Adulam France Park in the Lower Judean hills has become a favorite stop for many groups of young people visiting Israel, but the group that worked excavating the site of the Talmudic village Burgin was truly unique. It was comprised of 19 young Americans aged 15-18 who are participating in the United Synagogue Youth's "Tikkun Olam" summer mission, a number of Border Patrol police, and 16 mentally challenged adults who live in nearby Neve Michael. This meeting of people with very different backgrounds was the initiative of Yirmi David of KKL-JNF's Education and Youth Department, and as the day progressed, it turned out to be a huge success.
"Today's (26.7.11) activities are part of KKL-JNF's Nof Moledet program," Yirmi said, "which gives young people visiting Israel the experience of actually working on the land. The USY group's KKL-JNF week began with a lecture by Dr. Ben-Zion Bar-Lavie at KKL-JNF's Nes Harim Field and Forest Center, where they are staying. Dr. Bar-Lavie spoke with them about the challenges and importance of 'ecological Zionism'. Today the group will be doing some archaeological work and working in the forest around Neve Michael. This is also an opportunity for them to connect with some of the different sorts of people who are part of Israeli society, like the army policemen and the people from Neve Michael. We've been working with the Border Police for years, and KKL-JNF activities have almost become part of the border policemen's basic training.
"The theme of the USY group is tikkun olam, and they have been volunteering in a number of different frameworks throughout the country. We thought it would be a great idea to team them up with Israeli soldiers, who inevitably have instant chemistry with young people from the United States, and with the mentally challenged people from Neve Michael. The idea was to have them all work together at the dig in small groups comprised of Americans, soldiers and the Neve Michael people. This is the first time we've worked with Neve Michael, and we weren't sure how it was all going to work out, but as you can see for yourselves, it’s been wonderful!"
Tel Burgin, or "Kfar Bish", as it is referred to in the Talmud and Josephus, is the
site of a Jewish village that thrived during the Second Temple era and afterwards. The group descended into a cave and tunnel complex that served as an underground refuge for the Jewish community in 130 AD, during the Bar Kochva rebellion. Their task was to fill buckets with material dug out of the floor of the cave and then to take the buckets up to the surface, where they were dry-sifted to discover archaeological remains such as pottery, bones, Roman glass and more.
Michelle Rich, group head and Senior US Conservative Judaism Kehila Relations manager, said that this was the third week of a four-week visit to Israel. "This is our KKL-JNF week. Tomorrow and the day after we'll be going to work at the USY forest grove near Beit Shemesh, where we'll be pruning, cleaning, creating fire breaks, and doing all sorts of forest maintenance. We are part of USY's Social Action/Tikkun Olam program, so we've been working with developmentally challenged children, painting apartment hallways in Kiryat Shemona, helping older people, and many other such activities. For about a third of the group, this is their first time in Israel. Experiences like the one we're having today helps cement a relationship to the land and the people in a way that won't easily be forgotten."
For David Sperber of Randolph Township, New Jersey, this was his first visit to Israel. "I guess you could say I've sort of fallen in love with Israel. Someday I'd like to make aliya. I'm thrilled to be working with KKL-JNF, because the environment is one of my biggest passions, and I hope one day to work in cooperation with KKL-JNF and to meet some of its experts. I've made a lot of amazing connections with incredible people, with whom I spoke about YUSE – Youth United for a Sustainable Earth, a national group that I belong to - and about making YUSE into an international network.
"When we were in Tel Aviv, we went to Independence Hall, where the State of Israel was declared by Ben Gurion in 1948. Our guide explained to us how we are a people that was exiled from its land 2000 years ago, who have now come back and reestablished their home. After he finished speaking, Hatikva was played and I said to myself, this is where I really need to be."
Molly Gimbel of Boonton Township, New Jersey, also said that she plans to make aliya, "even if it doesn't seem at all realistic. I love the people here, the atmosphere and the fact that you can go anywhere and find someone to connect to. What we're doing here today, working together with the soldiers and the Neve Michael people in the field and forest, is amazing. It's exactly the sort of thing I had hoped we'd be doing this summer. We're part of history. And working with special needs people is such a plus for us, it gives us so much."
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We also spoke with the Border Policemen, during one of the rare moments they weren't posing for pictures, or playing or working with the other members of the group: "Volunteering in the community is part of our army service, and KKL-JNF activities are a large part of how we connect to Zionism and the environment After last year's
devastating Carmel forest fire, a group of Border Police officers went to the Carmel to work at various forest restoration projects. Most recently, we did a joint Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony together with KKL-JNF."
Zohara Bar Noi, who was in charge of the Neve Michael group, said that an activity like today's was complex: "Our institution has people aged 20-76. Today's group has 16 people, and this is the first time we've ever done something like this. Cooperating with others makes most of the group very happy. Part of our philosophy is to do things together with all sorts of other people rather than creating an insular environment in which they don't have opportunities to interact."
We spoke with a couple of the Neve Michael people. Hanoch, who received the President of Israel's Volunteering Award last Israel Independence Day, said that he was having a great time: "I want to do it again. Crawling through the tunnels was hard, but we had to do it. It's exercise, it's healthy. We volunteer regularly in the army, doing cleaning work at the Beit Guvrin base."
Michel said that this was the first time in his life that he did work like this: "It was hard, but successful. I've only been living in Neve Michael for six months. A friend of mine works in KKL-JNF. I'm originally from Sderot, and I had a Kassam rocket fall right next to me. Nothing happened to me, but I got very anxious and had to spend some time in the hospital."
When the work at Beit Guvrin was completed, the group went to KKL-JNF's
archaeological center in Givat Yeshayahu, where they rinsed their finds and received explanations from archaeologists about what they had found. From there everyone went to Neve Michael, where they were the guests of the Neve Michael group for lunch. The day's final activity was working in the forest just outside the premises of the institution, pruning trees, uprooting weeds, moving forest brush and creating forest paths. The goal is to create a spot in the forest where Neve Michael residents will be able to come and enjoy being in nature. When the work is completed, KKL-JNF will install a sign marking the United Synagogue Youth forest recreation area.
Shayna Solomon of Rockville, Connecticut, said that this was very different than the last time she had visited Israel, which was for her sister's Bat Mitzvah: "This time I'm here with people my age, which is really, really cool. It's not just about helping Israel, we ourselves benefit from a day like this. We're being given a chance to be part of the reality of daily life in Israel, not just being taken to tourist traps.
"Of course I knew about KKL-JNF because of the blue boxes, which are a very clear image, but I didn't really understand what KKL-JNF was about until this trip. For me, Judaism is a very important part of my life and I want to learn and do more and more. I'm not sure I could live in Israel, but this trip has connected me to the people and the land in a way I hadn't experienced before."
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