Young Jewish adults wanting more than just a tourist experience of Jerusalem have a new way to get involved with the city. A social service organization — Volunteer Jerusalem — has been launched with the aid of funding from the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. It offers people already in the city a five-day program of hands-on service combined with cultural events and meetings with scholars and community leaders.
The program is the brainchild of Lisa Barkan, an American-born Israeli, and Dr. Elan Ezrachi, a consultant who advises organizations on the concept of Jewish peoplehood. It is chaired by Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, Naomi Tsur.
Designed for people between 21 and 28, the program costs $250 per person, which does not include travel costs. Two sessions are planned, one at the end of June, the other at the end of July, and each with 18 to 25 participants. They will be working on projects like renovating children’s group homes and centers and building community gardens. “We want to give them the opportunity to both work together and share the community experience,” Barkan said.
Tehila Nachalon, the federation’s representative in Israel, made the Central connection. She researches worthwhile projects for the federation’s Israel grants, primarily those given through its Ness Loan Fund. In this case, the funding came from the federation’s annual campaign and was part of a strategic emphasis on funding programs that build stronger bonds between Israel and the Diaspora.
‘Make a difference’
Nachalon told NJ Jewish News in an e-mail last week, “The federation was looking to strengthen the sense of ‘Jewish peoplehood.’ My understanding of this term is: connecting one to Jewish history and to the Jewish people. I think that doing tikun olam in Jerusalem is achieving both goals at the same time — connecting young Jews to their heritage and their people.”
She added, “I feel that the place in the world which symbolizes ‘Jewish peoplehood’ best is Jerusalem.”
In an e-mail response to questions from NJJN, Barkan said, “We decided to create Volunteer Jerusalem because we wanted to give young Jewish adults the opportunity to make a difference, and to engage in direct tikun olam projects while improving the life of the residents of the city.”
Barkan moved to Israel 23 years ago, and had been working before her aliya and since in marketing, public relations, and project management, in high tech and in the public sector.
In a press release issued in late May, she and the other organizers said, “The program is a perfect opportunity for young adults who happen to be in Israel and are looking for meaningful ways to spend their time, such as graduates of Taglit Birthright programs who stay on in Israel on extensions.
“Young Jews come to Israel and want to contribute,” the statement continued. “Volunteer Jerusalem allows them to do just that, while getting to know Jerusalem beyond the tourist bubble. By working with real communities serving real causes, such as social and environmental issues, they are exposed to Jerusalem’s complex urban makeup, including multiple challenges and major social, political, and ethnic gaps and have the opportunity to work beside Israelis and meet Israeli peers.”
Nachalon, who is Jerusalemite herself, said she lives in the city “both because I love it and because I feel that today, when so many young, strong people are leaving the city to go to other places with more affordable housing, better job opportunities, and less tension between different groups, the inclusiveness and pluralistic character of Jerusalem is in danger.”
If the city is to remain the heart of the Jewish people, she said, it is vital to do whatever can be done “to keep Jerusalem open, inclusive, and a home to every Jew.”
Central federation executive vice president Stanley Stone said, “We are funding the Volunteer Jerusalem program because it provides a unique and wonderful opportunity for visiting Jews of the Diaspora and Jerusalemites to get to know each other on a deeper and more practical level. We envision that through meaningful work and cooperation, a broader and stronger sense of Jewish identity and understanding will be forged between and by both sides, which ultimately is what we want to achieve.”