In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, when the kibbutz movement was in full flower, foreigners wanting to help in Israel knew just what was expected of them: get on your hands and knees and start digging in marginal agricultural soils. Or spread the feed in the chicken coops. Or take care of the wee ones, while other able-bodied youth picked the yellowish Jaffa oranges for export to a scurvy-adverse European market.
For this retirement launch, I too wanted to contribute in some meaningful way to Israeli society. I wanted to be useful, in part because that is intrinsically satisfying, and in part because it selfishly could provide an avenue to explore my curiosities about Israel and about myself as I age. But digging up carrots in the field was not on the agenda. My body couldn’t hack it and any old machine would be more helpful to a farm than trying to train me.
Through an internet search, and help from an Israeli friend of the family, I chanced to link up with the organization “Skilled Volunteers for Israel.” As their web page describes it:
What we do: Through our extensive network of Israeli nonprofit and educational partners, we match you with a service project tied to your interests, experience, goals, and skills. We are there to orient you to Israel and help you prepare as you are welcomed onto the teams of our organizational partners.
All my feelers were up as I made initial inquiries into the organization. It functions as a matchmaker – a Shadchen – between volunteers who have had professional careers and want to contribute skills developed in those careers – and organizations that could use those skills. My skills are unusual. And as they interviewed me for the purpose of truly understanding my interests and abilities, looked at my resume, which they required me to provide, I quickly felt that these folks were asking the right questions and had a genuine desire to help me have a wonderful volunteer experience. As it turned out… they proved to be not only great matchmakers, but extraordinarily helpful in leading me through a number of logistical issues – not the least of which was finding me a perfect place to stay in Jerusalem.
My principal volunteer commitment in Israel has been to an organization called Bimkom, which in Hebrew means “instead of.” My parks planning colleagues will note that I am obsessed withe the “alternatives” stage of the planning process, so this match just felt right.
I encourage you to glance at Bimkom’s website here. Its tag line is “Planners for Planning Rights.” It’s been around for about 20 years as “an Israeli non-profit organization formed … to strengthen democracy and human rights in the field of planning.”
While still in the USA, Terry Henden, the Jerusalem coordinator at Skilled Volunteers for Israel helped arrange for a phone call between me and Sari Kronish and Ma’ayan Turner, Bimkom staff, as we explored potential work I could perform. Bimkom was working on projects that actually advocated against the establishment of certain national parks in Israel. The reasons are complicated, but they asked me “surely, with your parks planning background you are always in favor of new parks, right?”
“Well, actually, no” I replied. “There are properties that for one reason or another may not be worthy of park status.”
We talked. I asked more about the rationale for their objections and they asked more about my relevant experiences. We began to explore what they saw as injustices and non-equal treatment between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis in land use planning and development. I initially saw no relevant analogies in the USA between two potentially sovereign bodies, whose peoples may have different rights in the same property. Until… now wait a second… how about the sovereign rights of Indian Tribes and their members to carry out activities? And as our discussion went on, what emerged was a research and writing project for me that both fascinated them, and provided me an opportunity to delve into something that I have long sought to explore. My volunteer project emerged from those discussions. I would do a case study write up of the creation of the USA’s first joint State Park and Indian Tribal Preserve – Kukutali Preserve in Washington State’s Skagit County on the Swinomish Tribal Reservation. I would include other international examples of co-management of parks (e.g., Ebey’s Landing, Peak District), and explore co-management as a model for resolving disputes.
As the volunteer project has evolved, some of the most valuable elements for me – and they have told me for them as well – have been our conversations about what might be analogous and what clearly isn’t. And I have gotten a pleasant surprise out of the experience as well. I want to delve more deeply into this topic upon my return to the US. This volunteer opportunity in Israel has led to exactly what I hoped would happen from this retirement launch. A purposeful next act.