By Karen Podorefsky
While most college students were at home or on vacation during their winter breaks, 120 young adults, ages 18-24, from across the U.S. volunteered in Israel on the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Alternative Winter Break trip (AWB). About one-third of the participants are from New England.
Three buses of Jewish and non-Jewish students traveled through southern Israel to connect to the land and people in a meaningful way. Each of these dedicated young adults raised a minimum of $950 to go toward JNF’s Blueprint Negev campaign to support projects in the Negev Desert, including the ones the participants volunteered at.
“During the day we visited JNF projects and sights, and volunteered in the community, including at Halutza, Hashomer Hachadash, Aleh Negev, Earth’s Promise, and many more.” Becky Davidoff, a senior at Clark University and JNF Campus Fellow, gave an overview of the projects in which the students on her bus participated. “I loved gardening, painting, and planting trees while learning about how JNF helps these organizations and places. Our hard work was appreciated and we were often thanked by those living near and in these places for our hard work.”
Many of the participants on the AWB trips had already been on a trip to Israel that focused on more tourist-centered areas, rather than the Negev, and some had not been to Israel at all.
“It really requires a lot of work and a certain type of person who wants to live out there,” said Miriam Sernik, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We learned a lot about different technology that Israel is working on – different solar-powered initiatives, water power, and different alternative energy sources. That was really cool and is definitely something I would want to do more research about because Israel is pioneering a lot of stuff.”
“I thought the trip was very insightful and inspiring in terms of being able to learn more about the history of Israel and the Jewish people, and realize where the future is going as well,” said Angélica Joa, a sophomore at Clark University, who is not Jewish and who had not been to Israel before.
“My favorite part of the trip was any time I was able to sit down and just talk, whether it be with locals about their stories, or the other participants on the trips about their opinions and political beliefs about past and present Israel,” Joa recalled. “These conversations opened my mind to how deeply one person can feel connected to something, which is something I’ve never experienced. Everyone was deeply passionate about the country and the interpretations of their beliefs.”
There are now many subsidized programs for students to travel to Israel, but these AWB participants chose to dig a little deeper. The trip is a unique, hands-on experience to help the country and a great opportunity to bring newfound knowledge back home.
“I knew I would be able to connect to Israel beyond just the tourist superficial manner and be introduced to the country for the first time in all its real grit and glory. I learned about the importance of remaining open and curious when faced with new situations and ideals, but also how one small act does indeed have an impact in terms of when we think about community service. What we did was not just surface level or temporary, it created something to be thought about,” said Joa.
Davidoff has a different perspective, as she has been to Israel many times. “I am always looking for a way to get back to Israel. This was my fourth Israel trip in college,” she said. “Every time I go I have a new perspective and love the country even more. Volunteering in Israel makes me feel as if I made an impact and I am part of the land. I have many Israeli friends who are in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. They dedicate so much time and effort to their country. Going and volunteering with JNF made me feel part of something bigger and I enjoyed giving back. All my friends think it’s amazing that we spend our break taking care of Israel.”
After about a week of volunteering, each group spent the weekend in Jerusalem to enjoy a restful Shabbat. They also visited the Western Wall, Mahane Yehuda Market, and other areas of the city.
“My favorite part of the trip was going to the Kotel,” said Emanuel Colón, a junior at Worcester State University. “The Western Wall was an emotional experience for me. When I first got to the wall, I felt the power of history and all the emotions put into the wall. It was such a meaningful, spiritual moment.”
This was Colón’s first time in Israel and he is planning on participating on a Birthright trip this upcoming summer.
“I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty in the ground because it created a stronger connection between the land of Israel and me,” he said. “It felt great to plant trees in the Negev and to know that I was helping the future of our Jewish homeland.”
Karen Podorefsky is the former IACT Coordinator at Clark University Hillel. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Israel.