Alison Swanbeck, 27, felt a bit like an early Zionist pioneer as she and 39 other Birthright Israel Onward volunteers harvested 17 tons of grapefruits on a family farm on their first day in Israel during the war.
Following a mid-November call for Birthright’s 850,000 alumni worldwide to assist the Jewish state during the war with Hamas, more than 3,300 applied to volunteer. In December alone, more than 1,000 volunteers flew over.
Like Ms. Swanbeck, many of them were assigned to family farms, which are severely shorthanded as thousands of foreign workers returned to their countries during the war, and many farmers were evacuated, injured, or called up to reserve duty on or after October 7.
One of the grapefruit farm’s family members, a woman in her 30s, told Ms. Swanbeck’s group that she was very grateful for the volunteers’ help.
“She talked about how the war impacted her. She had two friends killed at the music festival on October 7. And after that, not having workers to help her farm compounded the tragedy.”
Ms. Swanbeck, the daughter of Lynne and Steve Swanbeck of Chester in Morris County, now lives in Philadelphia and took time from work to join the two-week volunteer effort.
She went on Birthright’s free 10-day trip to Israel in 2017, when she was a junior at Emory University in Atlanta.
“When I was growing up, there were not a lot of Jews in my small town,” she said. “College was the first time I was surrounded by Jewish students, and it made me want to get involved with Hillel on campus and learn more. I had the religious component from home, and the community component in college, but there was a missing piece of my Judaism.”
That missing piece was Israel as the Jewish homeland, which quickly became “a critical component of my Judaism.”
She felt a strong sense of belonging on that first trip — “it was something I’d been looking for that I didn’t know I needed” — and came back five times, including through Birthright’s Onward internship program. She volunteered as a medical assistant in an urgent-care clinic one year and volunteered with Magen David Adom another summer.
“I had really amazing experiences,” she said. “I’ve brought Christian friends to Israel who didn’t know much about Judaism, and most recently came with my mom in April. She hadn’t been to Israel since the 1980s and saw how much it had changed, how alive and beautiful it was.”
It was therefore a no-brainer for Ms. Swanbeck to answer the Birthright call during the war. “I was looking for a way to help. In the Diaspora, Jews felt helpless watching everything unfold, and when I saw the volunteer opportunity, I felt it was a tangible way to be there and do something helpful.”
She discovered that many others in her group hadn’t been back to Israel in a decade.
“It was amazing that even though so much time had passed, when Israel was in trouble, they still felt connected enough to come. It was incredibly therapeutic to be around others who feel the same way, who are passionate about Israel and want to be there.”
Ms. Swanbeck’s roommate from Seattle told her that when she was on the Birthright trip, a leader asked her group if the IDF has a responsibility to rescue Jews around the world. And although none of the Americans raised their hands, every IDF officer accompanying the group did.
“It was clear the IDF is not just isolated to the homeland,” she said. “It’s the army for the Jews no matter where you are in the world. The sense is that we all have mutual responsibility to be there for each other.”
The Birthright volunteers were joined by Israeli peers on several farms in the Tel Aviv area, and for Shabbat meals. “That was really special,” Ms. Swanbeck recalled. “Everyone had a story of how the war impacted them.”
One of the highlights for her was celebrating Chanukah in Israel for the first time.
“I had always celebrated it with my family, but in Israel there was amazing energy and a sense of everyone pulling together regardless of religiosity or ideology,” she said. “We learned that many Israelis light the menorah outside, in stark contrast to how we light indoors in America. That was emblematic of the trip; you weren’t afraid to be Jewish, you were proud to be Jewish. That was powerful to me.
“We all came back feeling very empowered. A lot of us went in feeling helpless, in a dark place, and we left feeling inspired because of the strength of the Israelis. Someone said to us that Jews are the only people in the world who could go through this type of trauma and come out stronger.”
Back home, she sees rising antisemitism. “I’d never experienced it before firsthand until now. Now we see people coming out of the woodwork. I feel it was probably always there and we weren’t aware of it. It reinforces for me how much we need Israel as a safe haven.”
Ms. Swanbeck and her younger sister both were adopted from a Chinese orphanage as babies.
“Growing up Asian and Jewish, my sister and I didn’t look Jewish unless we were wearing a Magen David,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the same experience as someone walking down the street with a kippah. At the height of covid, when it was referred to as the ‘China virus,’ I definitely felt animosity, but luckily nothing personal ever happened to me.
“Now we are seeing a rise of extremism and bigoty in society, and it’s quite terrifying.”
Her ethnicity, she said, “is living proof that the narrative of all Israelis being white colonizers from Europe is not true. In Israel, it’s so evident that this is not the case.”
Gidi Mark, the CEO of Birthright Israel, said that wartime volunteers such as Ms. Swanbeck are reporting “that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, powerful, and recommended experience.
“This initiative is a meaningful and practical way to stand with Israel and to actively address a great need,” he said.
Applicants for the Birthright Israel Onward volunteer program must be between 18 and 40 and identify as Jewish. They do not have to be Birthright alumni, but preference is given to those who already have participated in Israel programs.
In partnership with the Shalom Corps platform at Mosaic United, the program places volunteers on farms to harvest crops, or in donation centers to help with sorting, packing, and distributing boxes of supplies for civilian evacuees and military units.
Participants receive free Tel Aviv-area accommodations, with fortified rooms; transportation from and to the airport, and back and forth to the volunteering sites; and health insurance. They cover the cost of their own flights and travel insurance.
For more information and to apply to volunteer, go to www.birthrightisrael.com/volunteer-in-israel.