As our group walked through the quiet streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat - a final look at the city as we prepared for the flight home to LA - we picked fresh rosemary to use in the Havdalah prayers. We stopped at the Knesset and Supreme Court buildings, where our guard and medic, Ido, took pictures of us and answered questions about his license to carry a firearm after being stopped by a local policeman. And we played ultimate frisbee in a nearby park with a group of Israelis and Americans living in Jerusalem. These smaller details, ordinary in their scope and impact, are my last memories from a recent week’s stay in Israel.
As a first-time visitor to eretz yisrael, most of my impressions, I feel, have yet to sink in, but the connections I made and felt with Israelis met on our journey, with the land of Israel itself, and with other members of my group, will surely have an impact on me as Jewish adult, as time goes on.
After our arrival on Monday morning, we drove north to Haifa and settled in at Kibbutz Short, in Galil, which would serve as home base for the first three days of our trip. Our group was comprised of eight Americans and two Israelis. Lior Chacham, our Israeli guide, led us in introductory games, while Jessica Leibovitz, our trip leader from Jewish National Fund’s Los Angeles office, explained to us various “action areas” that serve as part of JNF’s broader mission, from water recycling & reclamation, to education & support of therapeutic services, to forestry and fire prevention. As a first time visitor, I could not have asked for more knowledgeable guides to give us an introduction to the people, the land, and history of the state of Israel.
Jess, our trip leader and a Campaign Executive and former director of Israel advocacy and education at JNF’s West Coast office, was a passionate advocate for education on topics regarding the projects we would be helping to work on during our stay. As a graduate student pursuing degrees in both Jewish education and nonprofit management, Jess completed her initial year of study at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, after completing her undergraduate work at University of California, Santa Barbara. During our interview together, she told me about the natural compatibility with her background in education and nonprofit management and the goals espoused by JNF.
“Many of those who are focused on education [at Jewish institutions] end up teaching in religious schools,” she told me. While the first year of her program entailed much of the training received by rabbinical students, Jess told me that, upon graduation, she was looking for a more focused position in the nonprofit world. Having grown up in the LA area, she returned to California to complete her studies and has worked at JNF for the past two years.
As a group of 18 to 30 year-olds on one of JNF’s Alternative Spring Break trips, we were able to see the impact of many of the JNF action areas Jess told us about firsthand. Through our initial day’s work at a community garden called Bat Galim in one of Haifa’s poorer neighborhoods, we witnessed both young and older residents of the city come to the garden, either to work or take a stroll, and take respite in the natural beauty of the garden amidst urban sprawl. Pulling weeds at the nature preserve at Yokneam, we were exposed to a vast, abundant farmland that now serves as a place for people living with disabilities to come and experience the outdoors, as well as perform basic tasks like gardening and receive education about ancient farming practices.
The site, administered by a nonprofit that partners with JNF called Lotem, even has a fully wheelchair accessible winepress, which sits atop a hill with a gorgeous view of the countryside. One of the site’s caregivers, Aviv, and I talked about the importance of disability rights and accessibility both in the United States and Israel, and the ability of nonprofits to help leverage change.
Just down the road, at Nahal Hashofet, where we were followed in our bus by Aviv’s gliding greyhound, we met with Raz, who at eight years old was in a near-fatal car accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. He led our group on a nature walk through the first fully wheelchair accessible hiking trail in Israel, stopping intermittently to teach us about local plants, manmade caves at the site and to chide us about taking too many “selfies.”
Despite being gone for only a week, my sense of time was perceptibly altered during my time in Israel. Arriving in Jerusalem, I witnessed religious life in the old city, where I was brought by my roommate, Jason, on our first night in the city.
On our last day of the trip, on Shabbat, I attended an orthodox service catered to Americans staying in the Jerusaelm, where a mechitza was erected to separate male and female congregants and the rabbi’s sermon was given in English. Jason was given the honor of holding the Torah scroll (hagbah) and lifted it to the congregation after which the clasp, mantle & silver ornaments were replaced. Jason, Lior and I listened to the rabbi speak about the blessing for the new moon and the importance of the month of Nissan in the Jewish calendar. As he spoke of G-d’s “giving” of the month of Nissan to the Jewish people as a time for renewal, I reflected on my own time in Israel, brief as it as.
Having learned about, and had the opportunity to work on, exciting projects through local nonprofit agencies and the JNF, I was given the ability to glimpse parts of Israel not normally accessible to a Westerner on their first trip to the country. The opportunities I had for meeting ordinary Israeli citizens, for seeing the countryside and some of the city life awoke in me a part of my Jewish identity I had not previously experienced. During one of our group exercises at the end of the day on Kibbutz Shomrat, our guide, Lior, had us take part in an activity where we categorized Jewish values.
As we compared our different groups’ lists and where we placed our priorities, I realized that “visiting Israel” ranked high on my list, where perhaps it had not prior to this trip. Not having been raised Jewish, I considered the value of “raising one’s children to be Jewish” for perhaps the first time in my adult life. And I talked with my group about the personal importance placed for me on reading Jewish books, which helped me as young adult to begin to understand the culture which I had been born into.
by Elliott Vogel
For those who are interested and would like to learn more about participating in one of JNF’s Alternative Spring Break, please visit www.jnf.org/ab