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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Five hundred Diaspora youths have signed up for Leading Up North, a project to help rebuild communities damaged in this year's war with Hizbullah.
The first group from the US arrived Wednesday morning.
Working side-by-side with Israelis, participants will replant forests, dispose of burnt trees, and repair bomb shelters damaged in the conflict.
Participants hail from North America, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and India.
Volunteers Michelle Citrin, 25, and Lindsay Litowitz, 24, were in Israel this summer during the war. "It was so frustrating to be in Jerusalem wanting to lend a hand and all the while feeling totally helpless," said Citrin, who also participated in birthright israel.
"Sometimes, even for those of us working in the Jewish community, it's easy to feel disconnected. It's exciting to get back and do some hands-on work for Israel," added Litowitz, who works at the New York office of Livnot U'Lehibanot.
Susan Pultman of St. Louis and Kerry Marks of New York, both 24, came to the program with the hope of giving back to Israel through positive energy.
Pultman, who works for the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) Institute in Arad as a recruitment officer in America, explained that the project appealed to her "as I would be working alongside young professionals - my age - which would have a real positive community spirit that would be shown through the work."
Marks works for Young Judea and wanted to practice what she preaches: "We teach kids to do community service, tikkun olam (healing the world). I want to do the same and this is a unique way of doing it."
"I am looking forward to meeting and hearing about the experiences of those affected by the war," Marks added.
Marks's group went straight to work upon arrival in Israel.
"So far we have decorated a bomb shelter to make it more appealing to young children," Marks said.
On January 3, volunteers from the project and their Israeli counterparts will converge in Kiryat Shmona for a day of tree planting followed by the One Shekel Festival.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, hip-hop group Hadag Nahash, and singers Din Din Aviv and Fortisacharoff are among those expected to participate.
Philanthropist Lynn Schusterman provided the funding necessary to enable the new Vancouver-based Center for Leadership Initiatives (CLI) to run the trips.
"Too many people feel powerless in the face of the violence in the Middle East," commented Schusterman, president of CLI and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF).
"Leading Up North will allow participants to meld community service and real actions for healing the region as they demonstrate their leadership and express their connection to Israel," said Schusterman.
Volunteers paid $180 for the entire trip - flight, food, accommodation, and an educational program.
Hillel, the Israel on Campus Coalition and the Jewish Coalition for Service (JFCS) are each in charge of different tracks.
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