Desert roses

British 'Jewish Princesses' rough it in Israel to raise money for children's homes.

desert rose 1 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
desert rose 1 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the Israeli army officer began to apply thick, black lines of greasy camouflage to the faces of 15 perfectly-manicured British women, she allayed their fears by telling them not to worry about getting blemishes. "It's especially for the face," she said, watching carefully that they remained straight in formation with their shoulders back. One by one, they reluctantly removed their army green hats to have their skin painted. An occasional nervous giggle escaped from the line-up as the officer explaind their first challenge: wearing army fatigues and boots, the women had to crawl on their stomachs in the mid-day heat across wet, dirty grass as fast as they could. This challenge marked the first test in a 10-day odyssey entitled "I'm a Jewish Princess... what am I doing here?" which was filmed by the BBC for a documentary, Jewish Princesses, that aired April 11. Conjured up by the Emunah charity in England, the fundraiser was designed to raise money for its children's homes in Israel by attracting a younger crowd to the fundraisers, spreading the word about the Emunah organization and giving people outside of Israel a positive image of the country. "We wanted the public to get a better idea about what Emunah is doing for the children in Israel, and we wanted to spread public awareness of the reality that 30 percent of the children in Israel live below the poverty line," said Lisa ter Haar, the project director of the event. Going beyond the stereotypical notion of a Jewish Princess who is spoiled, selfish and prissy, the Jewish Princesses on this odyssey were defined as intelligent, passionate and dynamic Jewish ladies committed to the pursuit of excellence and prepared to be removed from their comfort zone when the challenge called. In an unusual maneuver, the event planners took full advantage of the latest technology by allowing donations to be made through cellular phones and posting short, two-minute video clips and photographs on the Jewish Princesses Web site each day so that viewers back home could follow the event and donate money. Each of the participants also posted a personal letter on the site, and people could vote for a princess on-line or through their cell phones after watching the day's trials and tribulations on the Internet. Hugely successful, the Web site saw an average of 2,000 daily hits from visitors as far afield as South Africa, Australia, Los Angeles and Canada. So although the Jewish Princesses were meeting their challenges in some of the most remote and desolate areas of Israel, a worldwide audience was able to follow their surprising safari. "We also wanted to get the message out that Israel is a beautiful country, so we chose to have challenges in some of the most scenic areas - the Negev desert, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Eilat - in the hopes that by watching the video clips on-line, people would also see the picturesque landscape,"explained ter Haar. Each Jewish Princess was personally responsible for raising 15,000 pounds - nearly 120,000 shekels - in order to participate, and for some this was the hardest challenge. "Being involved in the event was a massive commitment because it meant thinking of creative ways to raise the money on your own before the physical tests even began," said Zara Brooks, the only Jewish Princess who resides in Israel. Some of the princesses raised the money by raffling massages, beauty products, car washes and gym memberships. Others found corporate sponsors. But the majority of the women were supported by friends, family members and work colleagues, which meant reaching out to hundreds of people. "Raising the money before we left really set the tone for the event," said Elissa Bayer, who at the age of 52 was the most senior of the Jewish Princesses. "I work as a stockbroker in London, and by spreading the word to so many people, an audience of Jewish and non-Jewish people alike was attracted and got involved." On February 26, the much-anticipated event finally began. After flying all night, the Jewish princesses spent the day at the Emunah Children's home in Afula, where 150 children are fed and cared for. Divided into teams, the women had a chance to meet the children that would benefit from their efforts and participation. They painted a mural together on an outside wall, played tug-o-war, wrapped eggs in yarn and tossed them onto a basketball court trying not to break them and competed in a mini-Olympics created by Ken Hames, the self-proclaimed Scottish Pagan who was the operations director for the event. Most of the children were happy to play with the Jewish Princesses and welcomed them with songs, dances and smiles, but a few remained on the sidelines, preferring to witness the activity rather than take part in it. "Some of them have had abusive relationships and they've become aware that adults can be dangerous people," explained Shlomo Kessel, the director of the Emunah Children's home in Afula. "They are more wary about joining in than other children might be because of their past experiences." For Gabi Tenenblat, one of the younger Jewish Princesses, meeting the children in Afula on the first day brought home the reality of the reason she had agreed to participate. "I work with youth offenders in London trying to keep them from committing more crimes, and I can honestly say that I was expecting an institution in Afula but I really saw a home," she said. Nevertheless, seeing the children and spending time with them made the Jewish Princesses realize how much more help is needed, and gave them a unique opportunity to put a face to the recipients of donations to Emunah. "I didn't really know exactly what Emunah does, and seeing these beautiful children made me realize how privileged we all are," related Tenenblat. "The real people who deserve the praise are the ones working in the homes and caring for the children, but I was happy to have a small part in helping." AFTER SPENDING their first day of challenges on the army base doing push-ups, stomach crawls and carrying other "wounded" soldiers up a hill, the group headed into the Judean hills where the real work began. Hames, who served in the British military for 25 years (he retired at the rank of major), is somewhat of a celebrity thanks to documentaries about expeditions like Beyond Boundaries and Jungle Jane. He noted that the trip was much wilder than most people expected. "Many of the challenges these women experienced would test the mettle of fit young army recruits," he says. The madness began when each five-woman team was given a 4x4 manual Jeep to drive, a map and instructions to avoid rocks and ditches. Divided into three teams, the Rollerbabes, the Weakest Link and the Backpacker Babes, the Jewish Princesses were ready to face the treacherous, difficult terrain that lay ahead. For six grueling days, they were required to navigate through steep and winding valleys in the Negev, set up tents in the dark, change flat tires, read maps to find huge water containers and carry them back to the jeep, build fires, cook bread in ashes, prepare a meal from raw chicken and vegetables, haul 45 pounds of ice up Masada and then back down again, fill out crosswords while floating in the Dead Sea and race camels across a long stretch of sandy terrain. "The worst physical challenge by far was hiking up Masada with those two bags of ice," says Brooks, whose team, the Rollerbabes, brought the most water down the mountain to win the event "by a whisker." Given two wooden poles, some black trash bags, two packs of ice and a roll of masking tape, the women had to devise a way to carry the ice up the snaking path of Masada's hillside, crush it into water at the top, and hike back down with as much liquid as possible. "Your ancestors are calling for water, ladies, and you will take it to them," Hames instructed as he explained the grueling physical task to the disbelieving group of exhausted Jewish Princesses. In the middle of the day, as the sun beat down on Masada, all of the women reached the 700-foot summit with their ice in tow, but many were in tears as they took their final steps. "I've gone from being a Jewish Princess to a bag lady," joked Hayley Goldenberg, the winner of the most votes on the Web site for the Ultimate Jewish Princess award. "But I've still got my lip gloss on," she said, smiling, as she held up her black plastic bag of ice. At the top of Masada, after the last of the weary women had stumbled up the stairs, they were given a chance to reflect on their personal Jewish faith and on the history of the Jewish people. Seated in the shade of the Torah hall, the women gathered for a ceremony. Emunah, which literally means faith, forms the basis of the charity and the event, and it is a belief in their ability to improve the world by serving God that brought some of the women here. For many Jews, Masada symbolizes a total faith in God, and it was originally built as a stronghold of Jewish independence. The echoes of history emanate from the stones in this sacred place, and it is atop Masada that Israeli soldiers are today inducted into the army with the oath that Masada will never fall again. IN THE DESERT stillness, one of the princesses, Madelaine Black, stood to share her reflections. "Emunah. Faith is our blueprint," she read. "And it is also faith that when our time in this world ends, if we have lived to serve our Lord, the only way is up, closer, higher, ever upwards to infinite peace in the place where our Lord lives. Each of us today leaves a footprint in Israel's sands of time, the sand blows here and there and mingles, and our destiny continues, but we have made our little mark on Masada." After their six days of challenges in the desert drew to a close, the Jewish Princesses found themselves facing the tests concocted by David Lewis, the owner of Isrotel and one of the major sponsors of the event. Lewis provided hotel rooms and food in Eilat for the last part of the expedition, and gave a personal donation to match that of his company's. But his generosity came with an unexpected challenge of its own. On the ninth day of their adventures, as the women arrived at the Isrotel in Eilat to check-in, they were certain that the hard part was over and it was time to relax. They were wrong. Marched to the employee entrance, the princesses were outfitted with either chef aprons and hats or maid uniforms and plastic gloves. Half of them went to work in the kitchen cutting vegetables and the other half were given jobs as chamber maids scrubbing toilets and making beds. "I miss the desert," moaned Hayley Goldenberg as she folded a sheet beneath one of the hotel beds. "When I get home, my husband is going to wake up in the middle of the night and find I've gone to sleep out in the garden with my sleeping bag." As the 10th and final day arrived, the three teams' scores were neck-and-neck, with only two points separating each of them. The final two challenges - beach volleyball and paddle-boating to dive for silver at the bottom of the Red Sea - would decide the winners. The competition was close, but thanks to the paddling skills of Leah Nevies and Rochelle Hope, the Rollerbabes were awarded the Jewish Princess team award. Brooks, who was also a member of the Rollerbabes team, said the points often seemed arbitrary and that after the challenges they overcame together, everyone on the trip deserved to win. "It was a huge accomplishment just to finish the challenges, let alone be the best in them," she said after being happily reunited with her two small boys and husband. According to Mindy Wiesenberg, the Chairwoman of Emunah who accompanied the princesses, the exact figures of the amounts raised have yet to be tallied, but it was successful enough that plans for the next odyssey in the fall of 2007 are already underway. "We wanted to do something active to send the message to Jews in the Diaspora that, 50 years on, it's still necessary to be involved with Israeli causes," says Black, who adds that overcoming a fear of snakes and the discomfort of tent lodging was well worth the end result: raising over one million shekels for Israeli children in need.