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JNF Wire: Retirees Play Active Role in Today's Israel

November 17, 2015
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
Volunteering at Heritage Sites Keeps Seniors Engaged and Active
By: Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

JNF Wire on Senior Volunteers.jpg
Nissim Toledo drives a Tarazina in a Rehovot citrus grove.

In Israel, many retired seniors, veterans in particular, are working harder than ever. In a society based on tikkun olam – of “repairing the world” – it’s no surprise that Israel maintains an army of senior volunteers who provide a living link to history as they share their time and country’s memories with the next  generation.

Nissim Toledo, 75, lost his foot in battle in 1968. Despite the obvious challenges, he continued to serve until serious injuries forced him to retire in 1994. In total, he served for 23 years, both as a special unit combat soldier and as a guide to new recruits.  

Recuperating in the hospital, Toledo saw the role volunteers played in his own and others’ recovery. “If I walk out of here, I’m going to volunteer – it doesn’t matter where,” Toledo vowed during his recovery. His rehabilitation process was arduous, but after two year he was able to walk again.

Toledo’s daughter-in-law was working at the busy educational citrus grove in Rehovot and thought he’d make a perfect volunteer. Toledo learned to drive the Tarazina, a small train running on rails where harvested fruit is packed.  

All year, the grove hosts visits from schoolchildren, adults, and tourists, sharing hands-on experiences and lessons in modern Israeli history.

The Tarazina is a highlight of the experience, and children remember Toledo and his train from one visit to the next. “He’s like a history hero for them,” says Ami Shidlovitzky, a volunteer himself, who coordinates over a hundred volunteers at sites in the Rehovot area.  

Toledo says, “It’s very important, the way of conveying this to children. Fun experiences make them want to learn more deeply.” This site is just one of 160 found throughout Israel under the umbrella of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage  Sites (SPIHS).   Founded in 1984, the organization has saved structures built prior to the 1700s and are classified as “protected” sites.  

Today, SPIHS operates through a combination of funding from Jewish National Fund (JNF), grassroots fundraising, and government assistance. However, it couldn’t do anything without volunteers, mostly seniors, from all over the country. SPIHS sites encompass every form of history: local, military, thematic (such as the orchard) , and national history.  

Less than ten minutes from the orange grove where Toledo greets tourists on his train, retiree Elly Parran is busy teaching history in an entirely different way: guiding tours through the palatial home of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.  

The modernism-period residence, with elements of Bauhaus, is now the center of the bustling campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science, which he founded in 1934. “I love history; it’s in my blood,” says Parran, a trained social worker.  

JNF Wire on Senior Volunteers pic2.jpgBorn in the U.S., Parran made aliyah 40 years ago and now offers tours in Hebrew and English. “There’s an unfortunate lack of knowledge,” she says, about the period in which Weizmann served.  “I can only share what I’ve learned about the incredible history that is here. This is my pleasure.”

“Our country needs volunteers,” says fellow guide, Haim Soffer. Both his and Parran’s tours include more than just pointing out furniture and art. “It’s a beautiful house,” he says, “but the history is more important. We learn early on about the Roman and Greek Empires, yet the last 100 years are often overlooked.”  

Not far away, in neighboring Nes Tziona, Ricki Lehrer Shapira, now in her 70s, is the volunteer director of another SPIHS site. The great-granddaughter of city founder Reuven Lehrer, her family has watched Nes Tziona grow from an original “minyan” in 1882, to a bustling city of 45,000.

Few residents today are descended from those founders, so Ricki says it’s crucial to share the story of the city and its significance to the State of Israel with schoolchildren. “The first Aliyah is the basis of the state of Israel,” says Ricki.

Nes Tziona is thought to be the place the precursor to the modern Israeli flag was first flown. On site, visitors can explore photos of early pioneers, a History of Honey Museum, the reconstructed Antilya Well, and the original community building from the settlement.  

Chaim Matarasso, who was born in Turkey in the 1940s and who has lived in Nes Tziona most of his life, operates the site’s computerized archives. “Old pictures are one of the things that pushed me to work here; it’s emotional. People come to me to ask about the history of their families.”

From a small settlement where, Shapira says, “everybody knew everybody,” Nes Tziona is a very modern city now. “One woman came, and seeing orange trees growing on the site, she said, ‘Oh, did we have oranges here?’ Now, you can’t see oranges.”

These encounters may seem insignificant, says Dikla Liani, volunteer coordinator for SPIHS, but as the patriotic volunteers all know, “big history is made up of little stories.”  

Volunteers across Israel are crucial to SPIHS’s success. The fact that these older Israelis are retired, Liani says, just means they have more to give, not less, to society. As Toledo says, “The experiences that we, as volunteers, can convey to the next generation are much more precious than books that transmit history.”


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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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