Unemployment Is Surging, NGOs Are Collapsing, So Israelis Volunteer to Turn the Tide

Some 165,000 have volunteered for the first time due to the coronavirus crisis, a bittersweet statistic revealing that the government should be doing more

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Packing food for the needy in Tel Aviv during the coronavirus pandemic, April 2020.
Packing food for the needy in Tel Aviv during the coronavirus pandemic, April 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

It’s 9 P.M. and Michal Gordon of Tel Aviv has just gotten home after a very long day. The 33-year-old had planned to spend the morning at her volunteer job and then start her pre-lockdown errands, but the moment she arrived, she was deluged with requests for help. Before she noticed, it was long after sundown.

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Gordon used to spend long days like that at the large production company where she worked as a graphic artist. But since March, she has been on unpaid leave. Her new “office” is at the Haoman 17 nightclub in south Tel Aviv, the headquarters of the group Culture of Solidarity that was launched in March by three women from the film industry.

This is the first time that Gordon has volunteered. She helps needy families, and also many people like herself. This week, for instance, hundreds of volunteers sent out 1,400 homemade honey-and-carrot cakes for Rosh Hashanah, along with food packages and other aid.

“Before the coronavirus, I had never volunteered, but since March, there have been weeks when I’ve done it three times a week. The Tel Aviv cynicism that we’re so used to has been tossed aside,” she said. 

“People who were preoccupied solely with themselves have suddenly discovered compassion and caring about others. For months now, disconnected Tel Aviv residents have been putting together food packages every day.”

Since the coronavirus crisis began in March, 165,000 Israelis have  volunteered for the first time, according to Israel’s volunteer authority, a joint venture of the Joint Distribution Committee and government agencies.

These new recruits now account for 14.4 percent of Israel’s 1.15 million volunteers. The age range skews young – as of this week, people between 18 and 35 accounted for over half of all volunteers, up from a third last year.

According to Ruach Tova, a group that connects volunteers to organizations, 96,183 people signed up to volunteer during the Jewish year that ended on Friday, a 40 percent increase. “Especially during the first wave of the coronavirus, there was a moving response by new volunteers,” said the organization’s director, Ido Lotan.

Still, the total number of volunteers has fallen since last year. Based on a survey last week, the Central Bureau of Statistics said that 19.3 percent of Israelis have volunteered this year, down from 23.2 percent last year.

The reason is that tens of thousands of people over 55, who normally account for 27 percent of Israeli volunteers, have stayed home, fearing the coronavirus. So as of last week, they accounted for only 12 percent of volunteers.

Ronit Bar, director of the National Council for Volunteering in Israel, and Prof. Michal Almog-Bar, head of Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy, said the overall turnout is still solid.

“Even though the number is similar to what it normally is, it’s surprising considering that many ‘normal’ volunteer jobs can’t be done during the crisis due to health restrictions and social distancing ... and because senior citizens and other population segments whose health is defined as at risk can’t continue volunteering,” they wrote in a new study of volunteering during the coronavirus crisis.

The figures are especially noteworthy because the volunteers, new and old, are on board as the state’s presence recedes, despite the files piling up on social workers’ desks and the surge in queries to welfare offices.

“During the coronavirus, we’ve gotten more help from volunteers than ever,” said the head of a welfare office in the north who requested anonymity. “But every one of them is further testimony to our failure as a welfare service, and especially to that of the government, which has put us so low on its priority list. Good people, who pay taxes but are collapsing, are saving us from devastation.”

Tel Avivian Michal Gordon, who in her volunteer job was deluged with requests to help, September 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Thousands of nonprofits have also warned they face collapse due to the crisis. An umbrella organization representing them, Civic Leadership, has requested 1 billion shekels ($290 million) in aid.

The state agreed to establish a 200-million-shekel fund to help out, but Civic Leadership said that three months after the money was allocated, it discovered that 160 million shekels had gone to sports and cultural institutions, not organizations dealing with welfare, education and health.

The remaining 40 million shekels was expected to reach nonprofits only next week. And no criteria have been set for obtaining grants from a separate 100-million-shekel fund for nonprofits. In other words, thousands of organizations have been left without government aid since the crisis began.

“There’s no other way to say this – the organizations have collapsed,” said Lior Finkel-Perl, Civic Leadership’s CEO. “We’re watching new organizations collapse every day. Who will deal with domestic violence? Where will the homeless go?

“This unprecedented number of volunteers has created a misleading picture, because at a time when organizations have put workers on unpaid leave and all but closed their doors, volunteers have enabled them to continue operating with a minimum of resources. But that won’t continue forever.”

The weak are paying

Also, experts fear that the government’s weakness will worsen Israel’s income inequality, which is already high compared to other OECD members.

“The highest price for the coronavirus crisis is being paid by the lower classes,” the Adva Center, which studies equality and social justice in Israel, said in a position paper last month. The average monthly wage of people who have become unemployed due to the crisis was 7,577 shekels, while the average monthly wage for those still employed is 12,136 shekels.

Eran Weintrob, executive director of the nonprofit Latet, said many of the newly unemployed are now volunteering. His organization has seen a rise in individual volunteering, including teens, but a drop in group volunteering, mainly because companies don’t want to risk their employees becoming infected.

“Around 3,200 individual volunteers have done 19,000 hours of volunteer work during the crisis, not including soldiers,” a 20-percent increase over normal years, Weintrob said.

According to the volunteer authority, among the younger volunteers who began helping out due to the pandemic, 77 percent said they would continue after the crisis.

Ethel Niborski, 18, of Jerusalem, has been volunteering with the group Israeli Solidarity since March, her first regular volunteering. With schools closed, “I had time, and I saw the terrible states people around me had reached, so I simply realized that this is what I needed to do.”

She began coordinating the organization’s Jerusalem “war room,” handling hundreds of calls a day from people needing urgent assistance. But volunteering sometimes leaves her with mixed feelings.

“It makes me feel very optimistic to see all the people around me, lots of young people and people who have woken up from focusing on themselves,” she said. “On the other hand, it makes me very pessimistic, because I know that this is the government’s job. Why do we need to substitute for it? Why is there nobody in authority who will take care of people?”

Ethel Niborski, 18, who volunteered with the group Israeli Solidarity during the coronavirus crisis.Credit: Meged Gozani

Arab solidarity

According to the new study, the volunteering rate in the Arab community reached an all-time high of 22.3 percent in March-April, even as it declined to 19.9 percent in the Jewish community. By contrast, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, just 7 percent of Arabs volunteered before the coronavirus crisis began, compared with 27.5 percent of Jews.

“This statistic is particularly interesting in light of the extremely low rates of volunteering among the Arab population normally, and because this population’s socioeconomic status is lower than that of the Jewish population,” the study said.

But Maisam Jaljuli of the Na’amat women’s organization isn’t surprised. “Israeli Arabs always mobilize for volunteer work during a crisis,” she said. “Usually there’s also a very big increase in the amounts donated. Today, almost every town has a war room jointly run by organizations and the local government that sometimes contains hundreds of volunteers.”

In many towns, she added, women are leading the volunteering effort. They’re the ones who receive the pleas for help.

“There’s also a religious element to this,” Jaljuli said. “To be considered a good Muslim, not only do you have to pray or fulfill the commandment of the hajj, you have to give money and give of yourself to the community.”

The study found that the proportion of volunteers is higher in the religious community (30.1 percent) than the secular community (16.9 percent). It’s also higher among men than women – 23.5 percent versus 17.5 percent.

Also, the rate is higher in the outskirts than in the center of the country. For instance, 21.9 percent of volunteers live in the north, 18.8 percent in the south and 36.4 in the Jerusalem area. Just 15.1 percent live in the highly populated central region.

Another difference between the new volunteers and the old ones lies in motivation. Unlike volunteers’ motives during, say, military operations, today’s motives are “hybrid,” wrote Liora Arnon of the National Council for Volunteering in Israel, in a study conducted with Prof. Liat Kulik of Bar-Ilan University and the army’s Home Front Command.

“Alongside the social solidarity motive, which is typical of both types of emergencies, the coronavirus volunteers are characterized by a higher level of personal motives,” she said – including both “instrumental motives,” as she put it, and a desire to “escape reality by volunteering.”

Gordon, the 33-year-old volunteer from Tel Aviv, can identify. She said she began volunteering in March because she felt terribly isolated.

“I’ve lived in the city by myself for four years and got along on my own fine, but there was something so sad and desolate when the coronavirus began,” she said.

“It was a choice between being anxious and pessimistic about the situation or simply joining the wave of optimism. I decided to choose the second option.”

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