For Kat Shambaugh, a 25-year-old data processing consultant in Atlanta who visited Israel with Birthright a year and a half ago, the desire to go back had been in her mind for some time. Then she heard that Birthright was sponsoring volunteers for two-week visits to the country.
“I was actually working with friends to see if we could plan something for this upcoming summer. And then I heard that Birthright was looking for volunteers and I was like, oh, an opportunity to go back to Israel. I’m going to hop on it.”
By Nov. 20, she was on a plane bound for Tel Aviv to join one of the first groups of volunteers that Birthright had organized to get the late fall harvest in. The group she joined were mostly Americans from big cities plus a few from Canada, a French woman, and another from London. They commuted back and forth each day from where they were staying in Tel Aviv to a farm in Central Israel, where they picked strawberries, peppers, and cucumbers. Everywhere she went Shambaugh found Israelis so impressed by her willingness to help them out in a time of need.
“They were all very appreciative of the fact that we would take time out of our lives and come all the way to Israel in the middle of a war and help them. I always was having to remind myself that this is not a vacation per se. Like there’s a war going on in the background. But it was worth the possible danger for me at least, to be able to serve and help the people there.”
So far, more than 4,000 graduates of the Birthright program have volunteered for the trip, willing to pay their way to Israel to provide desperately needed help on farms and kibbutzim across the country that has lost much of its work force. They are either in the IDF, or in the case of foreign contract workers, they have gone home.
It is what the director general of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry has called the worst labor shortage in Israel’s history. Last month, the ministry estimated that the country needs 40,000 farm laborers to make up for the loss of foreign workers, mostly from Thailand, who left on flights back to Asia paid for by the Thai government. Another 10,000 to 20,000 Palestinian farm workers who live in the West Bank have been blocked from entering the country. The Agriculture Ministry says that the primary need is working hands that can help Israeli farmers.
Birthright has been happy to help. Not only because agriculture is crucial to Israel’s economy but because programs that bring volunteers to the country strengthen ties between Israel and Jews around the world.
They were all very appreciative of the fact that we would take time out of our lives and come all the way to Israel in the middle of a war and help them. I always was having to remind myself that this is not a vacation per se. Like there’s a war going on in the background. But it was worth the possible danger for me at least, to be able to serve and help the people there.
Ilan Wagner is a vice president of Birthright in Israel heading up the recruitment of graduates of the program like Shambaugh, whom he sees as renewing their commitment to Israel.
“The initial Birthright experience in Israel may have given them a connection,” Wagner says, “that we are now able to translate into an action that takes that connection a step further. It’s a very different experience than being here on a 10-day trip or even on a summer internship.”
Wagner knows the importance of connection, not just through his work with Birthright, but in his personal experience over nearly 40 years as an Israeli citizen. He grew up outside Boston and made Aliyah in his mid-20s after working for a year in Israel. Now 62, and an important leader in the Birthright movement, he sees how a commitment to Israel can grow when the right opportunities are created.
“We do think that this element of volunteering is going to become an important element of everything we do, whether it be standalone volunteering programs, which we’ve been doing for several months going forward, or the integration of this kind of the values behind volunteering into other types of frameworks. And so, I think there is a moment now to sort of rethink about all of our programs and what we want to do in the future as we go forward with the rebuilding of Israel.”
For Shambaugh, who grew up with little commitment to either Israel or Judaism, coming back to Israel last month has only deepened what she feels about her faith and her spiritual home.
“The two weeks that I spent there felt so special getting to meet Israelis and actually help them with something so concrete, felt like doing the ultimate mitzvah. And it was a mitzvah also for myself. To be in community with other Jews and surrounded by so much love.”