For most college students, winter break is a period to catch up on sleep, spend time with family, and maybe even take a vacation somewhere nice. However, a group of 26 college students from around the country used their break to volunteer in Israel, going on Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alternative Winter Break from Jan. 7-11. Utilizing their five days in the Jewish homeland, the volunteers supported families affected by the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks while ensuring that the land and people of Israel could strive towards a brighter future.
One memorable highlight was a visit to a world-class Jewish National Fund-USA-supported rehabilitation facility for people with disabilities located just 12 miles from the border with Gaza. Here, the volunteers supported the facility’s efforts to heal even more of Israel’s wounded and keep its most vulnerable citizens safe and secure. From keeping the kids entertained to working on the community farm, everyone brought some much-needed relief to a region that has seen a lot of tragedy.
“I’m here because I think it’s important to ensure that my baby cousins will be able to go on birthright when they’re in college,” said University of Colorado Boulder student Sarah Kline. “They will always know that Israel’s their home, and I’m willing to do anything to make that happen.”
Students also got their hands dirty volunteering with a Jewish National Fund-USA-supported outdoor enrichment program that instills an appreciation and understanding of agriculture and ecology through working with local farmers and safeguarding their lands. The volunteers personally worked the farms in Israel’s south, a particularly helpful form of support given the current shortage of workers.
“The situation in Israel has been very hard, and hearing about things from afar was very emotional for me,” said Lauren Zami, who currently attends Brooklyn College. “I really wanted to be here because there’s only so much I can do from home.”
For many students, the situation on campus was also difficult, with several volunteers noting the discrimination and blatant antisemitism they’ve been facing as Jews. “There’s been a lot of rallies and demonstrations almost every day,” said Zami. “Sometimes, I have to cross through a rally to get to class and there will be chanting and people pointing their cameras at me. It’s been very intense.”
However, that anti-Israel sentiment is precisely what is motivating many of the volunteers to make a difference. “I see a lot of antisemitism [on campus] and anti-Israel rhetoric,” said Caleb Ottenoser, who’s enrolled at New York University. “And I really want to know how to defend myself against it as a proud Jew and Zionist. I want to stand up for Israel and show my support as best I can, and going on Alternative Break allows me to do that.”
Other Alternative Winter Break highlights included:
- Volunteering with Sar-El at an army base, take on logistical roles necessary to fill the void of the more than 350,000 Israelis serving in the IDF and reserves.
- Helping out Jewish National Fund-USA-supported community volunteers at a Beersheva food bank.
- Bringing presents and joy to children during a visit to the Soroka Hospital.
To learn more or to join a volunteer mission in Israel, visit: jnf.org/volunteeril.