When Yoav Medalia answers a phone call in his office at the dental clinic which he has managed for the last 11 years at Yad Sarah, he speaks rapidly, clearly and without hesitation. He is on top of the details, his answers are short and sharp, and his tone is assured. “I do my work here in the same way I did it when I was working,” says the 89-year-old. “I am a volunteer, but in fact for me it’s as serious and demanding as when I was working. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

Medalia emphasizes the need to have a daily schedule once one is retired. “We need to go on with something that occupies our days, otherwise the slippery slope to frustration, eventually depression, is not far away.”

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The reasons people volunteer may vary, but once thing is certain: Jerusalem has the highest number of volunteers in the country (40,000 registered) from all areas, ages, education and ethnic origins.

In June 2007, Yad Sarah released the results of a survey on patterns of volunteerism in the country. The results revealed that 77 percent of Israelis considered volunteers to be “sensitive human beings,” while 1.5% considered them “pushovers.” According to another survey in 2008, some 17% of the people between 26 and 30 volunteer, the same percentage as those aged 51-60. From age 61 and on, the percentage is 25%.

According to the same survey, more traditional and secular Jews volunteer (respectively, 33% and 49%) than haredim (3%). However, according to the head of the National Council of Volunteer Organizations, Avraham Hoffman, many haredim volunteer within their communities or the charitable organizations related to the haredi society and thus do not factor into the official figures. Veteran Israelis volunteer much more than new olim (94% versus 6%), and 17% of those who earn less than the average wage still find the time and energy to volunteer, while among residents who earn salaries far above the average income, 35% do volunteer work. (Source: Surveys officially published by the National Council of Volunteer Organizations.)

Over the past three years, Hoffman has been personally responsible for the enrolment of 1,526 new volunteers, working in 320 different groups. “Once a Jerusalemite is engaged in some form of volunteering,” he says, “he or she will keep on doing it for a long period. But in time of crisis, groups will come and offer their help on specific issues.”

The municipality has a special unit that offers training and counseling and maintains close contact with the volunteers once they find a task. “We welcome the volunteers, inform them about the various programs and needs, connect them with the organizations, keep in touch with them on a regular basis and, of course, care for them and reward them from time to time. Nothing is to be taken for granted, and the human touch is very important,” says Hadassah Haviv-Nechushtan, the head of the municipal service.

NOT ALL the volunteers are retired. Many are of working age, and some are in their teens. In 2008, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 9,300 people volunteered for the IDF and other emergency programs, 5,600 in various community issues, about 5,500 on health needs, 3,000 for disabled people, 2,600 in soup kitchens, 1,200 for different families and youth needs and 1,100 for the elderly. Some 800 of the city’s residents volunteered in educational programs. The personal involvement program for youth in high school includes all kinds of programs, from weekly visits to seniors to helping the professional team at the Biblical Zoo (one of the most popular tasks). These are short-term programs (during one school year), but quite often, according to the volunteering unit at city hall, that first year sows the seeds for them to resume volunteering at a later date. According to the unit’s reports, in some schools the compulsory year has been extended to a second year, and many of the students are more than willing to add supplementary hours during the program.

“In our family, it’s like serving in an elite unit – we all volunteer, kids and adults. Nobody dares to break this tradition,” remarks Tziona Avrahami, a former kindergarten teaching assistant. Since her retirement five years ago, she volunteers in seniors’ homes and at a kindergarten for disabled children, devoting four days of working four hours every week. “In fact, I am much busier than when I was working,” says Avrahami, “but now I feel much better and have much more energy. Not that I didn’t like my job, but this is different. Doing something of your own free will and not because it’s your way to make a living gives you a totally different and sweet feeling.”

In other cases, it is the need to make a change in one’s daily life that triggers the volunteering activity. “I worked hard all my life,” says 80-year-old Rachel Shimony, “and it always gave me great satisfaction, but nothing compares to the feeling of giving without being obliged to, out of my own free will and for my own pleasure.” After many years of working in the fashion world, Shimony rediscovered the hobby of her youth – painting. So she decided to work with the disabled in an old-age home. For the past 10 years she has been volunteering there three days a week, in addition to volunteer work she does through the National Insurance Institute programs for the elderly.

“The council provides answers for the volunteer. Any questions, problems or indecision – we are here,” says Hoffman.

AT YAD Sarah, volunteers fill a large variety of positions. “We receive all the equipment needed for the sick and the disabled, and we fix it before lending it to the public. There is nothing we cannot adapt to specific needs – the sides, the angles, the position, it’s all work based on the personal needs, done with devotion and goodwill,” explains Shimon Avraham, the director of the workshop at Yad Sarah. Avraham recalls  one of his most faithful volunteers, who died recently. “Aharon Levy was a cantor at his synagogue on Rehov David Yellin, a quiet and shy man, but we didn’t realize what a great man he was. His concern for public funds was something you can hardly imagine, especially in these times. Rather than throw it away, he would clean a rusty screw, spend time on it just to prevent what was, in his eyes, a waste of money. He was here with us 15 years, never missed a shift, never wasted a minute, totally devoted to the people’s needs. I always thought that Levy’s spirit was a great opportunity for all of us, and his memory is a blessing. I would say that people like him illustrate perhaps the best way that a volunteer contributes to his environment. First and foremost, someone who genuinely cares about the other, who is devoted and committed.”

Levy died on the eve of last Rosh Hashana at the age of 79. For his companions at the workshop, says Avraham, “He gave us all a lesson in modesty. Think about it – someone who came in for 15 years, five days a week, every day for at least five hours. He hardly took the time for a snack break. Once you’ve had a role model like that, you’re not the same person anymore. Neither am I.”

Yoram Goldflam, a retired financier in his early sixties, says he was used to  finding solutions to problems in his profession as director of a community center and later as administrative and financial director in one of the ORT schools. “My main experience is in budgets, finance, human resources. On the day I retired, I knew that my next step would be to become a volunteer somewhere. Naturally, I looked for something that would suit my skills. I heard about the volunteer service at the municipality and inquired about their offers. The citizens’ rights bureau seemed to be the perfect fit, and here I am, already close to five years on a steady basis,” he says. 

“When you’re young, you’re busy creating your life. You study, you marry, you raise children. You focus on your own life,” continues Goldflam. “But once it’s behind you and you’re settled, with no particular problems or needs, that’s the moment you begin to think about what’s surrounding you, your community, the society in which you live. You realize it’s time to give to those who didn’t make it as well as you. You find out that there is something you can still do and make a difference.”

Goldflam believes that the capacity of giving is directly connected to the person’s achievement and own capabilities. “It’s connected to the socioeconomic level, to the cultural background. I don’t think that people who need help themselves could find the time and the freedom of mind to think about others. And in any case, it would probably be limited help.”

Not all agree with this assumption. “It’s first and foremost an issue of habit. If from childhood you are used to giving, to thinking about others, then you will continue doing it, whether you are settled or not,” says Hoffman. “The fact is that we see it here at the council and the various associations and organization that work with us. Most of the volunteers are young people. We also know about some schools, and every year we hear about new schools joining where the program, originally of one year, continues an additional year or start much earlier. Or youth who finish high school and have about five months before they join the army. Instead of working, they decide to volunteer for that period.”

LIAT IS an 18-year-old graduate of a local high school. She, together with 10 of her friends, has decided to devote one year to national service before enlisting in the army. This means that the boys (four out of the group) will serve one additional year on top of the three compulsory years of duty. Liat doesn’t feel she is doing something extraordinary. “Both my brother and my sister did the same before me,” she explains. “My mother is a volunteer on the neighborhood council and my grandmother, aged 76, is a volunteer at Yad Sarah. So in my family, I am certainly not special,” she says.

“All the figures we have, which are impressive anyway, do not include the people who volunteer within their communities or synagogues. In many of them you have a hot line in case of a death in the community or a network to visit sick people, transportation for the disabled and so on, and we’re talking about thousands of people who are not registered anywhere but still totally fit the profile of volunteers,” adds Hoffman.

Itzik Mizrahi has been a police officer for 33 years. On the day he retired, he showed up at Yad Sarah. Since then, 14 years later, he is still there in charge of the whole fleet of vehicles of the largest non-profit organization in the city (and perhaps in the country). “I could go and relax once I retired,” he says, “but then what? How long can a person go to meet friends, walk around in the streets, sit in a coffee house?  After a while I guess I would have felt so useless, I didn’t want to reach that. I didn’t want to experience that emptiness. I am much happier here. I do something important, I help, I make a difference.”

Mizrahi goes in five days a week for five hours, sometimes longer. He says that many of his friends and former colleagues envy him.

“There are people for whom it is a way of life,” says Haviv-Nechushtan. Others volunteer to avoid long and empty days, for social reasons, out of tradition. The reasons may vary, but the bottom line is the same: In most cases, the volunteers come to give and, in the end, get much more.

Says Goldflam, “When I come back home, my wife always asks me the same question: ‘Nu, Yoram, who did you help today?’ And that’s exactly the point. I have an opportunity to help people who otherwise would be deprived of their rights, who wouldn’t know what to do or where to go when they have a problem with the bureaucracy – and I can help. I write a letter to an employer or phone him and tell him he’s breaking the employment laws. The best moment is when that employee calls me to tell me she has been duly paid after my intervention. Isn’t that great?”
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