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Birthright Israel Onward: Creating Meaningful Volunteer Opportunities

March 26th, 2024

While I never lost my connection to the Jewish homeland and have always felt a strong personal connection to Judaism, being back after five years rejuvenated my love for the country itself and the local people. I had felt the urge to go and help; meeting the people I was directly and indirectly helping made it that much more special.”
Mollie Falk, Birthright Israel Onward volunteer 

Following the October 7th attacks on Israel, many young Jewish adults expressed a deep desire to help Israelis in their recovery efforts. To meet this demand, Birthright Israel Onward launched “Taking Action: Volunteer in Israel,” for 18 to 40 year-olds to volunteer in Israel, with a focus on filling major labor gaps in agriculture and food rescue operations. This is critical work given that much of Israel’s southern agricultural region was evacuated on October 7th. Without these volunteers, fields and crops would largely go untended.

This was the first Onward program to be fully integrated since Onward merged with Birthright Israel in 2022. The rapid response to create the program, and its demand, exemplifies the success of the merger: More than 2,800 volunteers are expected by Passover and another 2,000 volunteers this summer. Serving as a purposeful “return to Israel” opportunity, 77 percent of volunteers are Birthright Israel alumni. Some volunteers join a cohort on their own, while others travel as a community through partnerships organized by Federations, the MIT Israel Alliance, Hillels, Hadar, Ramah, and Young Judaea. In many cases, strong, existing partnerships were utilized to build these programs.

I’ve found myself forever changed for the better due to this experience. I tapped into a part of myself that I didn’t know was dormant, waiting patiently to be activated: that philanthropic drive—the pursuit of living a life larger than myself—and my passionate belief in Zionism.
Andrea Rice, Birthright Israel Onward volunteer

Over eight-day or two-week assignments, in addition to work on the ground, volunteers have a meaningful and full experience guided by Birthright Israel educational components. This includes an orientation to prepare volunteers for their placements; Kiddush and Shabbat experiences; sessions where they can discuss and process their experiences, thoughts, and feelings; enrichment activities that provide respite, a sense of community, and mental release for the participants (including a workshop, a city tour, a meal at a restaurant, and other activities that support local businesses and the Israeli economy); a geopolitical lecture led by an expert with an overview and Q&A period; an activity with Israeli Mifgash (encounter) participants and personal conversations with a madrich/a; and a closing session to reflect collectively and individually on their experiences.

Alison Swanbeck, an alumna of Birthright Israel Classic and Onward, and now of the volunteer program, says, “I was looking for a way to help. In the Diaspora, Jews felt helpless watching everything unfold, and when I saw the volunteer opportunity, I felt it was a tangible way to be there and do something helpful.” 

Her story, like many others, demonstrated the power of the interactions between American volunteers and Israelis in Israel today, and the deep sense of mutual responsibility that is embodied by the volunteer program. Alison returned to Israel as a volunteer after developing a deep sense of belonging to Israel and her Jewish identity on the classic 10-day trip and an Onward internship. At her Volunteer placement, Alison spoke with a family member at the farm where she learned about the impact of the war, and how the volunteers’ presence moves Israelis. While volunteering, Alison developed friendships and bonds with her peers, often discussing the responsibility of the IDF to protect Jews in Israel and around the world, and the sense of mutual responsibility to be there for each other. She was joined by Israeli peers on several farms, and for Shabbat meals, allowing them to hear impactful first-hand accounts.

Hear first-hand from Birthright Israel Onward Volunteers:


Visit birthrightisrael.com/volunteer-in-israel for more information. The Jim Joseph Foundation is a supporter of Birthright Israel Onward.