Everyone knows that KKL-JNF missions to Israel are an unforgettable experience, during which mission participants learn about aspects of Israeli life that other visitors to the country rarely come in contact with. We joined the recent JNF Toronto Canada mission to Israel for an intense and information-packed day in the Western Negev, seeing what it means to live on the border of the Gaza Strip and how daily life is viable in such harsh climatic conditions.
"Exactly how far is it from here to the Gaza Strip?" one of the mission participants wanted to know. "It's about a five minute walk if you're moving at a leisurely pace," answered Suzi Wachs, a member of Netiv Ha'asarah, a Western Negev community on the Gaza Strip border. Suzi continued: "Netiv Ha'asarah was originally founded in the Sinai Desert, but in 1982, after the signing of the peace accords with Egypt, we were relocated at our present location. Sinai was a big part of our life, but what's really important is what's happening here and now."
"Most of us work as farmers, and we also produce seeds for unique strains of vegetables. As you probably know, we suffer quite a bit from our neighbors. Just this last Passover, we were literally bombarded. A nine-meter high security wall was built to protect us from the constant attacks, but missiles cannot be stopped by walls. Many people have been injured, and a young girl who was visiting us was killed. Even so, I am proud to say that there is not one empty house in Netiv Ha'asarah. There are currently 250 children in the village, and we have a waiting list of people who want to move here and are waiting for new houses to be built."
One of the group wanted to know why Netiv Ha'asarah wasn't built further away from the border: "You have to remember that when we first moved here, there was an Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip and the villages next to us were Jewish settlements," Suzi explained. "When Ariel Sharon evacuated the Gaza Strip, we thought that since the Israeli 'occupation' had ended, we would live peacefully with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the opposite was true, and since then the situation has deteriorated."
Suzi is originally from New York, and in answer to a question as to why she chose to live here, she replied that she had come to learn Hebrew but ended up staying: "Especially at the beginning, there was a pioneering and communal spirit. I feel grateful to be part of Netiv Ha'asarah, and what is really gratifying is that our children want to make their homes here when they grow up."
After seeing Netiv Ha'asarah's amazing greenhouses, the visit concluded at an observation point from which it was possible to see to see Gaza City and the ruins of the evacuated Israeli settlements, along with the security road paved by KKL-JNF, which allows local residents to travel without being targeted by Palestinian terrorists.
Black Arrow – Remembering Israel's Heroes
KKL-JNF's Elisha Mizrahi greeted the group at their next stop, the Black Arrow Memorial, a site built by KKL-JNF and Israeli Army veterans in memory of the soldiers who fell during the state's first years while protecting the region from attacks.
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"After the founding of the state in 1948," Elisha explained, "Arabs from the Gaza Strip and Egypt were killing local residents and infiltrating their homes and communities. It was Ariel Sharon who formed a special paratroopers unit whose doctrine was to always take the offensive rather than just responding to enemy attacks. My father was friendly with many of those fighters, and I remember some of them from when I was a child, including people whose names are inscribed on the plaques you can see here, soldiers who gave their lives so that we could live and prosper here today."Lifesaving Trees and Water Reservoirs in the Desert
Elisha directed the bus to nearby Kibbutz Mefalsim, where KKL-JNF has recently begun a special project of planting trees around the communities that border on the Gaza Strip, in order to block the terrorist organizations' field of vision and help prevent them from taking aim at the communities and the cars traveling on local roads. The trees now being planted will block the view of snipers and help stop direct hits, such as the attack that took place one month ago, when a school bus was hit and 16-year old Daniel Wiflic was killed. The first stage of this unique project was inaugurated on Tu Bishvat earlier this year. The most significant stage has now begun, which includes planting a twelve-kilometer long boulevard of trees to help protect 11 communities, and Mefalsim was the site of the first plantings. As Elisha noted, friends of KKL-JNF throughout the world have already expressed their desire to support this important project.
From Mefalsim the group drove by the Nir-Am water reservoir, which stores purified water, the lifeblood of local agriculture. As Elisha said, "water is one of our major issues, and for us, it is like gold. Due to Israel's advanced agricultural achievements, we get a lot out of a very little, and making water available for Negev residents is at the top of KKL-JNF's priority list."Cold-loving Flowers in the Desert? The Besor R&D Station
According to Myron Sofer, the director of the Besor Research and Development Station, "no Israeli can be without a tomato for more than twenty-four hours." Sofer explained about the history of the R&D and why it is so important for life in the Negev: "The Besor R&D facility was founded in 1977, the first such station in Israel. Our goal is to provide the necessary basis of scientific research for local agriculture. We try to solve growers' current problems and also provide answers to questions which have not even been asked yet, along with adapting new crops to the semi-arid region in which we are located. Our achievements in greenhouse farming, pest control and water efficiency make it possible for agriculture to thrive in this difficult region. We even recently managed to grow peones, a beautiful cold-loving flower from Holland, and to market them off-season in Europe.
"KKL-JNF provides over a third of our funding and is a natural partner for us. We share the same objectives – the connection to the land and the motivation to do whatever is necessary to constantly improve living conditions for Negev residents. To give an example of just how important KKL-JNF is for us, I would mention that we haven't received our 2011 budget from the government yet. I just got an email that we can maybe expect the money in August, so it's thanks to the on-time support we receive from KKL-JNF that we're still able to exist."Modern Pioneers – the Halutziyot Communities
The last stop of the day was at the new Halutziyot communities being built for Gaza Strip evacuees in an especially desolate part of the Negev desert. The group was met by Moshe Brinker, one of the local residents, who explained that each of the future communities would be home to about 300 families, with a central community named Shlomit, which is being planned for 1,500 families. "The Halutziyot villages are being built along the border with Egypt, where there is also a shared border with the Gaza Strip. There are no other communities in this area for a thirty kilometer stretch. We have a special connection with Canadian Jewry, because the recent Negev Dinner at Toronto raised money to build the entrance to Naveh, one of the new communities being built here." Moshe also had a surprise for the visitors – picking organic carrots out of the desert sand, a perfect dessert after a long day in the desert.
Almost everyone we spoke with said that it was Abe Glowinsky who convinced
them to join the mission. "Young people have Birthright, which has been immensely successful in making them familiar with Israel, but what about adults?" Abe asked. "My goal is to expose as many people as possible to Israel. My parents are Holocaust survivors, so I have a keen sense of Israel's critical importance for the Jewish people. I have endless admiration and respect for what you're doing here. As far as I'm concerned, you are holding our homeland together for us."
Scott, Steve and Chuck count themselves as Abe's friends: "About two-thirds of the people on the mission are in Israel for the first time, and even those who were here previously haven't visited for ten to fifteen years."
"For me, a big part of the experience has been seeing the things I learned about in Hebrew School come to life," Chuck added. "We've also learned about the role of KKL-JNF in making and keeping Israel green. We spent time building firebreaks in the Carmel Forest to help prevent future forest fires. As Canadians, we feel a special connection to the Carmel, because the new fire fighting planes that Israel bought as a result of the fire were built in Canada, where we call them fire bombers."
Rebecca Woods-Baum, Executive and Outreach Program Coordinator of JNF
Canada, organized and led the group along with Josh Cooper, director of the Toronto office. "I think that besides all the sites we visited," Rebecca said, "one of the most important experiences was being here on the day when Arabs massed for protests on the Israeli borders, and seeing that daily reality in Israel is not what it looks like on CNN. The group was also very moved by the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day, which made a powerful impression on them."
Samuel Alter was with his wife Anne, who was on her first visit to Israel. "We chose to come with KKL-JNF because KKL-JNF is 100% Israel. We have lots of NGOs in Toronto, but when we support KKL-JNF, we know that every penny goes to the land."A Playground and Plaza in Kadima
The Toronto mission weren't the only Canadians recently visiting Israel. Martin and Janet Komsa, the 2009 Windsor Negev Dinner Honorees, visited Israel from Canada for the first time last week. They traveled from the north to the south and were very impressed by Israel's natural beauty, and they also planted a tree at the Plant a Tree Center at Golani Junction in the North. They visited the project that was promoted at the 2009 Negev Dinner, a playground and plaza in Kadima in the Sharon Region, where they were met there by the Head of the Local Council, Mr. Itzhak Golberry and KKL-JNF World Chairman, Mr. Efi Stenzler, who
presented the project to them.
The site where the project stands today used to be a garbage dump that their contribution helped transform into the pride of the neighborhood, where Kadima held its recent Israel Remembrance Day and Independence Day ceremonies in the presence of thousands of local residents. The playground has also become a main attraction for the children of Kadima, thanks to its central location and the fact that it is situated next to the newly built community center. The Komsas were delighted to see how their project was being put to such good use.
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