Israeli Volunteers in Germany

Germans have been volunteering in Israel for many years, in large numbers. But there are Israelis volunteering in Germany, too.

Michael Steininger - Tikva Sendeke

One of the largest German volunteering organizations is the German Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, established in 1958 and promoting reconciliation based on the acknowledgment of German guilt for Nazi crimes . While it sent German volunteers to Israel at an early date, it later, namely from 1993 onwards, started to receive Israeli volunteers in Germany. But there are other organizations dedicated to the exchange of volunteers, too.

Recently, a new coordinating body for German and Israeli volunteers was founded: The German-Israeli Volunteer Service. It was launched by the German Federal Family Minister Manuela Schwesig in May 2015 in the presence of the presidents of both countries.

Here, three Israelis currently volunteering in Germany talk about their motivations.

Tikva Sendeke, 26, a volunteer at the House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin.

For the visitors of the Wannsee House – the site where Nazi officials decided on the measures that came to be known as the “Final Solution”, i. e., the Holocaust – Sendeke is the exhibition guide who teaches them yet another lesson: that Jews by no means all have the same roots and that they certainly do not all share a single historical narrative. She recounts how on one of her tours accompanying a group from South Africa, an awkward silence filled the room when she said she lives in Israel. Why, she was asked. Because she was in fact Israeli, she replied. Someone asked her to explain. “Well,” answered Sendeke, “My parents came to Israel in 1984”.

“When it comes to me, people have a double shock. Firstly, I need to explain that I am Jewish. And secondly that I am an Israeli volunteering in Germany,” she explains. And so on the tour that day the debate also revolved around Jews from Africa and their yearning to go to the Holy Land – it was all surprising news to the South African visitors.

The Wannsee House, today a Holocaust memorial, is located in a most idyllic spot next to the Greater Wannsee Lake in a leafy suburb of Berlin. It seems almost inconceivable that it was here that the “Final Solution” was discussed. Tikva Sendeke does not have a Holocaust family legacy, and yet she chose to work here of all places.

As an Israeli she learned a lot about the Holocaust, but she never felt connected to it. “I wanted to embrace the history of the Holocaust and make it my own,” she says. Sendeke explains that the history of anti-Semitism in fact excludes the story of North African and Ethiopian Jews. Her wish is that all the historical narratives that are part of the Israeli society be recognised. As someone who identifies with being a minority, she is curious about Germany, which has succeeded in overcoming its wrongdoings.

Tim Mitnik, 28, a volunteer at Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, Frankfurt.

Mitnik is an uplifting presence at the reception desk of Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, playing Israeli music at every opportunity. In addition to being a DJ, he manages the queue, registers people for blood tests, and explains the procedures.

The bubbly medical student has been living in Germany for the past five years. For him, his volunteer work is part of integration into society: meeting people, learning the culture and practicing the language. “It’s always good to do something extra and get out of your comfort zone,” he says. The idea to volunteer at the Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe came to him because friends back home do it, too. “My friends volunteer in The Israel Aids Task Force, so it’s a cool way of keeping in touch and getting ideas.”

This is not Mitnik’s first time volunteering. He also served at “Flowers of Medicine” which gives first-aid training to children at Israeli schools and medical centres and at the geriatric ward of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, to name but two organisations.

Members of Mitnik’s family perished in the Holocaust at Babi Yar in Kiev, and his contribution to the German society might seem odd to some people. However, he says that he never had such a conflict. “I’ve never felt that volunteering here is in any sense a contradiction. German society has changed a lot. Just as the world is changing,” Mitnik explains.

Or Goren, 27, a volunteer at the Coordination Centre for German-Israeli Youth Exchange, Wittenberg.

While Arik Einstein’s song “You and I will change the world” is playing in the background, Goren is trying to pass on an important message to teens: accept others! In a time when Islamophobia is rising, she explains, and Germany is taking in more immigrants, it is particularly important to talk about the topic.

Goren is fluent in German and describes herself as talkative. It is not surprising, then, that most of her activity is in front of an audience. She gives workshops on tolerance and anti-Semitism and prepares youngsters for visits to Israel. Her added value, she says, is “bringing the Israeli colour to Germany.”

Goren packed up and headed for Germany right after graduation. She had lived in Germany before as her father had been posted there. “That triggered my interest in the culture and perspective of the Germans. In light of my positive experiences I felt I wanted to give something back,” she says. In her opinion the Israelis and Germans have a special link that should be nurtured and preserved. The youth are next in line to maintain this relationship, hence her desire to volunteer with teenagers.