On Carol Stein’s second trip to Israel, she helped dig on an archaeological site from morning until night near a kibbutz on the Jordanian border.
“Every minute of it is just a thrill. You have to know how that feels to appreciate it,” said Stein, who works as the Philadelphia regional co-manager for Volunteers For Israel (VFI). “But for someone who wasn’t allowed to get her hands dirty as she grew up — don’t touch anything dirty; that’s for guys — to be able to get down into a pit with dirt and just love every minute, it’s a thrill.”
That was her first experience with VFI, a program that organizes volunteers from all over the world.
Now, VFI sends volunteers to military bases, where they assist with tasks such as folding uniforms, cleaning weapons and packaging medical supplies. VFI has sent volunteers for 36 years, and this April the organization will start a new program, VFI Plus Advanced.
The volunteers, who differ in age and religion, do not learn what or where their assignment is until they arrive, though the VFI groups do stick together. The work they do cuts down on the soldiers’ workloads so they often can return home in time for dinner.
VFI Plus, which began three years ago, offers a touring component to the trip, in addition to volunteering.
While VFI Plus takes travelers to the more usual tourist destinations, such as Masada and the Golan Heights, VFI Plus Advanced is tailored to volunteers who are more familiar with the country and want to see places they’ve never been to before, such as the Negev Crater and Akko. VFI Program Manager Steve Plotkin said eight people have already signed up for the VFI Plus Advanced program.
The first time Stein went to Israel, she went reluctantly on a tour with her husband, mother and her mother’s friend in 1991. At the time, she did not want to spend her vacation in Israel. But everything changed when she got there.
“I was just literally hit by what I heard and saw and felt, and when I came home, I felt like I had to go back as soon as possible, but I didn’t want to be a tourist,” she said. “I wanted to see Israel at a different level and from a different perspective.”
She came across a VFI advertisement in the Jewish Exponent and returned to Israel in a different capacity than before, helping dig. She went back to Israel with VFI another four times.
“This program is for anyone seeking a sweat-equity stake in the security of Israel,” Plotkin said.
While weekdays on the VFI program are packed with helping out on military bases, volunteers have free time on the weekends to explore the country. But volunteers who have less experience with foreign traveling had some difficulty getting around, Plotkin said.
This led VFI to decide to create the VFI Plus program, which combines the program’s nine days of volunteering with eight days of touring with a professional Israeli guide, private bus and driver.
“The beauty of this program is that it lets people do their volunteer service, if they’re inclined to do that, and get the benefit of all this touring,” Plotkin said.
Some volunteers expressed that they had already gone to many of the places the VFI Plus tour took them to, which led to the creation of the VFI Plus Advanced program as well.
“We basically tour pretty intensively,” Plotkin said. “It’s not one of these ‘go to the beach and rest on the sand’ kind of things. We’re moving all the time.”
Larry Herscher, an attorney in Miami who went on the VFI Plus program last October, said the trip intrigued him as soon as he found it online. His wife, Ilene, who also works as an attorney, was hesitant to go at first, though Larry eventually convinced her.
“The touring is really what made us go,” he said.
When the two arrived, they learned they would be stationed at a medical base. Ilene Herscher worked sterilizing and packaging medical supplies, while Larry Herscher did more heavy lifting.
In the end, Ilene Herscher said she liked the trip. In particular, the other volunteers made the trip enjoyable for her.
“They do tell you the conditions are spartan [on the military bases],” Larry Herscher said. “This trip is not for everybody. You’re warned about it, and they were right. It was exactly as described, but you feel like you’re doing rewarding work, so you don’t mind”.
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