Last year I went on Jewish National Fund’s first Alternative Spring Break in the Negev Desert.The goal of the trip was to connect the participants ‘5 of us, all college-age, but from different parts of the country, some secular, some observant with the people of Israel and what it means to live there. The trip was a resounding success.
Allison Teitelbaum, a resident of Fair Lawn and a student at NYU, is pictured during last year’s JNF Alternative Spring Break in Israel’s Negev.
I want to briefly share one of my favorite moments with you. The scene is a simple one. Cushions are scattered haphazardly on the straw mat covering the cobblestone floor. It’s Purim day at the Ayalim settlement in the Negev, where about 70 Ben-Gurion University students chose to develop and live in a community in the desert rather than in Beer Sheva, closer to the university. We have been working there all day, moving stones to make the caravans more permanent, weeding the gardens, and pouring concrete onto some paths. After work, the students invite us to stay for a barbecue.
The sun is going down, we just finished reading the Megillah, we’ve eaten, and now the music starts up. A few of us rush to our feet and create a dance circle. Traditional Israeli dance songs play, and spinning to the music, I think about the pioneers, who after long days of work, also relaxed at night in dancing circles. The settlement is not a collection of houses, stone, and concrete. The students have built a community, and succeed in making us all feel really welcome.
I want to share one other magical moment. We go to a children’s hospital the last day of the trip and split into groups to visit some of the children. A mother and a young boy are in one of the rooms. We ask if the boy wants to paint and he smiles. We put the pictures on the table, and he selects the one he wants. I get a cup of water for the brush. When the boy wants to change colors, he tells his mom what new color he wants and she tells us. We can’t communicate with the boy beyond gestures and smiles because he speaks only Arabic. His mother translates his words into Hebrew, and in the process tells us all the colors in Arabic.
This reminds me of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, another place we visited. One of its focuses is to try to solve regional environmental conflicts by bringing together Israelis, Israeli Arabs, Jordanians, Palestinians, and North Americans. These settings are far too infrequent in Israel, and progress is often made when Israelis and Arabs meet as people painting a picture or solving environmental problems.
ASB made me feel like I contributed in my own small way to that progress. I hope to do more.
Last year, Jewish National Fund sent ‘5 college students to Israel to work in the Negev and give back to the land in its inaugural Alternative Spring Break. This year, JNF is sending ’50 college students to volunteer in northern Israel during their spring break in March. Their efforts will help make the north home again and, JNF hopes, will imprint the participants with a lasting connection to the Jewish State. As a result of this effort, guest houses across the region now suffering terrible economic losses from the war will be full, forests cleared and replanted, environmental clean-up provided, bomb shelters refurbished, attention paid to the needy population, and parks and recreation sites used by northern residents rebuilt.