With a little help from my friends

Going to a charity to gain a small glimpse into what goes on there rather than solely giving money is rapidly gaining in popularity.

Midreshet Harova volunteers clown around (photo credit: COURTESY MIDRESHET HAROVA)
Midreshet Harova volunteers clown around
I was inspired to write this article by my dear friend Chana who lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the rapidly progressive fatal neurological malady perhaps better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
On one of my regular visits to her, she mentioned how much she and her husband could have benefited from having a seminary girl (a girl on an overseas program spending a year in Israel after high school) come and help them once a week. They received a caregiver from National Insurance, but having a girl from seminary who was both an English speaker and energetic and vibrant would have provided some welcome extra support.
This triggered my memory; I recalled my own year here in seminary after high school, when I did volunteer work once a week with an American family with eight children, the youngest of whom, an eightmonth old baby, was disabled. The baby attended the ALYN Hospital, a renowned rehabilitation facility for children with a wide range of congenital and acquired conditions.
I even went to ALYN to learn some occupational therapy in order to help her – an experience that I found both interesting and rewarding.
In addition to working with the baby, I helped out with the twins, often taking them to the park, playing with them and feeding them at home.
In the framework of the volunteer program we were supposed to spend the afternoon with the family, but I developed such a connection with them that I would often stay for extra hours, and they invited me for Shabbat on several occasions. I remained in touch with them for many years after I stopped volunteering and even attended the weddings of some of their children.
While I obviously went there to provide them with much-needed help once a week, I discovered that I also gained much from the experience, including an insight into real life in Israel outside of the four walls of the seminary. Although learning in seminary was an amazing experience, it was somewhat removed from the world outside.
Furthermore, I received immense satisfaction from knowing that I was doing something important and making a difference to the lives of people – even if it was only once a week – when I could provide the children with love and caring and the mother with a few hours of well-deserved relief.
I was curious to see whether such programs still exist, because I believe they provide so much to the seminary girl. In addition to learning all week, the act of helping people with hessed (loving- kindness) is equally, if not more important. In addition, there is also an ever-growing need for support among organizations offering help to different sectors of society. While these organizations obviously need money and donations, in some ways the gift of donating time and help is even more important and often requires a lot more dedication than simply writing a check.
Indeed, these days, going to a charity and helping out for a few hours to gain a small glimpse into what goes on there rather than solely giving money is rapidly gaining in popularity.
I contacted Aviva Berniger at Midreshet Harova, my former seminary, to inquire as to whether the volunteer program was still running.
She assured me that it was still very much an active part of the year program and that every Tuesday afternoon Midreshet Harova sends more than 100 girls to volunteer in places all around Jerusalem. The girls experience a one-on-one connection with Israeli kids at risk, kidsso on. It’s a chance to give back to Israel and make a small but important contribution every week.
Rabbi David Milston, the head of the midrasha (seminary), said, “It is inconceivable that we would learn Torah all week without putting our words into action. Though we are dedicated to a year of intense learning, the hessed that we do on Tuesday afternoons is and always has been an integral part of our program.”
I was delighted to hear that the volunteer program is still running, as it truly exemplifies what our learning Torah was about for me. Even if only for six or seven hours a week, I was able to make a difference to people’s lives, and it was even more meaningful being able to help the same family week in, week out and to develop a connection with them.
To broaden the scope of my research on the topic, I also spoke to Tamir Shefer, a psychologist at Shalvat Chayim, a group home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot, which, according to its website, provides “quality care and therapeutic rehabilitation to 24 young men suffering from various psychiatric and emotional illnesses.”
Shalvat Chayim opened its doors in 1978 in Kfar Chabad with a group residential home for army veterans suffering from chronic mental illnesses. Today, in addition to the Kfar Chabad and Jerusalem residences, it has semi-independent supportive apartments and foster homes throughout the country for those that do not require 24-hour supervision in a home.
Shefer informed me that Shalvat Chayim, always able to make use of more assistance, greatly benefits from having volunteers from among yeshiva students spending a year in Israel after completing high school, as they are of a similar age to the residents. He stated that “the bond that our residents forge with the volunteers over time is invaluable. Their lives are touched deeply. They continue to reminisce warmly of the special times they had together. The volunteer program is an integral part of their healing process. My hope is that the yeshiva and seminary programs understand that their talmidim/ talmidot [male and female students] gain as much and even more than those they have come to help.”
Volunteering provides much to all involved (both the volunteers and the recipients). In an increasingly fast-paced and chaotic world, giving your time and personal attention, even if only for a few hours a week, can really make a difference.
I would encourage yeshivot and seminaries that do not have a volunteer program to consider opening one. A good place to start may be the National Council for Volunteering in Israel, founded in 1972. Its “Volunteerism in Israel” website provides information on how to connect with some of the more than 24,000 active volunteer organizations in Israel. •
For more information: www.ivolunteer.org.il