While most people probably go to Israel to visit its historical sites and beautiful terrain, there are some who go there to work. Not because they have a professional connection, but because they love the country and are willing to roll up their sleeves to do what it takes to help beautify it.
For the past 14 years, the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg has brought some of those workers to prune vineyards, visit centers for abused children (while beautifying those very centers), and this year build a rock garden at a home for the severely disabled.
Simone Wilker is not an OJC member — she lives in Washington Township and belongs to Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake — but she has gone on four of Orangetown’s Mitzvah Missions. She credits OJC’s Rabbi Craig Scheff with creating and leading these trips, inspiring participants to make the journey again and again. Some people have gone on all 14 missions, she said.
Ms. Wilker pointed out that the synagogue runs many missions — some are led jointly by Rabbi Scheff and the shul’s other rabbi, Paula Mack Drill. But this one particularly appeals to her because she’s been to Israel many times and doesn’t feel like a tourist there.
The people who participate, 16 this year, are a self-selected team “who want to do something good,” Ms. Wilker said. “They all feel like that. It costs a lot, a six-day trip to Israel, but they’re a committed crowd. Everyone wants to do something good. It’s not a tour. There’s really work to do, hard work,” as in the case of the rock garden.
Four days out of the six, “we did work,” she said, adding that “I felt that the things we were doing were really significant.” She explained that the group always chooses to participate in at least “one JNF project of some sort.” This time, it was Aleh Negev, a 25-acre village halfway between the Gaza strip and Beer Sheva. According to Ms. Wilker, it was designed specifically for children and adults with severe disabilities from across Israeli society. Now, 150 people live there.
The OJC group gardened with some of the residents, “some of whom were experiencing employment for the first time,” Ms. Wilker said. “Our emotions swung with each interaction, but once we caught our balance, we believe our presence made a difference.
“We built a huge rock garden,” she continued. “It was beautiful. We put black plastic on the ground and took rocks in a wheelbarrow and spread them around. It was a big area, a huge project. Physically, we worked really hard. I was exhausted by the end of the day.”
The mission participants also filled some 30 round and rectangular hanging flower pots with soil and planted flowers in them. “Then we went to the units they would hang in and hung them there. It made it look just beautiful.” While many other groups come to visit the facility, she said, “I don’t know if any groups come to do what we do.”
The men and women who went on the mission ranged in age from 23 to 73. “You don’t go unless you’re able-bodied,” Ms. Wilker said. “You’re meant to really work. If you can’t lend a hand, you don’t choose this trip, and it’s not for first-timers.”
As it happens, she knew a lot of mission participants. Her now-grown children had attended the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in New City, and the trip included “parents of my kids’ friends. I’ve known them for a long time.”
Ms. Wilker said the first mission started with Rabbi Scheff planning to go to Israel alone in 2006. He’d said from the pulpit that he intended to go to Kiryat Shmoneh to help out in the aftermath of Hezbollah rocket attacks. Several congregants said, “We’re going with you.” She learned of these missions during a trip to Washington to visit one of her sons, who lived there. She found herself sitting next to Rabbi Scheff at a dinner; he was there to visit his sister. She describes Rabbi Scheff as “a spiritual rabbi, surrounded in warmth.”
This year, “The really special aspect of the mission was a trip to Kfar Ahava, north of Haifa in Kiryat Bialik,” Ms. Wilker said. “We do this every year.” Indeed, the mission’s travel journal recorded that the OJC group has visited the Ahava Children and Youth Village for 13 consecutive years. The facility is for children so severely abused by their parents that they are removed from their homes to live on this campus.
“One of our members had a son who passed away,” she said. “We planted a memorial garden there. It’s a beautiful garden with benches and a metal tree. We held a beautiful service.” The OJC group also held a memorial service for a mission participant who had died recently. Ms. Wilker had lunch in an apartment with “13 kids and a ‘mother and father.’ They eat with them and study. Some kids who do social service projects for a year before they join the army were there too. They work all day with the kids.”
Once again rolling up their sleeves, Mitzvah Mission participants got to work painting rooms and staining floors in a pavilion. Some left for home the next day, but Ms. Wilker chose to remain a while longer. “I really felt I was making a difference in these places,” she said, adding that this will not be her last mission.
“I’ll keep going,” she said.