In December, a contingent of Israeli volunteers will head for the Cambodian rainforest in an effort to help improve the lives of villagers living there.After finishing their military service, legions of young Israelis deploy themselves throughout the world. Having subsumed their interests to those of the State of Israel for several years, they often take on missions of indulgence. As a result, Israeli travelers have become notorious in many parts of the world for post-military partying.

The “Backpacking and Donating” project is designed to improve the international perception of Israel and its youth. At the beginning of December, a contingent of Israeli volunteers will be sent to the Cambodian village of Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountain rainforest for three months. Over the course of a year, four groups, each consisting of 10 volunteers between the ages of 21 and 40, will participate in the program. They will engage in volunteering activity for 10 hours per day, five days a week.

“This important project will introduce young Israelis to the humanitarian problems that exist in Cambodia and will emphasize to the locals the giving aspect on the part of Israelis,” said Yael Rubinstein, the Israeli ambassador to Thailand and the region. “This sort of activity will assist me in presenting Israel as a country that is attentive to humanitarian problems.”

Although their responsibilities will vary according to the immediate needs of the community, the volunteers will be collectively committed to improving the quality of the lives of the approximately 3,000 residents of the village. They will work intimately with the local population, focusing on English, mathematics, computer, health, and occupational training.

Despite minimal advertising, there were numerous applicants to the project, according to Gil Hen, the project coordinator.

Finding complete personalities

“We chose complete personalities that we believed could handle the rigors of the program, and represent Israel well,” he said.

The first group is already involved in a three-week training course in which they are learning about Cambodian culture and practicing relevant skills, Hen said.

Eshhar Tsafrir, the manager of the first three groups, will be going to the village in the middle of November to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the volunteers.

“I plan to meet with the leaders of the village to create a timetable for the program,” she said. “I will also coordinate with the representatives of the Wildlife Alliance who are reforesting the area and helping people develop permanent agriculture.”

For Niv Reshess, one of the members of the group, the project represents an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong desire.

Lucky to be taking part

“My nationality has prevented me from participating in overseas volunteering programs in the past,” he said. “So I feel really lucky to be part of one that will allow me to help improve the lives of people in need on behalf of Israel.”

Chi Phat was selected for the project based on its acute need for intervention. At this point, students attend classes for only two hours a day, and no one speaks English. Five percent of children do not reach their first birthday, ten percent of women die during childbirth, and the oldest person in the community is 57 years old.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Latet, an Israeli humanitarian organization, are financing the project. They have commissioned Lametayel, an Israeli outdoor gear and travel company, to manage it, based on its involvement with a similar effort in Nepal.

Yuval Limon, the CEO of Lametayel, is confident that the project will be successful, due, in part, to the desire of the villagers for help.

“From our vast experience in this field, in order for a project to be effective, the most significant factor is the willingness of the local population to receive assistance,” he said.

Despite its relatively small scale, the organizers of Backpacking and Donating hope that it will lead to a larger movement towards Israeli humanitarianism worldwide.

“We want to inspire more Israeli people to effect positive change, and display the real character of this country to the world,” he said.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.