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(photo credit: Courtesy)
For spring break last year my friend Neil and I decided we were going to "do it right." We stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Cuba, partied on the beach in Varadero, traveled to Havana and after enough drinks decided we were going skydiving. And so after all the traveling, partying and jumping out of planes, the two of us decided unanimously that we had made the most of our spring break.
It seems as though this year we were outdone by a group of 200-odd college students. For the second straight year, the Jewish National Fund USA, Keren Kayemet and Hugei Sayyarut (a scout troop dedicated to touring Israel) brought students to Israel for their alternative spring break. This year, as part of the JNF's Project Northern Renewal, which aims to raise $400 million over the next 10 years, Jewish students came to volunteer in various capacities, such as replanting forests, weeding gardens and painting bomb shelters. And MTV's cameras were on hand to film it all as part of its upcoming documentary, The Amazing Break, which will air in America March 24.
I joined a group of eager young volunteers on their third day here as they were ready to paint the bomb shelters of Kfar Yuval, a moshav 200 meters from the Lebanese border, which had been hit by Katyushas during last summer's war.
As the students set out to work, Hugei Sayyarut members organize logistics for the day. The groups of students discuss how they are going to illustrate the inside of the very gray bomb shelters. "It's been decided, there's definitely going to be a Winnie the Pooh and a Tigger... and an Eeyore if we have time," one zealous young artist tells me. There's something to be said for keeping your goals realistic.
After about three hours of painting, my personal favorite is a bomb shelter where five students from Chicago lined the walls with spray painted grass, flowers and bright skies. "It just feels like a happy day," says one of the young Chicagoans semi-sarcastically.
These are the young inspired Zionists of our generation. Brought here by the philanthropists to work and play, but propelled to stay here by a connection to something greater. Israel, to them, offers a place where they can be their best with their new-found best friends - and possible future beshert.
The group is a compilation of Jewish students from all over North America. From Ivy Leaguers to frat boys, each has his own style and background. But among them a common theme: Zionism.
This is no one's first Israel trip. Everyone has had either a birthright, hasbara, yeshiva, seminary or year course experience here. And at the tender ages of 18 to 22, many of the students are already uttering the "A" word - aliya.
While there may be doubters, one thing is for sure: This trip is cultivating this generation's young idealists who infuse this country with future goals and inspire the cynics, this one included.
"There's a strong need to help this community rebuild and also show that people care and really want to help, and the students are very excited about leaving their mark here," said Mara Suskauer, a trip leader and executive director of Israel advocacy and education for JNF's national office in New York.
New York University student Andrew Zakim is the type of dreamer this project is meant for. Supersmart with an edge, he's not limiting his Israel experience with MTV and hopes to one day open a multicultural music camp for Israelis and Palestinians. The Tisch scholar was excused from going on a mandatory school trip to volunteer in Kentucky to participate in the alternative spring break, and find his personal salvation through weeding gardens and painting shelters.
"A lot of what we're doing has been physically satisfying as opposed to aesthetically," says the hipster.
THE TRIP WAS paid for by JNF donors, but to participate, students were required to raise a minimum of $800. Rebecca Perlow of Rockville, Maryland, raised $8,000. In total, the students' fund-raising efforts brought in $200,000.
"In all honesty, I told my parents I wanted to volunteer in Israel for spring break and they were happy to donate the money for me," one slightly older female student said. Graduating next year, she wants to take part in the US Jewish service program Avodah next year.
But many tapped into various resources, such as local synagogues, Hillels and businesses, and some resorted to the good old-fashioned method of knocking on the neighbor's door. (Personally I think this is just another Jewish plot to increase philanthropic networking at an early age.)
The program connects these students, their parents, and even their community synagogues to the JNF in a most tangible way.
"A part of me feels that I'm here as a fund-raiser from America. I came to work hard but I know that the $200,000 is going farther than all the garden weeding I did," one student admits. "But I'm here to show my support and just be here with Israel." And she definitely plans to come back after graduation.
After the volunteers are finished painting and posing, they are brought together to reflect and hear from local families in an auditorium on the moshav.
"It's ironic that all the work we are doing here is being done with the hope that they will never need it and no one will ever see the inside of the bomb shelters," one girl says. "I've never seen the inside of a bomb shelter before today and never really understood the concept. I just sort of pictured a smaller and dirtier basement."
As the MTV cameras roll, the students and record their reflections on the day. They admit to being sobered by the whole experience. Earlier in the trip, while hiking in the North many of the volunteers happened upon a group of third graders from Kiryat Shmona who had lived in the very shelters that they were going to paint.
"It's so important to us that you came to Israel," one local family tells the group. "We feel like we not only have support from within Israel but also from you overseas."
The family presents the group of 200 with a small cake in appreciation of its efforts. "Sorry, we thought you were a much smaller group."
AFTER A FEW hours of food and rest, the JNF rents out a pub for the rejuvenated souls to go out and have a few drinks. A group leader gets on the bus and proudly announces, "To say thank you for your hard work, the JNF would like to buy everyone a round!"
Her announcement is met with a chorus of cheers, the rap music is turned up a few notches and the students begin to let loose.
All three buses pull into the parking lot and the bar is overflowing with young people looking to release some aggression built up from all of their labor. Some flock to the dance floor, others to the bar and, of course, MTV is there to capture it all. There's only so much hard work the viewers in the States can watch before they need to see the juicy stuff, as if they are partying themselves.
Young Israel activists of all kinds and places make contact on the dance floor and around the bar. Those on the dance floor perhaps looking to forge connections for the nearer future and those around the bar, equally social, share their experiences more articulately. In a funny way, the atmosphere of being in a loud bar in Israel is prompting a lot of these college kids to feel at home.
"I know I'm not going to understand what it is to live in the county from these Israel trips," a shy female student from Philadelphia tells me (perhaps with the aid of a beverage), "but I know I need to be here." n