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Israel Society & Culture: Voluntarism

by Esther Herlitz and Matti Weill

Almost one third of all Israelis are volunteers. In fact, Israel itself may be regarded to be the result of a very successful voluntary effort. Zionism, the movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, rallied political support and engaged in practical work, entirely on a voluntary basis. Moreover, the Zionist movement created voluntary agencies to serve the individual and the community while still under British rule.

Even during 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule, the small Jewish community in Palestine had its own mutual aid societies as well as links to voluntary agencies throughout the world.

A Jewish Tradition

The scholars who supervised the "Community Chest" in Talmudic times were volunteers and the Tzdaka (charity) tradition, which emerged from the injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself," encourages all people to help each other in times of difficulty or crisis - not just the rich to help the poor. Jewish schools - Cheder, Talmud Torah and Yeshiva - were voluntary institutions, as were the burial societies, bath facilities, brides' aid groups and more. Most philanthropy was handled confidentially and often as matan baseter "secret giving." Wherever possible, Jewish communities worldwide functioned under voluntary self-government.

In the period preceding Israel's Independence in 1948, the Jewish community had its own autonomous institutions. It established its own school system, and to protect Jewish settlements, life and property, the Haganah, a clandestine self defense organization, was established; later the Haganah spearheaded the struggle for independence and ultimately became the basis of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

More than anything, the kibbutz and moshav are based on voluntarism. Both the kibbutz (collective settlement) and the moshav (cooperative village) represented an effort to develop agricultural settlements under very difficult conditions, by voluntary communal effort.

Voluntary organizations were soon founded: Magen David Adom (Red Star of David - equivalent to the Red Cross and Red Crescent) for first aid; Akim, for the mentally handicapped; Ilan for handicapped children; Zehavi, to help large families; the Soldiers Welfare Association; and the Society for the Prevention of Road Accidents. Voluntary women's organizations such as Na'amat (the Histadrut Labor Union's Working and Volunteering Women), Wizo (Women's International Zionist Organization) and Emunah (National Religious Women's Movement), immigrant aid societies and youth movements all played an important role in those early years.

Voluntarism since Independence

Independence in 1948 brought about changes in the attitude towards and the practice of volunteering. Many functions, which had been performed by voluntary organizations, were turned over to the newly formed government. The Haganah and other voluntary fighting units gave way to national military service and many community services, once handled by volunteers, are today managed by government agencies.

Pressure to get things done, and done quickly, was great. Immigrants poured in by the tens of thousands - after all, the "open gate" policy was Israel's raison d'être - and they needed special assistance. Nowhere in the world was so much aid provided by government agencies to newcomers, yet voluntary help was also needed.

In 1971, then Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed a commission to study Israel's disadvantaged children and youth. It recommended a renewed emphasis on voluntary efforts and in 1972 the government-funded "Israel Voluntary Service" was established to encourage and coordinate voluntary activities of independent agencies. Volunteer coordinators were appointed in the Ministries of Education, Social Welfare, Health and Immigrant Absorption as well as in local councils and voluntary organizations.

Today the voluntary effort is coordinated by The National Council for Voluntarism and by local volunteer councils. Funded by the Prime Minister's Office, it is comprised of representatives of voluntary organizations, government ministries and agencies and academic institutions, as well as private citizens. The National Council for Voluntarism is affiliated with international organizations such as the International Association of Volunteer Effort (IAVE), the Association for Voluntary Administration (AVA), the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS), the European Network Agencies for Voluntary Action (VOLUNTEUROPE), and l'Association pour le Volontariat Européen (AVE), and is represented on the governing bodies of many international voluntary organizations.

Voluntary Tasks

Over the years, "one-on-one" programs have been introduced for tutoring in kindergartens, day-care centers and schools. University students also tutor teenagers (receiving a partial stipend) through a service called Perach (flower), becoming role models for disadvantaged children. Specially trained legal advisors to "claimants," have been introduced into the Small Claims Court. Volunteers maintain the Citizens Advice Service (advising on work, taxes, social security and legal matters), hot lines and an advisory service for the aged, for youth and for women.

Immigrant aid associations burgeoned with the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia. The massive wave of immigration in the 1990s of more than one million people from the former Soviet Union, gave rise to volunteering among Israelis who had themselves come from Eastern Europe in the 1970s; their assistance in the absorption of the newcomers is immeasurable.

Israel's security needs called for voluntary efforts. Several thousand men, women and teenagers joined the Civil Guard, which operates under the Israel Police. During Israel's wars, volunteers filled the gap, took the place of enlisted men in the social services, in hospitals and much more.

Volunteers from eight rescue teams arrive promptly on the scenes of emergencies throughout the country. Sometimes working with IDF helicopters and mountain climbing equipment, they often risk their own lives to save the lives of hikers and others who become lost, injured or trapped. Volunteers from these units have also gone abroad to help in diaster areas, e.g., after the earhquakes in Turkey.

A new corps of volunteer environmentalists and nature lovers assist in environmental problems. Ya'al (Helping Hands) groups volunteer in all hospitals, while other groups attend to the needs of the handicapped, the disabled and bereaved families. Prevention of traffic accidents is another important voluntary task. Many international voluntary organizations such as Rotary, Lions, Variety, B'nai B'rith and the Soroptimists also have branches in Israel. A new, country-wide project named with all my heart has been initiated with the blessing of Prime Minister Barak, to assist families with low income. All major voluntary organizations participate in the project by collecting and distributing foodstuffs, household goods, clothing, school accessories and more.

Voluntarism from abroad

Several programs offer volunteers from abroad a chance to serve in Israel, usually on a short-term basis. Many come each summer to help on archeological excavations. Some work on kibbutzim while others help in social services. Some young German volunteers view their service to the elderly and sick as atonement for the war crimes of their country against the Jewish people.


The successful volunteer is a skilled one. Thus, training for volunteers and organizers is in great demand. Training programs are offered by the National Council for Voluntarism as well as by some universities and many colleges and agencies.

Educating the young toward social action starts during their last years of high school. Students are required to engage in volunteer activity several hours a week, helping the elderly, the disadvantaged, new immigrants and the handicapped. (In national emergencies, high school students have assumed important voluntary tasks most successfully.) It is hoped that they will continue to volunteer in some capacity throughout their adult lives.


Although the rewards of volunteering are mostly intangible, awards have been introduced by various agencies. The President of Israel, in conjunction with the National Council for Voluntarism, presents the "President's Volunteer Award" to twelve volunteers each year, both Jews and Arabs.

Volunteers are also insured free of charge under the Work Accident Insurance Bill handled by the National Insurance Institute.

Contemporary Volunteer Force

The composition of the contemporary volunteer force differs from that of previous generations. Since a majority of Israeli women are part of the work force, they do not have much free time to devote to volunteering, but longevity provides many retirees, both men and women, with time to volunteer. There is a substantial number of male volunteers in the religious community and in security related volunteer tasks. As a result, the number of male and female volunteers is almost equal.

Today, 32% of the adult population in Israel are volunteers of one kind or another. Of the total number of volunteers, the younger generation accounts for 25%, while the largest group is made up of those aged 51-64.

Volunteers tend to be alert to needs in the community and thus often become pioneers in new services and lobbyists for new legislation. By definition, volunteers are flexible and can shift their activities as needs change. People volunteer for a variety of reasons: to help; to improve society; to keep busy; and to make friends and meet new people. Research has shown that the problem of rejection of the volunteer by the client, known in other countries, hardly exists in Israel.

Voluntarism is very much a part of the Israeli ethic. It seems that Israelis have taken to heart the question posed by a Jewish sage long ago: "If I look out for myself only, what kind of a person am I?"

*Ms. Herlitz is the founder, and first director, of the Council for Voluntarism in Israel. Ms. Weill is the Council's present director.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry