They painted flowerbeds and underwater worlds on the walls of bomb shelters. They planted tree saplings and cleared brush on hillside forests scorched by Hezbollah rockets.
Hundreds of young adults from across the Jewish world including a student from Paramus, see related story rolled up their sleeves to give back to the residents of Israel’s war-battered north.
The group of 550 college students and young professionals from North America and Europe, from India and Australia, joined a mass community service project over the winter holidays called "Leading Up North," funded by the Lynn and Charles Schusterman Family Foundation.
"When you live abroad and you are a Jew, it is a unique feeling when there is a war going on here you feel as if it is your own family that is suffering," said Gabriel Buznik, ‘9, a lawyer from Buenos Aires. "Here we can show them they are not alone, we are the same Jewish people."
The young people, drawn from organizations such as their university Hillels and leadership programs sponsored by the Schusterman foundation, spread out over 10 northern communities for 10 days of volunteering and service.
They not only worked with their hands, they also interacted with local residents Jewish, Muslim and Christian and heard about their lives during and since the war.
The idea for the program followed the successes of Hillel-organized trips last year to areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and similar alternative spring breaks to places like Argentina and Ukraine that the Schusterman foundation helped fund in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
And it’s not the only program targeting the north: The Livnot U’Lehibanot program was recruited by the Israeli army’s northern command, the mayor of the city of Safed, and the UJA-Federation of New York to create an educational community service program for citizens of the north and volunteers to work together on renovating bomb shelters.
"Empowering the residents to take care of themselves means doing serious ‘tacheles’ work. We need to set up the shelters so that in time of war, they are in full operation and ready to go," Aharon Botzer, Livnot’s founder, said in a press release.
Lynn Schusterman, who remembers volunteering in the community as a young girl alongside her father, said public service is one of the best ways to forge connections and do good in the world.
"It gives a feeling of self-worth to give back," she said while visiting with program participants in Kiryat Shemona, the Israeli border town hardest hit by Hezbollah rocket fire during last summer’s Lebanon war.
The $1.5 million project was sponsored by the Schusterman foundation’s Center for Leadership Initiatives. Volunteers paid a fee of $180, but the rest of their costs including airfare and hotels were covered by the institute. About ‘,000 students applied for the 550 spots.
"It’s not just about fixing up and repairing the physical side, but the spirit as well," said Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel. "One of the really nice aspects of this project is that it is aimed at the people who are living here."
The participants said they were already setting up online networks to stay in touch and continue similar service projects in their own communities.
"This kind of volunteering is unlike anything else I’ve ever done before," said Aviva Weber, ‘0, a student from Milwaukee.
Weber and her group painted bomb shelters in the town of Shlomi, transforming the dreary underground bunkers into colorful places of rainbows and palm trees in an effort to comfort the children.
Karoline Henriques, ‘4, a graduate student from Denmark, said interacting with the residents was the highlight of her experience.
"To talk to them on a people-to-people level was rich and rewarding," she said. "They were so surprised to hear we really cared, [and] not just with words."