I really wanted to go to Israel this winter break, and from what I later saw at this winter’s QC Hillel get-together at Holy Bagel, I wasn’t the only one. So when the Jewish National Fund (JNF) presented an opportunity, I jumped. It was an “Alternative Winter Break” program, and volunteering seemed to be an added bonus. After I signed up, joined the newly created Queens College “team,” and paid the donation price, I was getting more and more excited to go. We received our itinerary, we had our flights booked, and there was a Facebook page for our bus. Not until later did I really learn what I would be doing in Israel.
As a JNF-run program, our jam-packed week was focused on JNF projects. We spent most of our stay in the Negev, an area that most schools, tour groups, and even Israelis often seem to forget about. We worked in several different locations including a garden at an Ethiopian absorption center, an archeological site from King Solomon’s time, and an isolated farm (yes, apparently there are farms in the desert). Once we got up to Jerusalem at the end of the week, we also worked at an agricultural site on the outskirts of the city.
When we weren’t volunteering, we were visiting JNF-supported projects such as the river park in Be’er Sheva, the Research and Development Center in the Arava, and the Sderot indoor playground. Fruits and vegetables growing in the desert, a river flowing through Be’er Sheva, and fish swimming in a water-deprived region are at first inconceivable until you see them with your own eyes. And even then, they’re almost surreal.
But what I found most impressive were the individuals we met and their commitment to the land. These people were giving up comfortable lifestyles for the development of a portion of Israel that until recently has been severely neglected. With isolated living and many vital resources such as hospitals a two-hour drive away, the Negev is no hot spot (no pun intended). The arid land and weather will always be obstacles. But I had a chance to witness the beginning of a groundbreaking project. Today, 60 percent of the land is populated by a mere 8-10 percent of the Israeli population. Populating the desert won’t happen overnight, and the dedication of the pioneers we met was inspiring. Someone pointed out that it was like watching the first years of the settling of the State of Israel, when individuals started from scratch, established themselves in a certain area, and lived in caravans before going on to permanently build their own homes. To us that time may seem like bygone history. But what this trip has shown me is that we are living history today.
written by Dalya Arussy