ESRA is first and foremost a volunteer organization. It is also an English speaking organization. It might be best to describe ESRA as an English speaking organization which through its volunteers makes a unique contribution to the quality of life in Israel.
Ramat Hanadiv, the magnificent park near Zichron Ya’akov, in its own way makes a unique contribution to the quality of life in Israel. So it should not be seen as too much of a surprise that the two organizations have created a partnership.
Launched at the end of December 2009, the ESRA/Ramat Hanadiv Volunteer Project attracted a surprising amount of interest. Volunteerism is more often associated with helping people rather than plants, but when ex-South African Sydney Taback, a Ramat Hanadiv staff member, approached ESRA for help in finding volunteers, it was clear he had come to the right place.
The Ramat Hanadiv Gardens cover 4,492 dunams of land high up overlooking the Mediterranean, adjacent to Zichron Ya’akov. The beautifully tended gardens are surrounded by four thousand dunams of open landscape, abundant with fauna and flora. For many, the Rothschild Gardens, a memorial to the Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934), provide the most beautiful public park in the country. Recently Ramat Hanadiv opened a visitors’ pavilion. With a gallery, an auditorium, a theater, classrooms and a cafeteria – the pavilion was the first building in Israel to be granted ‘Green Building’ certification, meeting rigorous international standards. The gardens are free to the public, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year; and it is famous for its highly regarded research and educational programs. Despite busy days and holidays, there are times when Ramat Hanadiv is the most peaceful and beautiful place imaginable.
ESRA volunteers are now settling into their new roles in the world of high class horticulture. Not everyone will be potting away in the nurseries. Ramat Hanadiv needs volunteers for the visitors’ center and for some of the hard work in the open air. The gardens represent a European landscaping tradition: orderly and meticulous. They integrate cultivated with uncultivated spaces, and foreign with indigenous Israeli-Mediterranean vegetation. The Fragrance Garden, one of a number of specialized gardens, provides a unique and rich experience for the partially and totally blind people. Behind the nurseries, in an area closed to the public, there is a small garden providing therapeutic activities for adults with learning difficulties. They come every day to pot and potter in a happy environment, also contributing to the gardens. In another part of the park, hidden from view, Englishman Bill Woodley runs a vulture breeding program as well as a clinic for wounded and sick wildlife found on the parkland.
Opportunities for ESRA volunteers are varied in the extreme, and like the ESRA/Ramat Hanadiv Volunteers’ Project, experience is rarely an issue. To join the much lauded English for schools program, the only requirement is to speak English fluently. Readers of this magazine will no doubt pass with flying colors. From Or Akiva to Tel Aviv, from Ramle to Raanana, 200 ESRA volunteers go back to school once a week to sit and chat with students who rarely (and sometimes never) have the opportunity to practice their English. Only fifteen minutes each week for a shy youngster lacking in confidence can make all the difference when it comes to taking the oral Bagrut. English for schools, run by the indefatigable Gill Teicher, is one of ESRA’s most successful volunteer programs.
Ex-South African Val Kantor has the job of volunteer co-coordinator, where she oversees nearly a thousand volunteer positions. Last month she and her husband Bobby celebrated thirty years of living in Israel and ESRA has been part of her life here for much of that time. To quote another volunteer, Susan Kurnitz: “If you are introduced to ESRA, you are in … and they don’t let you out!” Among ESRA’s many volunteer programs in action, every day, every week and every month, there are a number of centers where volunteers assist the staff in their work with children or adults with special needs, and no less than five charity shops, which are assisted by nearly 100 volunteers. In addition, ESRA has scores of wonderful people who visit the sick and elderly, manage the projects and sit on committees. And five times a year over 330 volunteers are involved in producing and distributing the ESRA magazine, our largest volunteer project.
The sewing centers in Netanya (Ramat Yadin, Kiryat Nordau, Shikun Vatikim) are another volunteer success story. Ethiopian immigrants learn to sew on machines, to acquire the skills to make clothing for their families and to integrate into the community. Volunteers with, or even without, sewing skills, are a key part of this caring community project giving work opportunity to people in need.
Nina Zuck, who spent ten years running the first sewing center and is now responsible for all ESRA projects, says: “Being involved with ESRA has brought about the most fantastic changes in my life.” Most ESRA volunteers, I think, would agree with her.