Partner City Day (on the bus).Into the Desert
Our day began immediately following a fortifying breakfast with a drive along the picturesque peaks of the Golan. As we drove south, the landscape transitioned from flat stretches to the rolling hills of the Galilee (and a 30 *cough* 45 minute “rest” stop), and, finally, desert. It is truly amazing how the Jews have converted a desolate and sandy land into a blooming oasis. During our ride, we passed the Tel Megiddo (“Armageddon”), which consists of 24 layers dating back to 800 b.c.e., and is also mentioned in the New Testament as the location of the “war of all wars”. Interestingly enough, this is where the Ottomans would be destroyed by the United Kingdom during World War I – otherwise known as The Great War.
Travelling past the West Bank, our first destination was Yavneh, where we linked up with Latet (“to give”), Israel’s largest humanitarian aid organization. The organization was established in 1996 to reduce poverty, to provide assistance to needy populations, mobilize Israeli civil society toward mutual responsibility, and advocate change in government priorities. Latet is staffed by approximately 16,000 volunteers with a goal of alleviating poverty and human suffering. They strive to help the approximately 30% of Israelis living below the poverty line and are successful in reaching 60,000 families in 105 communities within Israel.
After a brief information session, the Israel 360 group was put to work. Our task was to sort through items donated by individuals, local markets and food industry conglomerates. Once the food was sorted, it would be delivered to the people in need – both Jewish and non-Jewish – who live in poverty. We partnered with the elite Mamran unit of the IDF (computer science unit i.e., geniuses). The enthusiasm was palpable – Americans and Israelis working together sorting and getting dirty; knee deep in packaged food, olive oil everywhere – simply trying to make the world a better place (tikkun olam).
From Yavneh we traveled further into the desert to Moshav Shuva for a vegan, Indian-style lunch. Moshav Shuva is an “intentional community.” This was a new term for many in the group and thanks to Miriam and Cobe (“Ya’akov on Shabbat”), we learned that intentional communities are groups of modern pioneer Jews. Rather than settling new land, however, they are returning to moshavim across Israel to revitalize the communities, bringing with them a commitment to education, ecology, social justice, and individualized practices of Judaism. Though our visit to Shuva was brief, it was clear that this intentional community has succeeded in revitalizing the Moshav. Cobe’s parting words to the group, “be the thing/condition you want in life” were food for thought on our short drive to Kibbutz Alumim.
Kibbutz Alumim is a religious kibbutz established in 1966 in the western Negev desert a mere 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from Gaza City. The area was initially settled prior to 1948 as Kibbutz Yitzhok. During the Independence War, the kibbutz was attacked by Egyptian forces, suffering staggering losses, but ultimately repelling the Egyptians. Despite their miraculous victory, the surviving Kibbutznik’s decided to relocate the Kibbutz to central Israel. In the 60’s, the religious kibbutz movement, believing it was important to maintain Jewish footholds in the Negev, established Alumim on the site of the former Kibbutz Yizhok.
While at Alumim, we met with Eric and his wife, members of the Kibbutz for over 40 years and also modern pioneers. They described what brought them to the kibbutz: a belief that community is missing in the modern, western world and a sense of meaning in doing for others—in this case, maintaining a Jewish foothold in the Western Negev. They feel strongly about the history of their land and their desire to ensure that the defenders of Kibbutz Yitzhok did not die for nothing: “sacrifice is the nature of our lives.”The couple shared their experience during the 2014 war in Gaza with the group. While several area kibbutzim chose to temporarily close until the conflict subsided, Alumim remained occupied, and tried to maintain a degree of normalcy for its residents. When asked how they could possibly feel secure enough to stay despite a war raging a mere mile and a half away, Eric shared that in the last decade, virtually every building on the kibbutz has been fortified and secure rooms had been built into all homes. The kibbutz also served as a staging area for the IDF. Rather than growing crops, their fields were occupied by howitzers, mortars, tanks, infantrymen and the infamous Iron Dome.
Iron Dome is Israel’s technological response to Hamas’ near constant firing of rockets into Israel. Hamas recognized that these attacks would not have a material impact militarily, but rather, their goal was to sow fear while crippling the Israeli economy at a fairly low cost. The typical rocket costs less than $1,000 to manufacture. Iron Dome detects that a rocket has been fired, and in a matter of seconds determines the area where the rocket may land. This determination serves two important functions. If the system determines that the rocket is headed to a populated area, a missile is fired to intercept the rocket. If, however, the system determines that the rocket will land in an empty field or the sea, no missile is fired. This provides enormous cost savings as each missile costs approximately $250,000. In addition, as a result of the location calculation, the IDF has been able to greatly reduce the area where residents must be alerted of a possible hit allowing the residents to lead as normal a life as one can lead in this area. While in the past, rocket attacks would have resulted in widespread alerts, now, only a small area is impacted. Not surprisingly, Iron Dome has proven so successful that deals are in progress to export the technology.
We dutifully re-boarded the bus and pushed even further southward to the Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s partnership region, Netivot. The community of Netivot is unique in that it is comprised of Ethiopians, Morroccans, Libyans, and Tunisians. Our visit began at the Kaiserman Community Center where we participated in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony while being treated to a performance of the “shoulder dance.” Fully caffeinated, we ventured outside for trust exercises with participants of Nirim, an outdoor adventure therapy group for at-risk youth. With Federation’s assistance, Nirim has expanded to communities across Israel, setting up at-risk youth for success in their communities.
We left the lush grounds of the community center and boarded the bus once again for a driving tour of Netivot. Our tour began at a synagogue, modeled after the Djerba Synagogue in Tunisia. The synagogue featured a unique setup with the bimah located in the center of the room and over 30 Torahs in ark-like cabinets. Our second stop was Netivot’s liberty bell, a gift from Philadelphia. Unlike the American bell, the Israeli liberty bell is not cracked. We continued our tour through the new part of town, which showed signs of rapid gentrification, including plenty of new condos, a bike path, and a new train station. Our tour ended with a divine diary dinner and a rousing game of Israel trivia with local youth. A big congratulations to Michael and Sherri Besmer for their stunning victory in Israel trivia.
Our day ended at Moshav Sade, another desert community working to make the desert bloom. Whether it was exhaustion or knowing that we were only a few miles from an Iron Dome battery, we slept soundly in anticipation of our journey to Masada.
It was a long day with experiences that evoked many feelings. We often found ourselves thinking back to the MAKOM discussion, asking ourselves where we fell today within the triangle of covenantal, communitarian, and cosmopolitan beliefs and where, after a day of helping those in need, where we stand. As the trip progresses, we can’t help but ask ourselves what would I do if faced with some of these situations. But that is the plight of the Jews, making the possible out of the seemingly impossible.
Jennie and Billy Katz & Hillary Ladov and Marc Gutstein