Volunteers Tour the Negev Desert 758.
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
For most of the over 30 Sar-el volunteers who toured the Negev with KKL-JNF on Sunday, March 29, seeing how the Negev desert has developed came somewhat as a surprise. As Vanessa, who is from Rochester, New York, said: "I wanted to be more than a tourist; I wanted to live the life that people in Israel live. I want to tell others about this country, and how can I tell them about anything that I haven't seen for myself? As for what I've learned today, my cup literally runneth over. It's been way beyond my expectations."
Sar-el (a Hebrew acronym for "Service for Israel) is a non-profit, non-political organization and national project for volunteers for Israel. It was founded in 1982 by Aharon Davidi, an Israeli general. Sar-el is represented in over thirty countries worldwide, and its goals include partnering with supporters of Israel to create a mutually beneficial experience. During their stay in Israel, many of the volunteers live on Israeli army bases and work in IDF warehouses, as was the case with this group. The time the group spent with KKL-JNF provided them with an opportunity to see the country and learn about its nature and ecology.
The day began at the protected indoor playground in Sderot, a gift of JNF USA, where the group was greeted by Shmuel, who has been the manager of the playground since it opened in 2009. "There are 360 tons of steel in this structure that make sure no missile will be able to hurt the children playing here," he said. The $5 million facility was constructed in an old textile warehouse, and play areas double as bomb shelters, ensuring that all occupants can quickly reach safety in the event of a “Code Red” rocket alert. The center’s attractions include a soccer field and volleyball court, movie theater, disco, rock climbing wall, snack area, computer center, and jungle gym. Local schools utilize the center for special events and holidays, and day camps hold sessions here during the summer months.
The next stop was the Sderot water reservoir, where KKL-JNF forester Arnon explained to the group that Israel has successfully dealt with its water crisis by utilizing water from three sources – desalination, floodwaters and recycled effluents. The Sderot reservoir and the adjacent purification plant, which was built with the assistance of JNF New England, treat sewage water from the city of Sderot and from additional villages in the vicinity. Arnon showed the group a water cistern from Byzantine times that harvested water for local inhabitants, noting that in a sense, KKL-JNF is adapting the same methods that were used in Israel over history to present-day circumstances and demands. "Compared to the reservoir, which can hold one million cubic meters of purified water, the cistern is small, but the idea is the same," Arnon said.
"This was a relatively rainy year, and many trees are in bloom now. You picked the right time to visit KKL-JNF's Gilat tree nursery." Nursery director Pablo Cherkesky led the Sar-el group on a tour of the fifty-acre site, where close to a million seedlings are grown annually. Pablo described the various plants the nursery grows, which are suitable for the semi-arid Negev climate, and the methods used for growing the saplings. "We experiment with plants and trees from all over the world, from the Americas to Africa, to see what might succeed here. We also educate people to realize that you can make a wonderful garden with plants that don't demand huge amounts of water," he said. Pablo also took the group to the "mother plantation", where mature trees of all shapes and sizes provide an invaluable source of seeds, cuttings and information for meeting the changing needs of Israel's forests and open spaces.
Denise Rosenhart is a translator from the Netherlands who works for Israel Today. "I think it's wonderful that Sar-el took us for a day with KKL-JNF. I found the visit to the Gilat nursery extremely informative. I had thought that eucalyptus trees were only used to dry up swamps, but now I realize that different species can be useful in so many different ways."
The day concluded at Beersheba River Park, an urban paradise that was a polluted and neglected area several years ago. The park strip covers an area of 450 hectares (1112 acres) along a 8 km strip between Tel Beer Sheva and Abraham’s Well. It was developed with contributions from friends of KKL-JNF in the USA, Canada, Germany and Switzerland. The park boasts beautiful landscaping, green lawns, pretty promenades, pleasant picnic areas and an amphitheater on a hill for events and performances, from which the group could see how the park transformed Beersheba's urban landscape. Tami, the excellent KKL-JNF tour guide, said that in the past, "people in Beersheba would only look northward, in the direction of Tel Aviv, but now their hometown has become a welcoming and bustling metropolis, and the park has been a major catalyst in the city's transformation."
Yosef is a new immigrant from Connecticut who will begin serving in the Israeli army in August. "I asked one of the army officers if he had any ideas what I could do until then, and he recommended volunteering for the Sar-el program," Yosef said. "Touring the Negev today I realized that Ben Gurion's dream of making the Negev bloom has actually become a reality in our time."
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Leo from Vancouver, Canada, is a retired IT and software engineer. ""I enjoyed this day with KKL-JNF immensely," he said. "What you have done here is nothing short of a miracle. And what is even more amazing is that it's not some sort of magic, but that everything has been accomplished by people doing hard work. It makes me want to volunteer with KKL-JNF in the future."
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