By Yad Sarah Intern Avi Eisenman
"Volunteering at Yad Sarah really strengthens my Jewish pride. It makes me feel closer to the Jews here, and it makes me really happy," says Jason Berkowitz of Houston, Texas. After spending three weeks touring and learning about Israel on the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization's summer program, Passport to Israel, Jason and eight of his peers decided to give back, beginning a week of community service with a stint at Yad Sarah.
Most of the participants, from ages 16 to 22, had never been to Israel before, and all were thoroughly enjoying their trip. For some, watching the sun rise from atop Masada was the highlight of their travels, and for others it was floating in the Dead Sea. Everyone agreed that Shabbat at the Western Wall was particularly inspiring.
Upon arrival at Yad Sarah's Jerusalem headquarters, the teens split among different stations with tasks including scrapping unusable wheelchairs for their parts, sorting old wheelchair parts for reuse, and cleaning recently constructed wheelchairs. Since Yad Sarah's largest and most important service is its lending of wheelchairs and other medical equipment to the needy, the BBYO delegation really made a difference by contributing to that crucial effort.
Many of the participants felt their volunteering was particularly meaningful coming on the heels of a trip around Israel. After seeing so much, the opportunity to assist Israeli society gave them a whole new perspective on the country. "This definitely affects my sense of Jewish identity," says Sam Wilson, 16, of Houston, Texas. "Back at home there's nothing like Yad Sarah. Here I have the chance to help Jews in Israel." Michael Himelstein, 18, who volunteers back home at the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, concurred. "Helping here makes me feel closer to my Judaism and to the Jewish people in Israel." Daniel Cohodes, from Houston, also enjoyed the chance to give back to the Jewish state. "I'm here to help Jews," he said, as he toiled to remove a tight screw from the wheelchair he was dismantling.
As they worked, the volunteers displayed a visible sense of enthusiasm. Like Michael, many were not new to the idea of lending a hand and do so in their home communities. Laurie Bertanthal, 22, hailing from Pittsburgh, gives of her time participating in local food drives. "Just thinking about helping out the elderly population is beneficial to my Jewish identity," she said, referring to her work for Yad Sarah. Lindsey Phillips, 16, helps out at her Synagogue in Boca Raton where she works as a camp counselor and sets up the weekly Kiddush. This was Lindsey's second visit to Yad Sarah. "The last time I was here, I helped make walkers," Lindsey said. "I'm here to help the Jewish community, and this is for a really great cause."
Another opportunity for some of the BBYOers was the chance to work alongside Israeli teenagers also spending part of their summer vacation volunteering at Yad Sarah. Shalom Mizrahi and Matan Bareket, both age 15, cleaned wheelchairs with some of the BBYO participants. The Jerusalem teens were very impressed with their American counterparts' sense of responsibility. "They care about Israel, they came to help just like we did," said Shalom. On the lighter side, both groups had a good time interacting with one another. "They're very nice kids," said Matan, "and I even had a chance to improve my English."