You Should Know: Alison Swanbeck

Alison Swanbeck. Courtesy of Alison Swanbeck

Ellen Braunstein

Following the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7, Alison Swanbeck of Center City took action, visiting Israel for two weeks to pick citrus fruits and tend vegetables, thus helping to alleviate a shortage of agricultural workers.

The 27-year-old attended a Birthright trip for volunteers from Dec. 4-19. It’s one of three volunteer journeys she has made to Israel motivated by her belief that Diaspora Jews should help Israelis.

Birthright Israel Onward has brought more than 4,000 Jews to Israel to fill agricultural and packing jobs in November and December.

Like Swanbeck, they are alumni of Birthright, which offers free educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. Swanbeck began her Birthright journey in 2017.

“When the war broke out, there was a sense of hopelessness for Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel,” Swanbeck said. “We were seeing what was happening and wanted to help. I knew that I wanted to do something tangible that would support Israel.”

Swanbeck worked on a farm in Emek Hefer. Meeting the owner opened her eyes to how devastating the war has been. The farmer told her that she lost two friends at the Nova Music Festival, where armed Hamas fighters crossed over the nearby Gaza border and killed or kidnapped 400 civilians and wounded many more.

The Birthright Israel Onward crew. Courtesy of Alison Swanbeck

Israeli workers have been called into reserve duty and Palestinian workers have lost their visas because of the war.

“They were an essential part of the workforce,” Swanbeck said. “Israel needs people to come and fill that gap.”

Swanbeck worked five hours a day and bonded with fellow volunteers and Israelis during time off.

Swanbeck, who works in federal immigration services, also volunteered in Israel with Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency response system, and Terem, which is a network of emergency rooms.

She spent the summer of 2017 in Israel after her Birthright trip working in Be’er Sheva. At a Terem clinic, she ran medical tests and took patient histories. She also worked at clinics around Israel helping Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.

In a 2018 trip to Israel, she learned life support and basic medical communication in Hebrew. Then she volunteered on ambulances for Magen David Adom.

For Swanbeck, Israel is an essential part of her Judaism.

“I love spending time there because there is no other place like it in the world and there is a strong feeling of togetherness,” she said. ‘In the Diaspora, it is easy to feel isolated as such a small minority of people, but Israel brings home this feeling of community. I wanted a way to contribute and give back to the country.”

Swanbeck is originally from Chester, New Jersey. She and her sister, Amie Swanbeck, were adopted as infants from the Hunan province of China. Her father, a retired entrepreneur and writer, and her mother, a retiree who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, raised their daughters in the Reform movement. Both attended Hebrew school and became a bat mitzvah.

Swanbeck attended Emory University, where she majored in anthropology and human biology and was accepted to the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship there. The program introduces students to classic Jewish philosophy and offers a deep understanding of Jewish values.

“It gave me an educational foundation for my Judaism,” Swanbeck said. “I enjoyed meeting people from all levels of observance.”

Alison Swanbeck (right) in an Israeli orchard. Courtesy of Alison Swanbeck

Aside from her sister, she has not met another Asian-American Jew, specifically Chinese. People are surprised when they find out she is Jewish.

“Because we don’t present as Jewish, walking down the street, you wouldn’t expect it,” Swanbeck said. “We don’t look Jewish. So, it’s something that we’ve grown up with. I think my religion is so cool because Judaism is unique and special. It’s like an ethno-religious kind of concept,” referring to people who are unified by a common religious and ethnic background.

Swanbeck has no concrete plans to return to Israel but expects that she will with the right opportunity.

“Of the 40 volunteers that went to Israel in December with me, all of us plan to return to Israel in the future,” she said. “Coming out of the trip, I think we all realized how important it was to go and how strong the bond was to Israel, even for Diaspora Jews. I’m always looking for new ways to go back and help.”

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.


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