The Northern connection

Jewish groups from England support students at the Tel Hai Academic College, who work to restore some of the fading moral values of settlement in Israel.

Rows of dilapidated apartments built in the 1950s stretch across the upper section of the Naftali mountain range, which looms above Israel's northernmost town of Kiryat Shmona, a short distance from the Lebanese border. Life was pretty dismal for the residents of the town's hilltop neighborhood, whose spectacular view allows them to gaze down on the rest of Kiryat Shmona and the lush greenery of the Hula Valley. Few of those down below ventured to their lofty but decidedly unattractive part of town. However, thanks to the determined efforts of a group of young activists studying at nearby Tel Hai Academic College, things there are changing. The students moved into this luckluster part of town, renovated partially damaged apartments, and created an after-school club for the local children, among other projects. The students belong to the Ayalim Association. Founded in 2002, the organization aims to revive the model of settlement in the Negev and Galilee. In a few short years, its founders have created a climate of social activism among students who hail mainly from central Israel but study at Ben-Gurion University and Sapir College in the Negev or at the rapidly expanding scholastic outpost of Tel Hai, adjacent to Kiryat Shmona. Ayalim provides students with incentives such as scholarships and subsidized housing in return for a minimum of 10 weekly hours of community involvement. However, it quickly becomes apparent when meeting the Galilee students that they are highly motivated and need little incentive to return to some of the ideals held by the founders of the state. "My grandfather somewhat floored me when, after [I was out of] the army and talking about maybe traveling… he suddenly blurted out that had they behaved like the youth of today, this country would not have survived," explains one of the band of student educators, who asked to remain anonymous. When the Ayalim project began in the Negev with the construction of a student village built by the students themselves, former prime minister Ariel Sharon visited the site and referred to them as "modern-day pioneers." The Kiryat Shmona Ayalim students not only work with neighborhood youth, but also visit the elderly and make themselves available where they can for the residents. They are also involved in projects elsewhere, helping new immigrants and underprivileged groups in the area. A few years ago, Ayalim's after-school center was two disintegrating ground-floor apartments, built on stilts, with a large tract of open land behind that had been used for years as a dumping ground. Working the soil might well be traditional pre- and post-state physical labor, but the Ayalim students had to tackle a dump of scrap metal and rotting garbage before they could create a garden and park for the neighborhood kids. Recently, a group of donors and staff from Britain's United Jewish Israel Appeal visited the Kiryat Shmona students and were mightily impressed, not only by the effort itself, but also by the pride the residents and their children take in their park, after-school center, play areas, and the communal holiday celebrations and parades. The British visitors were representatives of Britain's northern Jewish communities and heavily committed to a long-term strategic campaign directed at strengthening Israel's own North, particularly the Merom Hagalil region. They were also serious supporters and heavy donors to the college's new campus, now under construction. Frida, a local grandmother of six, stands looking over the Ayalim center's expansive wooden deck, grassy areas and small roped-off areas where kids come to garden in the afternoons, as well as do their homework and participate in activities. "I moved here five years ago, and until the students began this project all I saw when I looked out of my window was an ugly and dangerous area of rubbish. Now look [at] what a view I have," she tells a UJIA mission from Manchester, with a wide smile. "For me, it's such a comfort to know that my grandchildren are here in a safe, clean and educational environment in the afternoon and not like before - just playing in the streets and up to mischief most of the time," Frida explained to the guests from England. Shir Lev, director of Ayalim in Kiryat Shmona, is a graduate of Tel Hai's highly-regarded social work track, who decided to remain in the town after she finished her studies and help develop the neighborhood projects. "We're hoping to double the number of students working and living in our neighborhood in the near future," explained Lev, sitting cross-legged on a colorful mattress, flanked by fellow Ayalim students on either side. "As Tel Hai Academic College expands, of course the student body will, too, and we see a very positive but challenging future for students who take it upon themselves to be involved in our projects," Lev stated. Manchester businessmen Andrew Joseph and fellow mission members Leon and John Gradel, brothers, are all stalwart supporters of Manchester UJIA. "Israel is not in need of charity, but it is in need of support - the same applies to the Jews of the Diaspora. Our needs are different and our strengths complementary," commented Joseph (presently vice-chairman of Manchester UJIA) after visiting Kiryat Shmona and the new Tel Hai construction site. "The survival of the state of Israel is dependent upon a strong Diaspora and the survival of the Diaspora is dependent upon a strong Jewish state. It is axiomatic that the future of both lies in their youth, and it is here that UJIA focuses its efforts and resources both in the UK and in Israel," he said. The British organization's northern Jewish communities' adoption of Israel's struggling northern communities has created a deep bond between individuals, communities and institutions over the years. Pupils at the North Cheshire Primary School in Manchester and the Nof HaGalil Primary School in Merom Hagalil see the faces of their "twin" schools every day, even though they're thousands of miles apart. A"Friendship Wall" can be found at the entrances to both schools, where photographs of all the pupils of the other school are arranged by class. Exchange visits between teachers and pupils have brought the British northerners and their Galilean counterparts a shared learning experience and a friendship that extends beyond simple snapshots. Joseph's seven-year-old daughter, Emily, and Marcus Gradel (John Gradel's son), accompanied their parents on the recent Manchester UJIA mission. Both children are pupils at North Cheshire and quickly found their images on the Friendship Wall during a visit to their Galilean partners at Nof HaGalil. During their short visit, the two youngsters from Manchester and their young Israeli counterparts lived up to the motto of the UJIA - "The heart of Jewish life" - while cementing the future partnership between their schools and communities.