In Israel, the most sought-after projects are eco-tourism and development in multicultural Nazareth; working at wildlife and nature reserves; and doing eco-building and sustainable farming in a variety of eco-villages and kibbutz settings. GoEco has established dozens of ecological and humanitarian programs in cooperation with organizations in both the Arab and Jewish sectors.

Be an eco-tourist in Israel

 

The Auster family volunteered at Kibbutz Lotan this year, where they especially enjoyed building with mud.

By Avigayil Kadesh

Jonathan Gilben first caught the tourist volunteering bug when he took part in a project at the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center on the Mediterranean Sea. "I had such a great experience that I decided to create an opportunity for ecological and humanitarian volunteer tourism in Israel, where nobody else was doing this," Gilben says.

Volun-tourism catching on with families

Each trip lasts anywhere from a week to a month. Though most participants are 20-somethings, the accepted age range is generally 18-70, except for the family volunteering projects – a rising trend – suitable for parents and children.

Earlier this year, Australians Amy and Arron Auster and their children, ages nine, five, and nearly one, spent a month at Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava Desert north of Eilat. This working ecological kibbutz produces milk, dates, goat’s yogurt and cheeses, and welcomes volunteers for short and long stays. "One parent would rise early and start work," Arron Auster reported in a log of the trip. "The rest of the family would soon follow. Work duties varied and were carefully selected so as to be child-safe and friendly. On different days we might construct mud walls and houses, compost or harvest in the organic garden, or paint the children’s eco-playground. "Work finished late morning, which was when we did some schooling before lunch. The afternoons were filled with walks, reading books, playing and swimming in the beautiful shaded pool. Twice a week we were invited to lectures on the principles of ‘Permaculture’ or ‘Sustainable Agriculture.’

"I loved the work and lectures, and the kids picked up more knowledge than we would have expected. I’ll be composting everything when I return and putting in a solar oven; honest – the food tastes better… All in all a great experience where we felt like part of the community… and discovered many simple ways of living without wasting resources and precious time. It has helped us prioritize what’s really important."

Minimizing environmental impact

In an effort to promote responsible tourism, GoEco works with local environmental and humanitarian bodies such as the Israel Parks Authority and Israel Nature Society. There is a limit on the number of volunteers per project so as to minimize environmental impact, and GoEco requests that all volunteers use public transportation to cut down on pollution. Its employees are encouraged to do the same.

"For many of our volunteers, it’s a life-changing experience," says Gilben. "They come for up to eight weeks and they form relationships with people and the land. We see that younger volunteers become more independent because it’s not an organized tour. You have to take care of yourself."

Volunteers do have to pay a fee to cover a range of expenses incurred by GoEco and the host organizations, including food and housing, training, supervision, safety measures and administrative costs. Each participant must also purchase his or her own insurance.

The programs based in Israel start at $300, while those in other countries are more expensive. At the high end is a $2,630 four-week wildlife photography and conservation program in South Africa’s Thanda Wildlife Reserve; and a four-week cultural expedition among Indian tribes of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest for $2,060. However, most are priced between $500 and $1,500.

"People are paying for a unique, fun experience," says Gilben. "You get involved in local communities and get to know the country on a more in-depth cultural level. The prices are very affordable for up to eight weeks with support. For instance, a program at Sagol Ecological Village [in Israel] is $350 for two to eight weeks."

Caring for animals, kids 
 
The most popular projects seem to be anything having to do with animals, whether it’s lions and cheetahs in Africa, chimps in Zambia or pandas in China. "Sea turtle rescue programs in Mexico and Greece are one of the most popular – maybe because the turtles seem to find the best beaches," jokes Gilben, who has volunteered in Africa, Asia and South America. Also frequently requested is humanitarian work at orphanages, clinics and schools in places such as Thailand, Cambodia, Bolivia or Nepal.

In Israel, the most sought-after projects are eco-tourism and development in multicultural Nazareth; working at wildlife and nature reserves; and doing eco-building and sustainable farming in a variety of eco-villages and kibbutz settings. GoEco has established dozens of ecological and humanitarian programs in cooperation with organizations in both the Arab and Jewish sectors.

Be an eco-tourist in Israel

Volunteers at Israel’s Hai-Bar Yotvata Wildlife Reserve

Thomas Grosset, a GoEco volunteer in Nazareth in 2009, wrote: "This volunteering has enabled me to understand the cultural diversity of Israel. …Even if I came back with many uncertainties about the country, I know more and better about the people composing this puzzling region. Moreover, Nazareth is an Arabic city. You can then experience a different side of Israel that is off the beaten track. Indeed, the media often induce us to believe that Israel is only Jewish and the occupied territories are only Arabic. Nazareth proves the media wrong and makes you experience how much Israel is more complex than just two territories fighting."

Gilben believes that both the international and Israeli programs are a win-win for the volunteers, the sites they contribute to, and the country’s environment and economy.
 
"The tourists we bring stay for a long period and in accommodations that are good for the environment," states Gilben. "They’re eating vegetarian food and maintaining a low carbon footprint. We also promote volunteering in places on the periphery that are not usual tourist destinations."

With respect to volun-tourists coming to Israel for the first time, he notes that many are initially concerned about their security. "But once they get here, they realize it’s safer than an American or European city, and they’re quite surprised how multicultural it is and how friendly people are. Many are very upset to leave; they love the country and come out with positive views of Israel even if they didn’t have them before."

Current GoEco opportunities in Israel

  • A coral reef conservation project in the Gulf of Eilat/Red Sea, helping to preserve one of the richest marine environments on Earth.
  • Building an eco-village from environmentally friendly materials such as earth, mud and straw in Tzukim in the Arava Desert. This location also welcomes family volunteers.
  • Living and working with the local Jewish, Christian and Muslim community in Nazareth. Volunteers stay at a historical inn near historical sites and assist with hosting tourists, teaching and community work.
  • A conservation program in the desert landscape of Yotvata Nature Preserve in the Arava, which aims to reintroduce species of animals mentioned in the Bible. Volunteers feed animals, clean habitats, and help with maintenance and data collection.
  • Sustainable living and practical ecology at the eco-kibbutz Lotan, in the Arava. Guided by experts, volunteers take part in mud building, organic gardening, caring for the bird sanctuary and setting up workshops for educational tour groups. Lotan also offers family volunteering options and a seven-week Green Apprenticeship program.
  • Sagol Ecological Village, one hour from Tel Aviv, where participants help with the construction and maintenance of the village and learn about sustainable living and self-growth with people from across the globe.
  • Constructing and maintaining sustainable buildings, and exploring experimental bio-farming, at Nimrod Eco Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Hermon. Family volunteers are welcome here, as well.
  • Assisting with fundraising, event coordinating, children’s workshops and website maintenance at the Umm el-Fahm Gallery for Contemporary Art, which aims to bridge the gap between Israeli and Arab culture.
  • Maintenance, cooking and cleaning at a Tel Aviv shelter for homeless women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse or prostitution.
  • Learning about sustainable desert living, earth building, organic gardening and trail blazing at an eco-lodge and environmental center situated on the rim of Mahtesh Ramon, the world’s largest natural crater.​​