'I want to help re-stabilize the country, its infrastructure'

Birthright invites alumni to volunteer in harvesting abandoned fields

The largest organizer of educational trips to Israel activates 850,000 alumni with a framework to serve citizens of war-torn Israel on the ground — quite literally

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Students at 'The Salad Trail' in southern Israel. (Chabad at University of Central Florida)
Students at 'The Salad Trail' in southern Israel. (Chabad at University of Central Florida)

NEW YORK — After sending 850,000 Diaspora young adults on free educational trips to the Jewish state, Taglit-Birthright Israel has invited alumni to return to Israel in order to harvest crops in the country’s center, the organization announced Monday.

With the infrastructure to register masses of volunteers already in place, Birthright is recruiting alum for kibbutzim and moshavim in need of people to harvest crops and perform other labor. On the heels of the October 7 massacre of 1,400 Israelis by Hamas terrorists, many foreign workers based in the south decided to flee the country, leaving a shortage of labor during key harvest months.

In addition to farm labor, participants in the ten-week “Onward Volunteer Program” will work in donation centers and distribute supplies to civilian evacuees. They will be volunteering side-by-side with Israelis, said Birthright.

“I want to help re-stabilize the country, its infrastructure, and bring a sense of normalcy back,” said Eliana Shatkin, 26, an alum of the internship program Onward Israel.

Six years ago, while in college, Shatkin interned in Tel Aviv for six weeks through Onward Israel. Since that summer, being a part of local and global Jewish communities has been essential for her, said Shatkin.

“It’s been so hard to be in the US listening to everything going on and feel so unhelpful so I jumped on this opportunity,” said Shatkin. “I hope the program will do a lot of good,” she said.

Volunteers take a sunscreen break while picking pomegranates on a farm in Ashkelon, Israel, October 27, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

A first round of volunteer spots will open this month, with more spots expected to open in December. Eligibility is limited to alumni of Birthright or Onward Israel between 18-40.

“This initiative is a lot about mutual responsibility and solidarity of the Jewish people,” said Noa Bauer, vice president of marketing for Birthright.

“There’s nothing that can make us happier in these sad days than seeing our Birthright Israel alumni trying to do whatever they can to help the State of Israel,” Bauer told The Times of Israel.

Participants have to cover their flights and travel insurance, and the program “fully covers” Tel Aviv-area accommodations, all of which have fortified rooms. Transportation will be provided to and from the airport and each day to and from volunteer sites in the country’s center.

Illustrative: Foreign workers work at an onion farm on August 12, 2016. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

In addition to the human toll of the October 7 massacres on southern Israel, numerous fields and greenhouses throughout the region were abandoned. By sending volunteers to care for fields in the country’s center, pressure will be alleviated in the south, where farms have been harvested by Israeli volunteers in recent days.

“I hope to go and connect with like-minded individuals who also want to do their part to help in this tragic time,” said Julia Pratt, 24, an Onward Israel alum from Florida who applied for the  program.

Pratt said she is eager not only to serve but also to bring back what she learns in order to strengthen Jewish community in Florida.

“My passion is creatively connecting younger generations to Judaism and Israel,” Pratt told The Times of Israel.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today without these programs. The opportunity to help my people and my homeland on the ground is an experience I can’t pass up,” Pratt said.

A Birthright Israel group in Israel poses for a group photo. (Alisa Volosnikova)

Based on alumni demand in recent weeks, Birthright expects volunteer spots to fill steadily in the days ahead.

“I have been gratified by the Birthright Israel alumni — ranging from those who came to Israel just a few months ago, all the way back to those who participated in our first year back in 1999 — who have reached out since October 7th to ask how they can help,” said Gidi Mark, Birthright Israel’s chief executive officer.

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