There are many different ways to volunteer in Israel. The Orangetown Jewish Center has chosen a short but very intense one.
This November, as it has for the last 11 Novembers, a group of about 20 people from the Conservative synagogue in Orangeburg, led by Rabbi Craig Scheff, has gone to Israel to do work. Real physical work.
“We are all paying a lot of money to come here for a few days to put on old clothes and work gloves,” Simone Wilker of Washington Township said, in a phone call from Kfar Ahava in northern Israel. “We paint and cement and glue and dig. We created something really special today.”
Kfar Ahava is a place that takes care of children whose families cannot look after them. It’s sort of an orphanage, in that many of its children are more or less abandoned, but it’s no Dickensian nightmare. Instead, it’s a place where “you don’t live in a dorm, but you get a mother and a father,” Ms. Wilker said. Children live in group of eight to 10, with an adult couple who lives there with them. “The children go to school in the morning, and then they come home for lunch. That’s the main meal of the day. In the afternoon, they share activities, and the parents prepare dinner.
“We had lunch there, and we met a girl who is doing her community service. She lives there too, and goes home every two weeks. She works 12 to 14 hours a day with the kids, so it’s a family with two parents, her, and ten 8- to 12-year-old boys.”
The Orangetown group’s stay in Israel is short — usually the group meets in Israel on a Sunday, and finishes work on that Thursday, so anyone who wants to be back at home for Shabbat can do it easily. But the bonds that form between the group members are strong, and aided by the fact that most participants have been on the trip many times. A few of them, in fact, have gone many times since it began. She has gone only twice, so she’s still new. This year, Ms. Wilker added, there were only two new participants; two teenage girls, both of them traveling with their fathers. “Often only a husband or a wife comes,” she added. This kind of work-intensive trip isn’t for everyone.
The group goes to Kfar Ahava every year, so participants can see how their work has changed during the interval, and get a good idea of what to do next. Once the group has finished its work there, it visits someplace else. That second place changes from year to year. This year, it was Aleh Israel in Tel Aviv, a home for people with profound disabilities. The Orangetown group came at the same time as a musician, who performed for the residents, many of whom can neither walk nor talk, but who appeared to take pleasure from the music.
“Aleh has four locations, and it takes everybody,” Ms. Wilker said. “They have to have care 24/7. It’s a huge undertaking. They serve about 700 people. And Aleh takes everyone who comes. It doesn’t matter who comes to them — what religion, what background, what age. They take everyone.” And therefore, she added, Aleh, which gets about one third of its funding from the government, has a huge need for money.
Ms. Wilker, who lives in Bergen County and is a longtime member of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, first learned about the trip circuitously. Her son Dov is the regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta, Georgia, and Rabbi Scheff’s sister, who also lives in Atlanta, is active in the AJC and other Jewish organizations there. Ms. Wilker and Rabbi Scheff first met at a dinner for Atlantans at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington, D.C., when they found themselves sitting next to each other and began to talk geography.
This was 2014. Ms. Wilker’s husband, Bernie, had died about six months ago. She started talking to Rabbi Scheff. “I told him that I wanted to go to Israel, but I didn’t want to go on a tour,” she said. “He told me about this trip, and it was the perfect thing.” It was a way to work out grief. “And Bernie would have loved it,” she said. “I felt like I was bringing Bernie to Israel with me. He always wanted to do good things for people.”
Amy Schwartz of New City has gone on the trip five times. “It gives me the opportunity to be in Israel to give,” she said. “As opposed to the arts festival in Tel Aviv that I go to every February. That one is all about me. But when I go on this trip, it’s all about the country, and about giving.
“It gives me the opportunity to go to Israel with a different framework. I love this country, with all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful things about it. This is a great way to give to it.”
She remembers planting a memorial garden at Kfar Ahava last year, in memory of one of the trip’s founders, and also in memory of the son of one of the participants, who had died that year. “This year we saw the garden and the quiet space, and it was very moving,” she said. “It brought us even closer together as a group, and it solidified why we do it.”