I have been traveling to Israel almost yearly for more than twenty years to visit family and friends and take classes at the Conservative Yeshiva, but it was only when I began to volunteer with Skilled Volunteers, several years ago, that I felt I was making a unique contribution to the land and the people, and not just a financial donation.
For the past few years, I have volunteered at different sites, depending on my schedule and what was needed. One summer I tutored English to Ethopian and Russian immigrant teenagers at Merkaz Klass, a community center in a low-income neighborhood. For two summers, I volunteered at the English-speakers group at Melabev, an organization that provides social interaction, activities and meals for people with memory impairments. This past summer, I volunteered with the English speakers at ENOSH, a social club for people with mental health issues.
I suspect that they may have had trouble finding a volunteer for ENOSH because unlike the populations served by Melabev or Merkaz Klass (the elderly or children) the people that come to ENOSH — people with “mental health issues” — is a population about whom many of us may have stereotypes. We may be thinking: who are these people — and what can I do to help them? But when I raised this concern with Terry, she said, all that was needed was someone willing to interact and socialize with ENOSH club members — and Terry knows that shmoozing is my specialty.
Like so many who choose to volunteer, my goal always is to “help”. But, as is so often the case, I know that I gained more than I gave. Let me give you just a few examples from my time at ENOSH.
One of the daily activities at ENOSH is shopping for and preparing the snack or meal that the club members eat. The staff person asked me if I would be in charge of that activity. “Sure!” I said, “But I don’t know how to cook at all (my husband does all the cooking) and even though I speak Hebrew I rarely shop for food in Israel (as we eat most of our meals with friends and family).” Well, the club members thought this was a hoot! One of them took me under her wing and gave me a shopping tutorial at the local makolet (store), introducing me to the staff there. And then, when we returned, she gave me a superb cooking lesson. I learned how to make pasta al dente and under her supervision, chopped all the vegetables for the Israeli salad. The pasta and salad we prepared were actually quite tasty — and I and my family and friends were amazed to know that I had actually helped cook anything.
Another ENOSH activity is taking field-trips. The club members together decide where they want to go and research the cost, how they will get there, etc. One of the destinations that was chosen was the museum at the Wall. Several of the residents wanted to go — but were afraid to travel there (because of their anxiety about traveling to unfamiliar places). It was moving to see how the other club members made arrangements to meet them and travel with them. And then, when we arrived at the Wall, waiting for our tour to start, one of the members said he wanted to put a note in the Wall. We said there was time before the tour and he did so. When he returned, he said to all of us, “I always do that, even though I don’t believe in God.” Another club member then said, “Don’t say that! If there’s no God, then we’re all alone here!” From that there started a lively and powerful conversation about God and God’s role in Jewish history and what it means to be part of the Jewish people, made even more meaningful perhaps because we were sitting in the plaza in front of the Wall.
Finally, two of the club members had artwork of theirs exhibited in an art exhibit in Jerusalem. They invited me to attend the opening. Although it was an exhibit of art by people with mental health disabilities, there was nothing about the art that indicated it was by “people with disabilities”. In fact, at the exhibit, one of the club members told me that he sells his photographs in galleries and on-line. One of the other artists — not from the ENOSH English-speakers club but from another group — was standing in front of his work and saying over and over, in Hebrew, “I’m here! I’m here!” I thought it was an apt comment for what needed to be said by and on behalf of this population: We’re here.
I can’t say enough about the commitment and dedication of the staff at each of the agencies where I have volunteered. It is matched only by the knowledge, talent and energy of the Skilled Volunteers staff, Terry and Marla, who work with the volunteers to find the sites, make the “match” and then help the volunteers deal with any issues that may arise — whether it is navigating the bus system or the cultural differences that exist.
I’m going to be in Jerusalem again this summer — and I already notified Terry to sign me up!