Amid coronavirus shutdowns, Israelis seek meaning through volunteer work

Sick of staying home for weeks on end, increasing number of people are looking for ways to help friends and neighbors

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Volunteers from the Ezrat Achim organization in Beit Shemesh prepare food for distribution to Israelis who are homebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy)
Volunteers from the Ezrat Achim organization in Beit Shemesh prepare food for distribution to Israelis who are homebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy)

When Israel, faced with an incipient pandemic, shut down its schools in March, Mazal Byalsky decided she had to do something to help.

Prior to taking on her current job as a biology teacher at a high school in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, Byalsky had earned a PhD in hematology and immunology and she understood that as the public health crisis worsened, her skills would be increasingly in demand. She immediately contacted the coronavirus testing lab at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, offering her services for free.

“It’s very important to feel that I’m doing what I know how to do because not everyone can do that,” Byalsky told The Times of Israel. “It’s serving the state. I see it like [army] reserve duty. I’m happy that I can help.”

Around half of the technicians in her lab are now volunteers, and while they face many of the same risks as other frontline medical personnel, they all see it as “holy work,” she explained. “The Israeli population is mobilizing to help.”

Mazal Byalsky (courtesy)

Byalsky is far from the only Israeli rejecting self-isolation for the risks of community engagement. While millions shelter at home in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines, growing numbers of people have turned to charity work, volunteering for local organizations in search of ways to help those hardest hit by the pandemic.

From delivering food packages to making pharmacy runs and operating programs for the children of essential workers, these volunteers are determined to help mitigate the worst of the isolation and hardship that the pandemic has imposed on members of the country’s most vulnerable sectors.

“There has been a huge increase in the younger population taking up volunteer activities,” said Niki Cregor, the official in charge of volunteers at the Jerusalem municipality.

As young people increasingly find themselves with little to do, either because of the closure of local universities or because they have been temporarily furloughed from their jobs, many of them have stepped up to fill in the gap and help the elderly, the isolated, the hungry and the disabled whose situation has deteriorated precipitously over the course of the past month.

Cregor said that the municipality, which partners with non-profits and neighborhood community centers to coordinate volunteer activity, has counted some 15,000 people who have become active in aide work, a threefold increase over the usual number.

“We’ve managed to bring in maybe 10,000 new younger volunteers who would usually be busy working and studying,” she said, describing how community centers across the capital have reached out to local residents to deliver food and supplies to their neighbors.

A volunteer from Ezra Baderech brings supplies to a woman in need. (Courtesy)

Volunteering locally is the best way to “keep corona from spreading,” Cregor said, adding that “at the end of the day the city of Jerusalem wouldn’t be able to function without our volunteers.”

One local program is Ezra Baderech (Help is on the Way), an initiative of the Dor LeDor organization.

The concept, explained Dor LeDor’s Shivi Himelstein, is providing “a volunteering opportunity near your house with no commitment” and on your own schedule. According to Himelstein, many people no longer participate in traditional volunteer activities because of the hectic pace and unpredictable schedules of modern life. But by updating its modus operandi for the smartphone generation, Ezra Baderech has been able to engage people who would otherwise be unable to participate in such activities.

If an elderly person is in need of assistance, say changing a lightbulb or buying medication at the pharmacy, they can call the organization’s hotline. Once a request has been received, “we send out a call on the WhatsApp group with volunteers” and someone in the area can respond and head over to help out.

“The number of volunteers has increased dramatically” since the beginning of the pandemic, Himelstein said, describing how 350 new people signed up for the volunteers’ WhatsApp group over the past two and a half weeks. “People are at home and have more time now and there is an urge to help out.”

The number of requests for help has also grown significantly, from around 85 calls a month pre-corona to some 80-odd calls a day.

“Most of us are students,” said Yochai Abitbul, a law student and Ezra BaDerech volunteer. “We aren’t in university now studying, we’re at home so we have a lot of time.”

Yochai Abitbul delivering supplies to an elderly women. (courtesy)

Speaking to the Times of Israel by phone while out picking up medication for an elderly Jerusalemite, Abitbul said that while he was unable to take care of his own parents because they do not live nearby, he felt good because he knew that just as he was helping someone in his own neighborhood, his parents’ neighbors were helping them.

In the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh, the local municipality has been coordinating volunteer projects with several local organizations, recently establishing a distribution center in a local sports club “where organizations can donate food and toys and volunteers — mostly teens — pack up the food and there is a line of cars that pick it up and distribute all over town,” said Deputy Mayor Rena Hollander.

The city has been especially focused on the elderly and families with special needs children, she said. The municipal welfare department has worked with local residents to divide the city into sectors, each headed by volunteer neighborhood heads who help coordinate efforts between the government and the grassroots.

“A woman called and said ‘I’m 70 and can’t go out and need something from the store’ so I called a woman in her neighborhood and it was taken care of,” she said. “Hundreds of citizens have joined these efforts.”

And while the level of volunteerism isn’t as high as it would be in wartime (people are scared to leave their homes, after all), “compared to everyday life it’s much more.”

Meanwhile, charitable organizations like Ezer MiTzion and Beit Shemesh’s Ezrat Achim have also reported a high turnout of volunteers, noting that people from all sectors, Haredi, national-religious and secular, are all pitching in to help one another regardless of religion or politics.

In Modiin, the municipality turned to the Barkai organization, which during normal times focuses on rabbinic training, to help create a network of volunteers, said the organization’s co-founder Rabbi David Fine.

Rabbi David Fine (courtesy)

Fine said the city “realized quickly that because we have rabbis in many of the communities and all of them had a bank of volunteers in their synagogues that we were probably the best equipped in order to help them do what they wanted.” He said the organization was able to mobilize hundreds of synagogue congregants to participate in food distribution and other efforts.

“People are very much looking for an opportunity to help and more than that, they are looking to somehow make meaning out of what is going on and this helps people connect to what is going on around them. Especially when there is all this social distancing going on, it enables some sort of human connection.”

Ye’ela Schejter, 19, said her pre-military academy has been sending girls across the country to help the less fortunate, telling the Times of Israel about her recent stints working with shut-ins and the children of essential workers.

“Anyone who doesn’t have someone in their house who is at risk should be out helping. It’s frustrating because you are out and helping but you can’t help everyone. But it is very interesting and generally it feels good,” she said. “Later when we are talking about what we did during corona, I’d much prefer to say I went out and helped rather than sat home and watched TV shows. That’s less heroic.”

It’s not only Israelis who are volunteering to help out during the current crisis. According to Ilana Turevsky Assaf, head of the Ministry of Labor and Welfare’s International Volunteers Program, hundreds of foreign volunteers who were in Israel on a variety of programs have decided to remain here despite offers by their respective governments for their repatriation.

Every year around 800-1,000 foreigners participate in various social welfare programs across Israel. Out of nearly 500 who were here in the beginning of March, some 200 decided to stay and help.

A volunteer delivers food in Modiin. (Courtesy Barkai)

Many of those who remained had been working with the disabled, the elderly and those with special needs and, due to social distancing restrictions, have been largely confined to their workspaces and living quarters since the crisis began. For many of the volunteers, their most important task has become helping their charges remain in contact with family members who can no longer visit them, setting up video chats, teaching them how to use smartphones and “maximizing communications with their loved ones outside.”

Sacha Miquel, a French volunteer working in a home for the disabled in Jerusalem, said that he had rejected an evacuation offer while noting that “there’s more cases and danger in France.”

“I’m taking what life gives me and I enjoy it,” he said. “If you don’t fear tomorrow you enjoy today.”

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