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Five teenagers take turns wadding up newspaper, drenching it in glue and plastering it to a wall. A group of kibbitzers joins in a big debate in English: Should the mural be higher, or wider? Another teenager walks in, scratches his head and says, "But what is it?"
"It's the sea," says Emily Wein, a 16-year-old from South Bend, Indiana, as though that were obvious, for a mural in hot, dry, land-locked Beersheba. Janie McGilfix, a 16-year-old from Palo Alto, California, explains: "These are waves. That's the sun; this is seaweed. When we get it painted, you'll be able to tell."
In all, 43 Young Judea teenagers spent the day sprucing up a women's center in one of Beersheba's neediest neighborhoods. Outside, another crew cleared brush, dug holes and planted bushes in the dunam-sized backyard, making it more welcoming for the women and their children who depend on this center for just about everything.
In the front, half a dozen more teens pour plaster, creating clever kid-sized sitting places under a shady tree. When the forms are dry and painted, the children who come with their moms will have a nice place of their own to sit.
Already the Yad Leadem center looks better. As a charitable organization, Yad Leadem offers education and social opportunities for women with children who suffer a unique hardship: Their husbands are in prison. Due to a lack of resources, attention hasn't been lavished on the building for some time, so today the energy overflows. The teens work side by side with the Israeli women, while small children dart everywhere, enjoying the excitement.
How did teenagers from Palo Alto and South Bend end up doing hard labor in Beersheba? They're taking part in what has become a summer tradition for many Jewish US teens - traveling to Israel to volunteer to do whatever is needed.
Every summer, thousands of teens who could be lounging by a pool decide instead to spend their own money and use their time, talent and enthusiasm to volunteer in Israel. Schools and yeshivas sponsor their own programs, as do larger groups like Young Judea and Bnei Akiva. The teens range from secular Zionists to Orthodox, but all share one thing: their love for Israel.
For 55 years, Hadassah's Young Judea has sent teens to Israel through a variety of programs, all designed to create an indestructible bond with their homeland. The group working at Yad Leadem chose Beersheba for their volunteer work because one of their tour guides, Ilan Fathi, grew up in the capital of the Negev and knows firsthand what a huge difference a day's worth of teenage enthusiasm can make.
Standing in Yad Leadem's backyard, Fathi points to a dismal four-story apartment unit.
"See that top apartment? That's where I lived. When you've seen the hunger and kids who have nothing, you have to do something. During the school year I study environmental science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but my leisure time is spent here volunteering, working mostly with the kids. When the summer comes, I lead Young Judea tours. I always bring them to the Negev."
This year, due to the problems in the north of the country, the group will spend more time in the south than usual.
"We'd planned a week in the Haifa area but canceled it. Instead, we'll spend more time here and in Eilat. Our next stop is Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, where we'll build mud houses," Fathi says.
The Young Judea teens had only been in Israel for three days when fighting broke out on the Lebanon border. It didn't faze the young counselors.
"We're trained in how to handle this," Fathi says. "First, we get everyone out of danger. Then we talk - we explain, discuss, answer questions. If there were deaths, we talk about it. We give them the truth so rumors don't start. We had a few panicky phone calls from parents, and we do the same with them. We explain that we aren't going anywhere north or east. The parents were concerned, but everyone stayed. That's why we're here - to help."
Volunteering has become an integral part of student visits to Israel, Fathi says. "In the last few years, everyone's programs have changed dramatically. Israel programs used to be just fun, but now everyone reads the news, and they know. The situation doesn't allow just fun anymore. People here need help, so tour programs have adapted. Now they include volunteer time, as well as just tours."
Each year, another Zionist group, Bnei Akiva, sets a different theme for its groups of high school seniors. This year, 36 US teens came to Israel to spend two weeks helping Gush Katif evacuees. One group went to newly developed fields in the Negev to help a farmer reestablish his crops. Later they put on a street fair for evacuated children who were still living in a hotel.
To Rafi Englehart, 17, from Cleveland, the work was meaningful.
"We planted, put seedlings in the ground to help a farmer get started again, but as we worked it dawned on me that the seedling I was planting would feed someone in the days to come. Other people will come to weed, water and then harvest. But we were part of the chain of people who grew food for Israel. It was hard work, but I was the one who benefited. Just to be a part of it, to do something positive, it meant a lot to me."
It's more than the work, added Rachel Kupferman, 17, from Riverdale, New York.
"We planted celery, onions and lettuce, but I never realized what a connection I would feel with soil itself. Just putting my hands in the dirt! It was an amazing feeling of unity, of being together for all time. It was a little thing we did, but it was very big in so many ways."
Last May, the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy of Hartford, Connecticut, sent their eighth-grade class to Israel for 12 days. Their primary objective was to allow the dozen boys and girls to personally see and experience the biblical places they study - to make the Torah come alive. But in addition to that serious objective, the students also volunteered. Their project was to help build a new community in the Negev from the ground up.
About 40 families now live in Merchav Am, a new village near Yerucham. As part of their Negev experience, the students hiked in and were first treated to hospitality in the khan (inn), a U-shaped open tent where they relaxed and sipped cool water. But before long they joined the construction crew, seeing everything - buildings, animal pens and new fields - rise from the bare desert floor.
Then the Sigel teens planted fruit trees in the village's new orchards. Thirteen year-old Gabriella Fried planted a fig tree and looked to the future.
"Just think," she said. "Maybe some day our grandchildren will come to this place and eat from the trees we planted."
Back at Yad Leadem in Beersheba, the sea mural is starting to take shape. Teenagers daub on paint - rich greens, blues and purples - then add sand to color the beach. A three-year-old boy gazes at the new artwork, not quite able to grasp the change in what used to be a plain white wall.
"You can't imagine what a little help means to people who have so little," Fathi says. "Most of the time, it's not material things that mean the most. It's just being with them, spending time, showing that you care."
Each day when the women and children arrive at Yad Leadem, that bright yellow sun will still shine over the deep blue waves on the wall. They'll remember the American teenagers who came, worked with them and, for just a short time, shared their lives. That one small hand-painted sun seems destined to give off a lot of warmth.
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