By Jen Grossman
It wasn’t until I was midway over the Atlantic Ocean, that it hit me that I was really en route to Israel. The planning had been in the works for months, but the reality of it hadn’t seemed tangible until this moment.
I hadn’t been to Israel in 21 years and I had no idea what to expect. I was traveling there in my role as Vice Chair of Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC) to learn about existing volunteer programs in Israel and to help create more opportunities for people who wanted to broaden their travel experience by volunteering.
In just one short week not only did I learn about the incredible landscape of volunteer initiatives in Israel, but through these meetings, site visits and experiences, I altered my perspective and definition of volunteerism. It became crystal clear that volunteering, particularly abroad, was more about connecting to people then doing something for them. That the importance of it wasn’t about the outcome, but was about the process.
My trip started in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, and my experiences and conversations in Ashkelon became the catalyst for opening my eyes to the power of connecting to a community or an individual in order to help that community thrive.
I will never forget my visit to an Ethiopian Youth Outreach Center run by the Ethiopian National Project (ENP). The Center established a community garden to help strengthen the bond between Ethiopian teens and their parents. I toured the garden and listened to participants share how tending to the garden allowed them to rediscover a piece of their identity that they had lost when they left Ethiopia. The pride they took in their crops, in their successes and in the responsibility of their plot was indescribable.
In a gesture to share their culture with me, a group of the mothers invited me to join in their weekly coffee brewing ritual. They prepared cooked corn and bread in the way they would have in Ethiopia and generously asked me to eat it with them. It was at that moment I realized my purpose for being there! It wasn’t a wall they wanted painted or a structured project to do with them. They wanted me to sit and join them – to learn about their culture and their heritage. They wanted me to do something with them, not for them – to share a piece of who they are and take it with me to share with the world.
At that moment I realized there is no one way to volunteer and no cookie cutter definition of how to volunteer. I spent the rest of my week embracing Israel and making people-to-people connections by listening to the stories that were shared with me. Whether it was working with a group of special needs adults, at-risk teens or a women’s empowerment group, there was no shortage of opportunities for me to connect and volunteer in a way that felt both meaningful and authentic.
For more information about volunteer opportunities in Ashkelon or to participate in an exciting local community art initiative to celebrate the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, contact Rebecca Weinstock at [email protected] or 410-843-7566.