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Volunteer in Israel on a Kibbutz

Volunteer in Israel with the Israeli Red Cross

The Sirens of Summer

When I first announced my plan to volunteer for the Israeli Red Cross during the second intifada (uprising), the outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, many of my friends and family thought I was crazy. I really wanted an exciting volunteer program where I could work with Israelis, which is why so many people recommended the Magen David Adom, or Israeli Red Cross, program. 

Volunteers, no previous experience or training necessary, apply through the Jewish Agency for Israel. Following nine days of training in Jerusalem to be a “first-aid responder,” participants who pass the exam leave for assigned cities all over the country. Although many volunteers wanted to be in “big” cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, I found that I established a better sense of community and belonging in Rishon Letzion, a city about 20 minutes south of Tel Aviv. Rishon, less touristy and full of “sabras,” or native Israelis, offered more cultural immersion than either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, which typically overflow with tourists year-round. 

Training proved to be intense. Classes started at eight in the morning, and lasted until seven in the evening, at which point we would invade the Israeli bar and club scene. (The legal drinking age in Israel is 18.) We learned basic emergency care, including how to use CPR, how to apply bandages and tourniquets, how to use the equipment in the ambulance, how to respond in a terrorist attack, and how to deal in common situations of dehydration or burns.

Although the media portrays Israel as being in a constant situation of war and terror attacks, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Occasional attacks do happen, and volunteers, especially people visiting Israel for the first time should find out from program advisors specifics about which areas are unsafe. You will be amazed at how Israelis go about their normal routines; foreigners worrying about violence usually adapt quickly to the Israeli mentality and do the same.

A majority of the calls were not life-threatening situations, but old people or people with stomachaches. During the summer, I mainly filled out forms, applied bandages, took vital measurements such as blood pressure, breathing, and pulse, and carried equipment. Volunteers usually chose their own shifts, eight hours during either morning, evening, or night. In Rishon and other suburban areas, with less calls and a more relaxed atmosphere, volunteers made their own schedules. Between calls, there was a lot of time to hang out with other volunteers in the lounge, watching TV or playing computer games. In cities such as Tel Aviv, the environment was less flexible; you did not have as much freedom in choosing your schedule, and there was very little time between calls.

Your experience in the field depends on your attitude and the personality of the driver.  If you show eagerness to learn, help, and listen to the drivers, they will guide you and let you do more interesting work. If you are arrogant or obnoxious, you will end up carrying equipment from the ambulance to the scene. Drivers, mostly friendly, seemed interested in getting to know me. Amazed that I came to Israel to volunteer for the summer, they went out of their way to make sure I felt comfortable. 

Although knowing Hebrew is not essential, since most people in Israel know English well, it is important to learn the “ambulance lingo,” which they teach you in training. This helps communication between you and the drivers, some of whom do not know English sufficiently, or do not trust you because you cannot speak the language.

Aside from the actual ambulance work, I also became immersed in Israeli culture. I worked side-by-side with Israelis every day for two months. We communicated, through their broken English and my even-more-broken Hebrew. We laughed, shared stories, and learned about each other’s cultures. They told me their fears and emotions about enlisting in the army (mandatory draft exists in Israel). I told them about college life. A collective sense of pride washed over us after each day. We saved the lives of Jews, Christians, and Muslims; helped the wounded, and became part of each other’s lives. 

My Israeli friends became the crucial part of my entire cultural experience. They took me to the best falafel places, introduced me to their families, told me what it was like during war, showed me the bomb shelters that every Israeli is required to have because of occasional bomb threats, and taught me how to differentiate between “cool” Israelis worth meeting, and others to avoid.   

Although the experience was only two months, I boarded the plane to go back to New York feeling like a different person. I felt proud that I spent my summer helping others, and excited about my new Israeli friends, most of whom I still keep in close contact with. I still get queasy when I look at blood, but I survived language barriers and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Most importantly, I decided to immigrate to Israel after graduating from the university.