Volunteers Find Israel Means Back to Base-ics



Jacob Couzens narrowed it down to two options this summer: The 17-year-old could find a job at a place like Starbucks, work indoors in the air-conditioning and possibly earn enough money to afford a car, or he could volunteer at an army base, earn no money, sleep in barracks and spend his days doing manual labor.

So much for Starbucks — this kid's planning to head for Israel.

Couzens, a Yardley native and Stern Hebrew High School junior, has applied for Volunteers for Israel, a program that places participants on Israeli army bases and in nursing homes for one to three weeks. Volunteers pay their application fee, airfare and incidental expenses, including weekend lodging away from the base.

Volunteers for Israel has had a strong presence in Philadelphia since its inception in 1982 during the first Lebanon war, drawing around 100 people per year from the region (which includes Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia) to serve in the Jewish state. But whereas in the past, the volunteers have been a decidedly older crowd — generally those over age 50, who were retired, empty-nesters or just had the time to spare — these days, a much younger contingent is applying as well.

"I've had a few summers where I just sit on my butt, and I don't really do anything," admitted Couzens, adding that he was looking for something more than the touristy stuff he did during a previous visit.

Couzens is an example of the kind of person the program is trying to attract these days: Jewishly committed, ready for hard work — and young. Although there is an application and interview process, the group will accept anyone age 15 and up (though those under 17 must be accompanied by a parent) all the way up to octogenarians, according to Carol Stein, the group's co-director of the region.

Traditionally, she said, the 50-plus people were folks who wanted to give back something to Israel while getting an unusual experience in the process.

But a few things happened to change the dynamic.

First, the organization began offering shorter programs — one- and two-week stints, rather than the usual three weeks. Moreover, the success of the now decade-old Birthright Israel program has helped the group as well; for about $50, said Stein, Birthright participants can add a week or two on to their 10-day trip to volunteer on a base.

'It's Viral' 
According to co-director Bev Cohen, about 25 percent of area participants in 2009 were under the age of 35, a slight increase over 2008.

Groups like Birthright and Hillel help with recruiting, and a new Web site is in the works, although Stein said that much of the organization's draw comes from word of mouth.

"It's viral — one thing begets another," she said.

Annually, about 600 people from the United States join the program, with other major contingents coming from Canada, France, Scandinavia and Russia.

Cohen explained that over the years, during times of crisis in the Jewish state — for example, during the second intifada between 2000-04, the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and, most recently, the Gaza incursion in January 2009 — representation from the program has stayed strong nationally.

Stein said that while they've never had to turn anyone away because of demand, they do reject those who plan to visit the Jewish state for the purposes of proselytizing and conversion that may come out as part of the interview process.

Additionally, individuals with stamps in their passports from Arab countries other than Jordan or Egypt, which have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, are turned away.

Such was the case with Ethan Simon, a Jewish student at Allentown's Muhlenberg College, who spent the fall semester studying in Oman.

After first being accepted into the program by local coordinators, the North Wales native was later rejected by program officials in Israel because of the Omani visa.

"I registered, I paid, I got my T-shirt — everything," said Simon, who expressed some bitterness over the experience. "Israel, with its wonderful Law of Return, wouldn't let me volunteer."

The group's national president, Vade Bolton of Reston, Va., said that although Simon had been honest with local officials, he was turned away because of a policy by Sar-El — the IDF head office in Israel that administers the program.

Israel's deputy consul general in Philadelphia, Raslan Abu Rukun, said that those looking to go onto any secured places, like IDF bases, need security clearance — something very difficult to get when an individual has spent time in countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations.

'Built Up the Whole Chapter' 
Though Stein and Cohen are running the show these days, the group's original force in Philadelphia was Jeanne Schachter, who died March 13 at age 81.

A former math teacher at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, she got involved with the organization early on in 1982 and was instrumental in pushing it here.

"She built up the whole chapter to the point where Philadelphia is one of the largest centers of volunteers from the United States," explained Stein. "Our area's really primary, and I think in part it's due to the number of Jewish people available to go, but it's absolutely due to Jeanne's influence."

Schachter first interviewed Stein about going on one of the volunteer trips back in 1992, and Stein said that she impressed upon her that it wasn't going to be like a visit to a four-star hotel.

True to Schachter's word, Stein's first day on a base found her lying on her back on a dolly beneath a bus, holding a wrench for someone repairing a tailpipe.

"For me, it was like a dream," said Stein.

A similar sentiment came from Moishe and Joyce Shor of Telford, in northern Montgomery County.

The pair, 74 and 67, respectively, first visited the Jewish state in 1994, said Moishe, "but I felt like a tourist — because I was!"

After returning home, he began investigating more meaningful ways to experience the country.

In 2002, he volunteered at his first army post, where he found himself sorting uniforms to be washed and mended before being redistributed to soldiers.

Back in Telford, he said that his wife accused him of having too much fun without her, and threatened to follow him along on his next trip.

The couple has gone on five stints together since then.


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