The media tends to focus on the ugly side of Israeli society: corruption, crime, violence, maltreatment of women and the elderly, and the unrestrained desire for profit. But Israeli society also has a beautiful side.
One of the most prominent expressions of this side is the volunteerism of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. This type of activity is hardly covered by the media, but it makes up an important part of Israeli society. Without it, important links in Israeli society wouldn’t be able to function normally and to fulfill their duties.
Volunteer activity in Israel is organized by a number of central bodies in Israel:
Volunteer organizations – these were mostly established by private citizens trying to provide an answer to personal and social problems such as: welfare, education, health, religion, culture, leisure and social change. Many of these organizations employ paid workers, but a significant part of their activities are carried out by volunteers. At the end of 2008, there were about 24,000 active volunteer organizations. The number of new volunteer organizations has increased over the past few years, mostly those organizations dedicated to education and welfare.
The government and local authorities – a number of government offices and local authorities manage units to encourage volunteer activities, both within the framework of the government offices and within volunteer organizations.
Businesses – Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of businesses (such as industrial factories, banks, and high tech companies) which encourage volunteer work among their employees and help volunteer organizations.
Personal volunteering – In addition to organized volunteerism, there is personal volunteerism. The individual provides the impetus for volunteering, and dedicates themself on a personal level to volunteerism.
Volunteerism is expressed in a number of practical ways, including developing new services, direct assistance to the needy, assistance to organizations, and activism towards social change.
Developing new services – Most of the social services provided by government offices and local authorities were originally developed by volunteers within the framework of volunteer organizations. Examples include: community health services, hospitals, assistance programs for students, education programs for children and youth, services for the retarded and handicapped, daycare centers for children, dormitories for children and youth, elderly care centers, home assistance programs for the elderly, and shelters for battered or sexually abused women. Even today, most of these services are provided by volunteer organizations, but are funded primarily by the government. Most of these services are provided by salaried employees, but most of the organizations have volunteers as well.
Direct assistance to the needy – Examples include accompanying the sick to medical treatments, helping elderly individuals without family, providing material and emotional support to individuals and families in need, providing assistance to students with learning problems, providing assistance to new immigrants, hosting lone soldiers, providing assistance to the handicapped, helping prepare and serve meals in soup kitchens, and helping victims of sexual assault and the homeless. These activities have been widespread for many years, but recently volunteer activities have expanded to other areas including: defending worker rights in the workplace, personal assistance to the unemployed, “adoption” of needy families by wealthy families, help to refugees, and assistance to whistleblowers in the workplace.
Assistance to organizations – Volunteers help organizations which provide services. For example, many volunteers help the police in the framework of the traffic police and civil protection programs. Others help in community health clinics by providing information and guidance to the public.
Activism towards social change – Not only do volunteers help by developing and providing direct services to the needy, many help indirectly, by trying to change the government’s and local authorities’ policies and behaviors. This is accomplished by: applying pressure, issuing warnings regarding shortcomings, and raising programs and proposals that will bring about change. These activities include: identifying environmental hazards and bringing them to the attention of the relevant authorities, identifying and reporting organizational corruption, active participation in public protests in favor of changes in policy, activities in community committees intended to improve the quality of life, and “quality control” regarding the cost and quality of services and products supplied by various organizations.
Volunteers actively involved in the activities described above come from different age groups, but the pensioners and youth are especially prominent. This description of volunteer activites reflects the importance of volunteerism and its great contribution to forming a better and more humane society. Over the past year, this was evident during the Second Lebanon War, when volunteer organizations and volunteers played a central role in assisting residents of the North.
Volunteering doesn’t contribute only to society but also to the volunteers themselves, who draw great satisfaction from their social involvement, involvement which gives the volunteers’ lives content and meaning.Cultivating and strengthening volunteerism is not dependent only on volunteers and volunteer organizations, but also on the willingness of the government and local authorities to recognized the importance of volunteerism, and to support organizations such as the National Council For Volunteerism in Israel, which promotes volunteerism.
Prof. Yosef Katan is a member of the management of the National Council for Volunteerism in Israel.
Translated from Hebrew by Tamar Berman