Lillian Mizrahi is not your typical Peace Corps volunteer. A Jewish woman from the Bronx who is now 69 years old, Mizrahi first considered joining 40 years ago, when she moved to Los Angeles from New York, but her life got busy with children and a career.
“Two years ago, I got a postcard that said, ‘Baby Boomers, we want you,’” said Mizrahi, who worked as a talent executive with E! for nine years.
She attended a few Peace Corps meetings, even bringing along a friend who went on to volunteer in South Africa. “I took the steps thinking somewhere along the way it wouldn’t work, but it worked,” Mizrahi said.
With her children grown, Mizrahi felt it was the right time to help restore America’s former good image abroad. She was sent to Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, where she now works with KONEKT, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to increase philanthropy among Macedonians. She also tutors adults in English.
“I’ve been here 17 months, and it’s a wonderful experience,” Mizrahi said in a phone interview.
On March 1, the Peace Corps commemorated 50 years of promoting peace and friendship around the world. Events will be held around the United States throughout the year.
The program, which was started in 1961 through an executive order issued by President Kennedy, traces its roots to a 1960 challenge from then-Sen. Kennedy to the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country by living and working in developing countries. The Peace Corps’ purpose is to promote peace and friendship by sharing skills, helping promote a better understanding of Americans and helping Americans develop a better understanding of other people.
More than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries. Mizrahi is among the 7 percent of current Peace Corps volunteers who are older than 50.
“They are encouraging more seniors to join because of their wealth of experience,” she said.
Although she had offered to take an assignment in a rural community because of her prior experience living on a kibbutz, Mizrahi says the placement in a city ended up being a perfect fit.
In Skopje, Mizrahi is also part of a small Jewish community made up of Americans, Israelis and Macedonians. She has held Seders, and this winter she hosted a large Chanukah party. Mizrahi attends holiday services at the local Jewish community center, and was there for the March 7 opening of the Macedonia Holocaust Museum, which has been in the works for 10 years.
Funding for the museum has come primarily from a special fund created in 2000 from the assets of Macedonian Jewish families who perished in the Holocaust and left no heirs. Additional funding comes from Israel and the United States.
Mizrahi said joining the Peace Corps after working in entertainment was like “going from the ridiculous to the sublime.” She said, “TV is a young people’s business.”
Mizrahi says she loves the Robin Hood concept of taking from the rich to give to the poor.
“In the Peace Corps, we take trained individuals and give them to the untrained to transfer skills which will still be there after [they’ve] left,” she said.
So far, Mizrahi has helped organize a philanthropy conference for the Balkan region, an Earth Day celebration, harvest festivals and 5K runs. She also has helped with a spelling bee and a Habitat for Humanity building project.
The Peace Corps provides Mizrahi with an apartment and a stipend for living expenses. Mizrahi says her son and daughter share her sense of adventure and are proud of her, and that being so far away is made easier with technology like Skype and e-mail.
Mizrahi says she hopes the Peace Corps has a long future, and without hesitation she encourages other older adults to join. She says people should think about what they could handle and where they will be comfortable, but ultimately the organization does a good job of making a match.
“If you want to do it, it’s a wonderful experience,” she said. “And your kids will be impressed with you.”