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Many volunteer opportunities in Israel await for those who want to do more than sit on a tour bus. Archeological digs, helping in hospitals, gleaning (picking veggetables and fruit for the poor) Kibbutzes, or even assisting the military (IDF) are always looking for people who want to turn a vacation into a lifetime memory of helping and making a difference. Many of these will give you lodging and food. All you have to pay for is your plane ticket, which may be tax-deductible. You also get time off for touring and sometimes they give you field trips. Most volunteering opportunities are one, two or three weeks with an option of staying on longer.
VOLUNTEER WITH THE IDF
One unique opportunity is doing volunteer work with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) - the Israeli army! You can do this year-round for 1-, 2- or 3 weeks and nowhere else in the entire world! There is no maximum age, however you must be in satisfactory health and have a personal interview. Soldiers pick will pick you up in a group at the Tel Aviv airport and take you by bus to the army base. Once there, you will be given an army work uniform and assigned a job task. You will sleep in the barracks on base with other volunteers from all over the world; males together - females together, and eat in the kosher mess hall with the regular soldiers. You will go to flag raising each morning and may even get to raise the Israeli flag. Amazingly, your personal expenses while on base are zero - yes, this volunteer program is almost free!
Job assignments vary among the bases. You may pack parachutes, repair the communication systems that the soldiers wear in their tanker helmets, or perform logistical duties. The work is completely safe as a noncombatant volunteer and you will NOT be given a weapon or assigned combat duty! The other volunteers will be from all over the world. You will make long lasting friendships. You will be under a madrichot (commanding officer) who will lead you in enrichment activities each evening. You will learn about Israel from the inside and in a way you never could otherwise. You will learn about Middle-east history, Israeli army heroes, the different branches of military, the economy, problems, limited politics,etc. You definitely will get to know the locals firsthand and even the soldiers.
For many this is life-changing and one of the most fascinating experiences they will ever have. For Americans the program is promoted by Volunteers for Israel (VFI) - go to http://www.vfi-usa.org. In Israel the program is called Sar-El - check it out at http://www.sar-el.org . Also, refer to the tripadvisor article - Volunteer with the IDF (Army).
P. S. You don't have to know Hebrew, and perhaps a quarter or more volunteers are not Jewish - they just love Israel. Make a difference! Come home with some unmatched stories to tell your jealous friends and relatives.
If you are into ecological volunteering options check out GoEco Israel. You can volunteer at desert wildlife reserves, coral reef conservation on the Red Sea in Eilat, learn practical ecology on a kibbutz, and work at eco-friendly hostels like the Mountain Eco Lodge or the famous Abraham Hostel in Jeruislam. They also organize humanitarian programs like the Tel Aviv Women's Shleter and a multi-cultural sumemr camp for kids. Tons of options! Programs can be found at www.goeco.org/israel. There is also a blog that volunteers post their experiences and picture available at http://bit.ly/vol-blog
Other volunteer and Israel Program options at www.livnot.com. Livnot 21 - 30 year old participants can come as volunteers for one-week Northern Exposure programs, 4-week Galilee Fellowship programs. These programs include hiking and seminars as part of the volunteer experience. Volunteers of all ages can also come for any amount of time as individual volunteers to work in the city's educational framework, old age home, painting apartments of elderly and disabled residents and much more.
Additionally, Ruach Tova (www.ruachtova.org) provides a free matching service for individuals who want to volunteer and those in the Israeli community who seek volunteers. Volunteers of all ages and skills can customize their project according to interests, duration and location.