For 10 days, 57 Teach For America corps members will explore Israel’s education and social justice systems, gain exposure to top Israeli leaders and thinkers, and uncover and recommit to the values that drive their passion for public service. Follow along on their REALITY Israel Experience!
Where to begin??? So much has happened since our last update!
Friday morning began in the wee hours with a climb (well, a cable car ride because of the heat alert) up Masada, the mountain overlooking the Dead Sea that served as the stronghold for a group of Jews who refused to submit to the Romans in 72 CE and held out a valiant amount of time before committing suicide just as the Romans breached the walls.
From there we went to the Dead Sea, floated in the salty water and had a chance to enjoy a spa. Afterwards we heard from Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization that works to bring together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists around a variety of issues, particularly the water shortage in the Middle East. Gidon underscored to us how water is the one bridge among Israel and its neighboring Arab states and what we, in our home communities in America, can do to help.
Then we headed to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, our home for the duration of Saturday/Shabbat. After a lovely Friday evening service and break-out discussion groups, we heard a riveting talk from our scholar in residence, Avraham Infeld, a world-renowned educator, President Emeritus of Hillel and an extremely charasmatic and engaging speaker who probed the issue of Jewish identity. Saturday morning, despite the heat (did we mention how hot it’s been?), a large number of us woke up early to go on an intense hike to experience the splendor and the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, where a young Biblical David once hid from the wrath of King Saul. Dinner that night was Bedouin style in a tent on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, complete with darbukas (Arabic drums), dancing and a festive atmosphere.
Sunday morning we headed to Yerucham, a development town in the Negev desert that absorbed a huge influx of immigrants in the years following the founding of the State of Israel, and over the years has faced many problems, including poverty, one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and cultural challenges. To tell us more about this community we met with its Mayor Michael Biton and with a nonprofit called Atid BaMidbar founded in 1990 to empower the Yerucham community.
“The mission of Atid BaMidbar and the work that they do in Yerucham really resonated with us,” said Eric Lavin, a 2009 corps member from the Mississippi Delta. “Their goal of healing the divisions in Israeli society, specifically between Jews of Middle Eastern and European descent, was an interesting parallel to the work that we do in our communities in America. The principle of doing away with the notion of ‘us versus them’ and enlarging the ‘us’ is something we can all bring back to our commitment to moving communities forward.”
Sunday ended with dinner in Tiberias and then we settled into Kibbutz Ma’agan, along the Sea of Galilee in the Negev, for a couple of nights.
Monday was all about the kibbutz movement in Israel. We visited three different kibbutzim, each one representing a different aspect of Israel’s ideology. Kibbutz Degania, the first ever created kibbutz, was established in 1909—a good 40 years before Israel became a State—by a group of young pioneers, mostly from Eastern Europe. Their objective was to make the desert bloom, to create a homeland and to build a new society based on the concept of communal work and responsibility.
Kibbutz Eshbal in the Galilee is a new twist on an old concept. Founded by a group of young Israelis in 1997, its focus is on education. Among other projects, they house a boarding school for teens at risk and run co-existence programs between Bedouin, Arab and Jewish youth. “I found the kibbutzim really inspiring,” said Nora Wessel, a 2010 corps member based in the MidAtlantic region. “Especially the mission of Eshbal, which promotes co-existence work and the idea that education can change reality.”
For a little bit of fun we visited a chocolate factory and even had a chance to decorate our own chocolate. Then we road ATV’s and jeeps in the rugged beauty of the Golan Heights, learned more about its history and the modern-day challenges of security, natural resources and passion for the future. Of course, throughout it all, we still found time for substantive reflection on the values that personally drive our work.
Tomorrow we visit a collective settlement in the Galilee doing co-existence work and then make our way down to Jerusalem for the last leg of our trip.
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