solidarity between Jews,” said Mark. “It will contribute to strengthening relationships between Israelis and Jews around the world. In the aftermath of the horrific massacre Israel experienced, we are witnessing Israel at its best. The entire nation is united, strong and supportive—and I have no doubt the participants are deeply inspired by that. Each volunteer is assigned an Israeli peer, which is always a great asset of the classic Birthright trip.”
For more information and to apply to volunteer, visit: www.birthrightisrael.com/volunteer-in-israel.