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Tikkun Olam

A customized volunteer experience in Israel

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Frank Jacobson, vice president of marketing and development for Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS), served as a Skilled Volunteer for Israel, assisting a child welfare agency, Bayit L’chol Yeled (BiLY), from mid-August through mid-October 2015. “This exceptional experience both enriched me personally and added a depth to my time in Israel that will be with me for the rest of my life,” he said. Here, he writes about his experience.

Our daughter Aviva was planning a move to Jerusalem in August 2015 with her husband and our 18-month-old grandson for her fourth year (of six) of rabbinical school, where she would be studying at the Conservative yeshiva. My wife, Stephanie, used the opportunity to retire from a career in higher education with plans to join them for the first couple of months, since we understood that this year is very challenging for the rabbinical students and their families. There, Stephanie could take care of our grandson Elijah for part of the day, perhaps cook some dinners for the family and try to make their lives a little easier.

“That’s wonderful,” I thought, “but I am still working full-time” and had no plans to retire for at least a few more years. As vice president of marketing and development for JFCS, I find there is really never a “slow time.” Yet, I didn’t want to be left behind. Would my CEO give me permission for an extended vacation? Leave? Perhaps a sabbatical? When I presented the idea to Dr. Michael Zent, president and CEO of our agency, he was very supportive of the idea and opportunity for me, so with a promise to stay in touch with my office one day a week, utilize vacation and holidays for about half the time and take leave without pay for the remaining part of my leave, I planned to be out of my office from Aug. 7 until Oct. 19.

With my leave worked out, how would I spend my time in Israel? I wanted to do something meaningful and find a way to become a part of the Jerusalem community.

Last May at the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies’ conference in Miami, in conversation with Don Goldman, CEO of the Kansas City Jewish Family Services, I learned about Skilled Volunteers for Israel. At that time, Don was planning his own sabbatical to Israel, which took place this past summer.

After reading through their excellent website (skillvolunteerisrael.org) and filling out an application, I received a request from Marla Gamoran, founder and executive director, for a Skype interview. Within 24 hours of our conversation, Marla set up another interview for me with Avigail Duke, executive director of Bayit L’chol Yeled (A Home for Every Child). Avigail needed help with their fundraising program and I was looking for a way to utilize my professional experience.

Bayit L’chol Yeled (BiLY) is a child welfare agency, established in 1975 as a partner to Israel’s Ministry of Welfare to operate emergency services for children removed from their homes by court order. There are nearly half a million children under the age of 18 in Israel defined as “children at risk” by the Ministry of Welfare. Each year, BiLY provides emergency care and treatment (both residential and outpatient) to prevent and respond to neglect and abuse for 1,700 individuals in families in crisis.

It was a perfect match for me. BiLY’s program was very similar to the work we do at JFCS in Phoenix (though JFCS does not have residential centers). I accepted the opportunity and volunteered to write a fundraising plan for Bayit L’chol Yeled.

Stephanie and I arrived in Israel on Aug. 16. Two days later, I had my first meeting with two staff representatives of Skilled Volunteers for Israel, Terry Hendin, Israel volunteer coordinator, and Judy Gray, Israel operations coordinator. Both women meet with every volunteer to ensure we understand our assignments, expectations and what it is like to work in the Israeli culture. These women are the utmost professionals. Our meeting was very well-organized and personalized. They were very clear about expectations for my participation, provided valuable information about Israeli culture and working with Israelis, and even made sure I knew how to take the bus from our location in Nachlaot to Talpiot where the BiLY offices are located. They walked me over to the offices from the café where we met just so that I was familiar with how to get there on my first day.

Skilled Volunteers for Israel is a model organization for volunteer engagement. They are focused on quality and not quantity. Every potential volunteer is assessed and given a personalized plan. The staff kept in touch with me, particularly in my first few weeks, just to be sure I was doing OK and that my expectations were being met.

A typical Israeli workweek begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday. I was very eager to start my first week in Israel, but Avigail was on vacation through Thursday that week. She agreed to come in on Friday morning and we had our first meeting to set up my goals for the next two months.

I was able to set my own schedule. I planned to work about 10-20 hours a week, which would allow me time to schedule personal and family activities, as well as plan around the High Holiday schedule. I was given an office and a desktop computer to use at the BiLY offices. I approached the volunteer task as if I were a fundraising consultant to Bayit L’chol Yeled. I spent the first three weeks researching the agency’s past fundraising efforts, exploring their donor history, and setting up meetings with other chief development officers and fundraisers who work in Israel. I needed to learn about Israeli philanthropy, particularly what individual support is like.

Since I am not fluent in Hebrew, Marla and her staff also took this into consideration for my placement. I wish I could converse better in Hebrew; it may have made the task easier for me, particularly reviewing the donor records and the websites (though most websites have English translations), but I also mastered the use of Google Translate!

Avigail was great to include me in meetings with two fundraising consultants she uses. They were very helpful and willing to talk at great length about their experience and provided me an excellent perspective on fundraising in Israel. I also had an opportunity to meet one of her donors and take a tour of one of BiLY’s residential facilities, the Succat Shalom Schusterman Center for Children and Families. This was a particularly interesting experience. This donor (like many donors to Israeli nonprofits) lives outside of Israel. In her case, she lives in Belgium, has a sister living in Jerusalem and has been supporting the Schusterman Center for many years. The donor speaks French and a little Hebrew and English. They spoke as much English as they could for my sake, but there was plenty of Hebrew and French, as well.

Avigail and the Schusterman Center director took us on a tour of the facility, where we also had an opportunity to meet many of the children who live there. That was enough to make anyone wish to make a contribution. This unique experience confirmed that donors, no matter where they live, make contributions because they want to make a difference and they like to see how their dollars (or in this case, euros and shekels) are spent and help the agency.

At this writing, I have completed the first draft of the plan for Avigail, which we have reviewed together. She had a few requests and suggestions that I will incorporate into the final report.

As I complete my assignment and look back at the nearly two months I have been in Israel, I feel grateful for the experience. It has given me an opportunity to see a part of Israel and meet people whom I otherwise would never have met. I am that much richer for my experience and am very appreciative to Marla Gamoran for creating Skilled Volunteers for Israel.

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