One of them had a bypass just six months ago, and another had a hip replacement last year. Their hair is turning grey, and they are not always completely steady on their feet as they tread the paths among the hills around Jerusalem. But they have several things in common that distinguish them from other members of the Jewish international scene and make them stand out in this Israeli social landscape. All of them belong to a Canadian-American organization called CAARI that caters exclusively for active senior citizens who want to fill their spare time in an unconventional manner: by pruning olive trees, for example, or by restoring ancient terraces that have collapsed after heavy rain; or perhaps by helping out with educational and social activities in educational institutions, etc., etc. This group of volunteers, like the many others who come here every year, was escorted with great care and devotion by Susan Horwitz, CAARI Program Director.
We met them at Sataf in the Jerusalem hills, as they equipped themselves with hoes, pruners and gloves, in preparation for the task ahead that day: trimming unnecessary branches from the ancient olive trees, so as to bolster next season’s olive harvest, and the reconstruction of a section of terrace that had collapsed because of the recent heavy rainfall. Take, for example, Marilyn and Ronald Nefsky from Toronto in Canada, who have come to Israel to participate in the senior citizens’ volunteer program. “Usually we come for between five and seven weeks,” Ronald told us. “This is the fifth year running that we’ve taken part in the program, which provides an excellent combination of meetings, interesting lectures, visits to interesting places and a chance to do volunteer work. Above all, this is the Land of Israel, and don’t forget that I am a born Zionist,” he concluded proudly as he straightened up after pruning branches growing out of the base of an olive tree hundreds of years old. “We prefer to come here once a year, rather than going to Florida like everyone else,” added Marilyn.
This year they have decided to come for a shorter period of time, for just two weeks. Ronald recovered not long ago from complex open-heart surgery, and prefers to set a limit to his efforts. This time their visit includes a family reunion, as the couple’s son decided to immigrate to Israel last year.
The senior citizens’ volunteer program operates under the auspices of KKL-JNF in Israel and North America, and the participants bear the full cost of their own travel and accommodation expenses. Each tries in his or her own way to do their very best for the community and environment in Israel. The program includes meetings with prominent Israelis, lectures on Israel and the Middle East by well-known experts, social encounters with Israeli citizens – and, above all, encounters with Israel’s history, its heritage and its landscapes. Participants in the program in previous years have formed lasting friendships that continue all year round. Most of them volunteer on a regular basis in a variety of ways within their own communities, too, and so were especially attracted by this CAARI program, which allows them further opportunities to express the volunteering spirit that inspires their lives as senior citizens.
One of the oldest members of the group is Berni Hulkower from Port Washington in New York State. He and his wife have been taking part in annual volunteering trips to Israel since 1996. “Before we joined this program we used to come to Israel with Hadassah International,” said Beni. “Our connection with Israel dates back many years, and my son, who is now 51, celebrated his bar mitzvah in Israel. We decided to come here on a regular basis not just because of our attachment to Judaism and Zionism, but also for the simple reason that the Israeli winter is always warm and very beautiful. Those who don’t come along don’t know what they’re missing. Most people think that KKL-JNF is just about trees, and they have no idea of the vast extent of its activities with regard to building reservoirs, preparing land for farming in frontier areas, constructing security roads along the border, and all the rest of it.”
Members of this CAARI group are well aware of the great importance of the financial donations made to all these projects by Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide, and some of them told us that they have already included KKL-JNF in their wills.
Jamil, the site’s forester, stood at the side of the path leading down to the Sataf spring and handed out tools and gloves to the volunteers. He helped those members of the group who found it difficult to clamber over the low stone walls into the olive grove, then worked together with a group of cheerful women to rebuild a section of collapsed terrace. An hour or so later the terrace had been restored, and the pile of pruned olive branches was growing steadily higher.
from Toronto was filling buckets with stones and dirt to fill in the gap that remained behind the wall of the reconstructed terrace. Anice, who was born in Montreal, told us that one of her three children now lives in Beit Shemesh: “When my husband retired, we looked for something useful and interesting to do. I heard about the CAARI program from a friend, and we called the KKL-JNF office in Montreal straight away to find out more about it. That was in 1995, and we’ve been coming here every year ever since. At first our friends thought we were crazy – now they are absolutely certain we are! But I explain to them that we do things here that we’d never do at home in Canada. We’ve done a bit of everything in the course of our volunteer work, from painting walls in a school and teaching English to pupils to working outdoors as we are doing today. The great thing is that there’s a variety of tasks for volunteers to perform. Some of them help KKL-JNF, while others benefit the community.”
of New York gave
the physical work a miss this time, but only because she recently had a
hip replacement. “I have a profound connection with Israel, we actually
had an apartment here in the past and we’ve got a large extended family
here,” she said. “In New York I was very active in everything to do
with Israel, for decades. Among other things, for years I was creative
director of the Salute to Israel march in New York, because of my
background in dance and drama. I was active for years in my area of
expertise in the Jewish sector in the US. This is my fourth year here
in the CAARI program since I was widowed. I came to the program because
I was looking for something different to do that would be connected
with Israel. I’m also a member of the Labor Zionist Movement and the
New Israel Fund. I’m less involved in KKL-JNF activities, but
contribute to the organization. When I’m here I feel intoxicated by the
special feeling imparted by Israeli society, a feeling a comfortable
inter-personal closeness, openness and intimacy of the kind we so lack
in the U.S. I’ve got relatives all over the U.S., and we see one
another twice a year at most, at Passover and Thanksgiving. Here it’s
As they took their brief break from work these diligent senior citizens
snacked on fresh oranges, whose peel they were careful to gather up
when they had finished. Most of them made the steep climb back up to
Sataf Visitors’ Center on foot; only those who found it hard going
accepted a lift from Jamil. Once arrived at the center, this agreeable
and cohesive group met to discuss the next stage of the day’s
activities: a visit to the memorial for the victims of the September
11th terrorist attacks, which, thanks to donations from JNF America,
was recently inaugurated in the Arazim Valley at the approach to
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