More than 3,300 people responded to a Birthright Israel call for volunteers to work for two-week stints in Israel. The opportunity is open not only to the 850,000 Birthright alumni worldwide but also to any Jewish person between 18 and 40.
The Birthright Israel Onward volunteer 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 to reserve duty since Hamas massacred, injured, and kidnapped southern Israelis on October 7 and precipitated a war.
Volunteers also can work in donation centers to help with sorting, packing, and distributing boxes of supplies for civilian evacuees and military units.
Both groups of volunteers work up to six hours daily. During that time, they meet Israeli peers who also are lending a hand at farms and warehouses.
The 100 people already actively volunteering — more than 1,000 are expected during December — include Stephen Samuel Sharon of Teaneck, Eytan Stern Weber of Jersey City, and Avi Lichtschein, a Teaneck native living in Manhattan.
“Why am I here?” Mr. Weber asked rhetorically. “Because Israel is special, and because I could feel like I am doing something meaningful.”
The 34-year-old commercial photographer said he is “lucky enough to have a job that allows me to take two weeks off without losing it, something most people cannot do.”
Mr. Weber landed in Israel on November 27 and has been assembling boxes in the warehouse of Pitchon-Lev, an organization aiding needy Israelis. These boxes of supplies are earmarked for families displaced by the war. Each box gets a “thank you” sticker affixed to it, naming for its recipients the Jewish congregation somewhere in the world that contributed toward the items it holds.
“I’m now a pro at making boxes,” Mr. Weber joked. “I actually feel so good about it.
“This is the kind of work that makes you physically exhausted and refreshed inside emotionally. This is doing a direct good.”
He said that he recently read about the concept of active hope, and his volunteering in Israel is an example of that: “Every time you do something active, you put yourself on the side of hope that there will be a future.”
Like all Birthright Israel Onward volunteers, Mr. Weber is housed for free with other group members in a Tel Aviv apartment building. He had to pay only for his flights and travel insurance. He recalled that while he was waiting at the El Al gate, he heard someone call his first name. That’s how he realized that he was not the only one there named Eytan, as he usually is.
“Especially now, between Halloween and Christmas, you get used to being a minority in America,” he said. “Then you come here and see how many different Judaisms there are here — religious, historical, cultural, or a mix of all of the above. You are not the minority anymore.”
What’s his takeaway from his time in Israel so far?
“The coolest thing I have found is what happens when people understand the bigger picture,” he said. “Before October 7, everyone in Israel was at each other’s throats over political issues, and now everyone says, ‘We’ll get back to that later. We have to be united now.’
“It’s incredible to see what a country can do when they understand that there is more that unites us than separates us. It’s an incredible example of resilience.”
Mr. Sharon, soon turning 40, is an attorney in Teaneck. He and his wife, Tzipora, met on the Young Judaea Year Course after high school and have three children who go to Yeshivat He’Atid. He is beginning a new job soon and received permission to delay his start date to volunteer in Israel for two weeks — with the encouragement and cooperation of his wife, who agrees that his gesture sets a good example for their children.
“I grew up going to Orthodox schools in Skokie, outside Chicago, where a big part of the curriculum was learning about Israel,” Mr. Sharon said. “My former high school, Ida Crown Jewish Academy, just announced they’re taking the entire senior class for a month of volunteering in Israel.
“My own kids all learn about Israel, and I want them to know it’s not just a faraway place we sing about. Even if they don’t fully comprehend it now, in the future they will have this as part of their memory of October 7 — not the tragedy but that we came together as a people afterwards.”
It’s not the first time that Mr. Sharon has volunteered in Israel at a difficult time. During that gap year in 2001-2002, which coincided with the second intifada, he volunteered as an emergency medical technician with the Magen David Adom national first-response network.
“My instructor was killed a week after Hilary Clinton gave us our EMT certificates in Jerusalem,” he said. “The following summer I came back to volunteer again with MDA. If the way I can help now is by harvesting cucumbers, that’s what I will do.”
Well, not just cucumbers. His two weeks were spent planting, weeding, and harvesting an assortment of salad veggies on two farms in central Israel with other Birthright Onward volunteers. Most of them are much younger than he is, he said.
Mr. Sharon had not known a single person in his group of 55 before he joined it, and he discovered that only about 10% of them keep kosher and Shabbat to Orthodox standards, as he does. Many sported Hebrew tattoos of phrases such as “Am Yisrael Chai.”
“So their motivations were different than my own,” he said. “I live in a place with Jews and Jewish life all around. Some of them have none of that whatsoever, and they feel threatened, harassed, and lonely and wanted to be around Jews.
“I think all 55 of us have said we feel safer here than in our hometowns.”
He is most impressed with the “unrivaled dedication and passion” of these fellow Jewish volunteers with varied backgrounds from across the United States as well as France, Canada, Costa Rica, and England.
Avi Lichtschein, 37, is similarly impressed with his cadre of volunteers. “One person in my group has only 13 days off for the year, and used those 13 days to do this,” he said.
Mr. Lichtschein works in the crypto industry and has a flexible schedule. But he gives full credit to his wife, Katie, for supporting his decision to leave her and their 3-year-old and 11-month-old children for two weeks to volunteer in Israel. Both grandmothers, including Mr. Lichtschein’s mother, Tilly, from Teaneck, are pitching in to help while he is away.
He said that because he never served in the IDF and cannot do military reserve duty as hundreds of thousands of Israelis in his age group are doing, he views his volunteer service as a form of “reserve duty” that he can perform for Israel. Though his kids are still too young to understand, he said that it is important to him to convey that idea to them one day.
Bunking with five other guys, including one from Ukraine and another from Texas, Mr. Lichtschein has spent some days packing in the warehouse and other days sorting produce or picking persimmons.
“I’ve been to Israel many times, and I lived here for a year and a half in yeshiva, but the one thing I feel now that I never felt before is an overwhelming sense of safety,” he said.
Back home in New York City, he has been putting up posters of Israeli hostages, and people have been tearing them down. “The other day, I was walking with new friends after our farm work and all I could think about was that I never felt so safe in my entire life,” he said.
“A lot of people say, ‘I love Israel so much I would die for it,’ but here people say, ‘We love Israel and let’s live for our country.’ And even though everyone is affected by the war, when you ask Israelis how they are, they ask how we are. The people of Israel care just as much about what’s going on in Teaneck, in Pittsburgh, and in Texas. That left an impression on me.”
Gidi Mark, the CEO of Birthright Israel, echoed that impression when he said that the volunteer initiative “will contribute to strengthening relationships between Israelis and Jews around the world. In the aftermath of the horrific massacre Israel experienced on October 7, 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.”