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"In Israel you're already doing everything that ought to have been done in Australia. For instance, everyone in Eilat drinks desalinated water, while we're still arguing whether or not Melbourne needs desalination plants. What we are experiencing here in Israel simply boggles the mind!" The speaker is Harry Engel, a pharmacist from Victoria, Australia, who made the long journey to Israel as a member of a mission organized by JNF Australia.
Harry and Leone Engel are well placed to appreciate everything that has been achieved in the State of Israel over the past few decades. "We last came here 41 years ago. Amazement is not the word to describe what we have experienced here in the course of these packed days of our visit. If we were 20 years younger, we wouldn't hesitate to come and live here: the Israel we have seen this time has had a profound effect on our emotions and has aroused our admiration. For us it's the difference between imagination and reality. We keep pretty much abreast of what's going on in Israel, but the reality simply hits you in the face at every turn, at every moment - the overall modernization, KKL-JNF's water conservation infrastructure and agricultural development projects. In the Arava we saw a desert in bloom, producing prime agricultural produce. It is real, and it is amazing. Why aren't we in Australia learning more from you?"
Harry Engel has trouble walking but nonetheless, like several other members of the group, he kept up with the pace of the Young-at-Heart mission. The group had traveled the length and breadth of the country, visiting historical sites, settlements, communities, R&D facilities and a variety of other projects, mostly established with KKL-JNF Australia. Although most of the group had visited Israel in the past, there were a few over sixties who were making their first trip to the country they have "lived and breathed" from afar all their lives.
We met Peter Rossler on a particularly hot day at the IDF Armored Corps' main memorial site at Latrun. He decided to join the mission after seeing a KKL-JNF advertisement in Australia for a guided tour of Israel. "The circumstances of my life decreed that this should be my first trip to Israel. Now I know that I'll want to come back here with my daughter and three grandchildren," he said. Rossler's life combines all the elements of the human drama of Jewish life over the past few generations. His visit to Israel coincided with the 66th anniversary of the day he and his family were taken from his native town of Prague to Poland's Lodz Ghetto. At the age of 11 he found himself on the doorstep of the Nazi Satan and watched his parents starve before his very eyes. Three years later he and his elder brother were taken to Auschwitz. "Mengele asked my brother how old he was, and when he answered "sixteen," he told him to go to the right. I said I was fourteen, and they indicated that I should go left, but instead I followed my brother, and no one noticed. It is only because of that split-second decision that I'm here today."
Peter's uncles and brother survived, and after the war, as orphans, they were invited to immigrate to Australia with the help of one of the relief organizations. "We arrived in Brisbane on November 28th 1948. The uncles brought us up, and I was lucky enough to find my niche in studies. I'm a research chemist by profession, and I'm also a guide at Sydney's Jewish Museum."
Peter Rossler lost his wife eight months ago, and the small KKL-JNF announcement advertising the guided tour persuaded him to sign up for the trip. Peter knows a lot about Israel, but his encounter with the rebirth of the Jewish People in their homeland has left him both proud and very moved. "I felt great pride when I saw what has been accomplished here in every sphere of life. I find it hard to take in everything I see - the sheer extent of KKL-JNF's activities in making the desert bloom, constructing an efficient agricultural infrastructure, conserving in this arid part of the world that precious resource called water - and, of course, everything else that has been achieved in this country throughout its sixty years of existence."
The group's leader Peter Windholz lived in Israel for three years in the early 1950s, before moving to Australia with his family and even served in the 82nd Battalion of the glorious 7th Brigade, which fought at Latrun fortress in the War of Independence. "Today we've completed the full circle of Israeli heroism in the Israeli homeland," Peter told the members of the group. "We began our visit in Kerem Maharal with a meeting with survivors of the Holocaust and we are finishing it here in Latrun, at the memorial to the heroism of Israel's sons in their struggle for their country's independence and existence."
The members of the Young-at-Heart mission spent the second last day of their visit at Bird's Head Park by the Yarkon River, Tel Aviv. At this spot, at the very edge of the park, the traumatic event that eventually led to closer ties between Australian Jewry and KKL-JNF - the disastrous collapse of the bridge over the River Yarkon during the opening ceremony of the Maccabia Games - took place a number of years ago. The death of young athletes, mainly as the result of an infection caused by a fungus that lived in the river bed, brought about a turning point in attitudes to the environmental development of the Yarkon. Friends of JNF Australia contributed to these efforts in hopes of etching the tragedy on people's consciousness as a catalyst for positive change, and today members of the group saw the results for themselves, in the well tended park. Yarkon River Authority Director Dr. David Pargmon spoke of KKL-JNF Australia's involvement in a major project of the rehabilitation of the Yarkon: the flooding project designed to provide a green basin for the further purification of effluents that have already been treated by mechanical means. The purified water will be channeled into the Yarkon, where it will help to restore the flow of fresh water in the river, which is at present full of brackish sea water.
There, at the edge of the park, in the shade of the giant eucalyptus trees, Pamela and Henry Huppert spoke of their experiences. It transpired that for twelve years Henry had tried in vain to persuade his wife, Pamela, to join him on a visit to Israel, because he wanted her to understand why he spends a large portion of his time on activities related to KKL-JNF Australia. "Henry has asked me again and again to go with him to Israel," says Pamela, who is not slow to admit that fear for her personal safety was one of the reasons she was reluctant. "Now I can see how wrong I was. Also, I don't like bus tours and I have never understood the whys and wherefores of KKL-JNF. It was only for Henry that I helped collect money to plant trees and put in the blue box. 'KKL-JNF = trees' was the only equation I knew. I didn't really understand what KKL-JNF activities were all about. This visit has opened my eyes to the passionate enthusiasm Israelis feel for their country. I wish I could rouse Australians to a similar pitch of enthusiasm. What I have experienced here is something you just can't get from listening to lectures and the media in Australia. People do come along every so often, it's true, and talk about things, but you need to see with your own eyes what's been done with this desert to keep the Jewish homeland flourishing, from the days of our Patriarch Abraham to the present day. It's very, very exciting. Now, as our visit draws to an end, I know that I will want to play a full part in the activities of the KKL-JNF committee in Brisbane; because now I understand the meaning of the saying "generosity begins at home."
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