US students spending winter break volunteering in South

"We spend the day doing service work, but every now and then, we hear a military plane flying overhead."

Schaller arad 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Schaller arad 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Instead of spending their winter vacation with their families, 120 American college students have come to volunteer in the Negev - despite the proximity to the war in Gaza. The students, participating in the Jewish National Fund's weeklong Alternative Winter Break, had to raise a minimum of $950 each toward construction of a JNF protected indoor playground in Sderot, set to open later in 2009. "Even though there's a war, I wanted to show my support and that I wasn't going to be afraid to go to the place that I love," said Jesse Golodner, 23, from Philadelphia. He studies at the University of Central Florida, and arrived in Israel on Tuesday night. Golodner and his fellow students spent the day painting inside a community center in Arad, and were personally greeted by Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev. "Everyone else was more scared for me than I was," said Jennifer Schwarz, 19, from Rockville, Maryland, and a student at the University of Maryland. Schwarz's Israeli friends were shocked that she decided to come regardless of the fighting in Gaza and the rocket attacks across the Negev in recent days. "My coming was an act of solidarity," she said. "My Israeli friends are happy that I came, but still think I'm crazy." In Yeroham, another Negev town with an Alternative Winter Break group, it was Ryan Lavin's first time being in Israel during a war. "We spend the day doing service work, but every now and then, we hear a military plane flying overhead," said Lavin, 21, of Long Island and a student at Cornell University. Knowing he would be some 80 km. from Gaza, Lavin was not concerned about his safety when he left America on Sunday. "Why are we doing this? To remind everyone of the importance of defending the freedom of others and quality of life here," he said. "It's defending a way of life." Rebecca Gildiner, 21, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, near Philadelphia, and a student at Colgate University, spent Wednesday painting a mural on the outside of a bomb shelter adjacent to a kindergarten in Yeroham. "It's pretty sad to think that a bomb shelter needs to exist, but that's so normal here," she said. "People walk by bomb shelters every day. Now it's beautiful and makes for a nicer environment." The students' work has not gone unnoticed by the people of Yeroham. "People were coming out of their homes and offering us coffee and cookies," Gildiner said. "They don't have a lot, but they came out to share whatever they could give, showing their thankfulness."