Israelis have been volunteering in record-breaking numbers during the ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza, but it’s not only Israeli residents who are eager to pitch in.
Many Americans were visiting Israel over Sukkot and stayed on after the war’s sudden outbreak on Simchat Torah. Others have gone over during the past month. And many of them are seeking volunteer opportunities.
This situation has created a new niche for Elana Kaplan of Teaneck, who has been living in Jerusalem for much of the past three years with her husband, Jonathan, and three children.
Ms. Kaplan’s regular job is facilitating chesed programs, such as mitzvah fairs and charitable activities, on behalf of Areyvut, a Bergenfield-based nonprofit organization.
Areyvut works with rabbis, day schools, religious schools, parents, community leaders, and Jewish organizations to give Jewish youth and teens throughout the county an opportunity to do projects benefitting local and Israel-based agencies such as Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, and many more.
“With the outbreak of the war, I put work on hold and I’ve been volunteering full time,” Ms. Kaplan said.
However, it very quickly became apparent that her passion for volunteering could mesh with her job.
Areyvut’s founder and director, Daniel Rothner, has shifted the organization’s focus entirely to filling needs in Israel during the war. At the same time, people visiting or planning to visit Israel started reaching out to Ms. Kaplan to ask how they could help.
“And so I became a volunteer coordinator on behalf of Areyvut,” she said. “Areyvut focuses on mitzvah projects, tzedakah, and tikkun olam, and everything we’re doing here embodies that mission.”
“A lot of people were here for the holidays and got stuck here or extended their trips and looked for something meaningful to do. Also, people who live here now are looking for things for their friends or relatives to do when they come to Israel.”
“I’ve been making matches, especially for English speakers, depending on age, ability, and access to a car. There are so many volunteering opportunities here, but sometimes you’ll get somewhere and find they don’t really need you, so I’m trying to help get people wherever they are actually needed. And the need is huge.”
Ms. Kaplan has been doing a lot of work with OneFamily, a Jerusalem-based organization supporting victims of terror and their families. During the past month, OneFamily also has been cooking and baking for displaced families and for families it’s been assisting for years.
“I’ve set up baking and cooking mornings there for volunteers,” Ms. Kaplan said. “And I set up a volunteer from the United States to answer phones at OneFamily. He is an IDF veteran and a rabbinical student with an interest in chaplaincy work, so he’s also been going to hospitals to visit the wounded.”
She matched several volunteers, including friends of her mother-in-law, with a grassroots operation making thousands of pairs of tzitzit for soldiers. She organized a group of volunteers to work in agricultural greenhouses a couple of hours per day, since Israeli farms are experiencing a severe shortage of farmhands and access to fields due to the war.
“Today, we picked pomegranates,” Ms. Kaplan said. “That’s physically demanding, so not everyone can do it.”
She connected several volunteers with Yafale, a restaurant in Jerusalem whose owner is making hundreds of meals every day to send to army bases.
“We pack the food up and deliver it. The meals go out fresh and hot every day, and the lid of every single meal has a handwritten note from a schoolchild or volunteer, with pictures,” Ms. Kaplan said.
“I went to deliver them to a base near Ramallah and I saw how much it meant to the soldiers to get delicious hot food with personal notes.”
She also makes time to volunteer in hotels housing displaced families from the north and south. “I’m trying to do more of that now that we better understand their needs,” she said.
“I have a friend coming with me tomorrow who’s a yoga teacher and will do a session for women. I try to match people’s skill sets to the activities so they’ll be passionate about the volunteering they are doing.”
On Thursday mornings throughout the year, Ms. Kaplan volunteers at Ohr Meir and Bracha, packing baskets full of fruits, vegetables, challah, and pantry staples for families of terror victims. “Now Ohr Meir and Bracha is also bringing supplies to army bases, and my husband I have helped with that,” she said.
They don’t merely hand out the supplies but also sing and dance with the soldiers. Mr. Kaplan, a kohen, recently gave the soldiers on a base the traditional priestly blessing.
Ms. Kaplan said that some volunteers are happy for her to make the initial introduction to an organization and then they take it from there. Others contact her every day and ask what needs to be done.
Mr. Rothner says he finds Ms. Kaplan’s volunteer matching service “inspiring and humbling.
“The role Elana is playing now is transformative to the ecosystem of volunteerism in Israel,” he said. “Elana’s efforts in facilitating volunteer opportunities are incredibly important.
“She is working with a myriad of agencies and grassroots groups, and with volunteers who live in Israel and those coming from abroad. Normally, Areyvut helps personalize volunteer experiences. However, at this time the needs change so rapidly and the goal is to get volunteers wherever needed. Elana is able to put volunteers where they are needed most to maximize their impact.”
People looking for volunteer opportunities in Israel may email Ms. Kaplan at firstname.lastname@example.org or text or call her through WhatsApp at (917) 805-0810.