Seeing a different Israel as an eager volunteer

Seeing a different Israel as an eager volunteer

Anita Kolat, during two weeks of service, volunteered one morning at an adult day-care center in Arad.
Anita Kolat, during two weeks of service, volunteered one morning at an adult day-care center in Arad.

Anita Kolat would have preferred to go to Israel this past summer with her husband or a friend, but when no one else was free to go with her during her vacation, she went on her own — as a volunteer — to Arad.

“I wasn’t going to be deterred,” the educator from Elizabeth told NJ Jewish News.

Kolat, who is a learning disabilities teacher consultant with the Clifton Department of Special Education, had been to Israel seven times before. Most of the visits were simply vacations, but in 2007, she resolved to make herself useful there. She worked for a week in a Jerusalem restaurant that serves free meals to needy people. The experience made her determined to travel that way again.

“I love being there as a tourist too, but it’s a totally different experience as a volunteer,” she said. Working alongside local people, rather than merely visiting, “you’re on more of an equal footing. You get to feel like an Israeli. I’m a people person, and I like to talk to people about the things in their everyday life. It’s easy to do that when you’re working together.”

In response to a Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey announcement in NJJN calling for volunteers, Kolat filled out an application and met with Amy Cooper, associate executive vice president and director of financial resource development. It was arranged for Kolat to go to the federation’s “twin” community, Arad, for two weeks, to teach English.

Kolat said her husband, David, was totally supportive, but she got a more skeptical response from their three grown children, all graduates of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, where she used to work as a laboratory specialist. “They said to me, ‘But you don’t know anyone there, and you don’t speak Hebrew,’” she recalled.

‘A diverse quilt’

Kolat arrived in Arad in early August and saw the beauty in a place that others might see as a small, dusty town. In an account of her trip, she wrote that parts of the town are “resplendent” with “lush vegetation” and that it is “nestled in the golden, rolling hills of the Negev…with no traffic lights, but sporting state-of-the art, two-passenger, motorized tricycles…. A location renowned for its tranquil, respectful demeanor and the original dwelling place of our first patriarch and matriarch, Avraham and Sarah, is home to a diverse quilt of Israelis.”

Most of the people she dealt with spoke enough English for her to get by. She stayed in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment in the center of the town. Ofra Bezalel, Living Bridge coordinator for the Central federation’s Partnership 2000 program, placed Kolat at an English-language program, team-teaching a class in children’s literature. Her afternoons were free, and in the early evenings, at the apartment, she tutored a number of children individually.

On her second Shabbat in Arad, a family from the town’s Gur hasidic community invited her to eat all her meals with them. The family patriarch told her about his efforts to raise funds for a new school in Arad to serve kids with special needs. “While a substantial fund has already been established, 10 times this amount is still necessary for the completion of the project,” she wrote.

She also got to meet people at a day-care center for the elderly, and at a “get acquainted” luncheon. There she met Yisca Shalev, who was about to come to Central NJ as its new shliha, or emissary.

After all that, David Kolat managed to join her for a week of pure tourism. “One day we hope to have the time to be able to volunteer together,” she said. Of her time helping out in Arad, she wrote: “I am a much richer person because of this gift.”

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