We’re standing in the blinding sunlight, sweating in our hats, as we stare at a mound of garbage. It fills the backyard of a youth club, daring us to turn it into a garden. Only a few days before, we might have groaned at such a task; now it’s with only slight hesitation that we grab rakes and hoes and get going.
We were half way through our 10-day trip to Netivot, a small development town in the Negev, in the south of Israel.
When we arrived in the country and the young woman at customs heard where we were going, she looked at us incredulously and asked, “Why?”
Her question was not unwarranted. Development towns have a reputation for being remote, less affluent, undesirable. They were built in the 1950s to accommodate the growing population of immigrants and refugees, mostly from Arab countries. They were built quickly and with minimum amenities and community resources.
It seemed absurd for a group of American students to be heading there, instead of to the nearby beach resort of Eilat. But we had come to live in one of these communities with local families, and to help build up the area.
The 15 students in our group, from Drexel and Temple universities, were to construct gardens for two youth clubs, Potchim Atid and Club 51, which are used by elementary and high school students, respectively. Netivot is home to many at-risk youth. The gardens are intended as a way to help instill a sense of pride and responsibility.
At first, we were surprised at the amount of physical and mental labor involved. Not only were we tilling the unyielding land, we were also flexing our limited Hebrew skills and attempting to adapt to the local culture.
We ended each day with sore backs and sore minds. However, we relied on each other and soon realized that it was up to us to show the initiative, leadership and responsibility of Jewish Americans from Philadelphia.
On the street, we were known as “the Americans.” The kids, both young and older, laughed at our halting Hebrew, but they saw how hard we were working and soon were eager to join in. Between gesturing and translating, we were able to learn a great deal about each other’s lives. Despite the language barrier, we figured out ways to work together and complete our tasks.
Yet another level of culture shock came from our experiences with our host families. We ate Israeli breakfasts and dinners, packed with fresh fruit and vegetables, played with the children and observed Shabbat.
Shabbat in particular was an education. To be a Jew in Israel is different from anywhere else. The whole community comes out to services, walking together on the deserted streets. We had elaborate dinners, and for many of us, it was our first experiences with Sabbath-observant households.
In our down time, we toured Netivot, including a Tunisian synagogue, the grave of Baba Sale, a leading Sephardic rabbi, an Ethiopian community center. Everyone we met was gracious and open to our collaboration. Collaboration was a large focus of our group discussions, where we explored ways both to sustain our work in Netivot and to bring strategies for Jewish empowerment back to our college campuses in Philadelphia.
On our last day, after some final work building tables and burying irrigation tubes at Club 51, we held a ceremony and community gathering at the garden. Though far from complete, we all looked on what we’d done with pride. We had transformed a barren strip of land into a developing garden for the students to foster.
At Potchim Atid, as well, we had built an oasis of green life from the desert. There were flowers, herb gardens and even a mud oven. As we all stood, saying our sometimes tearful goodbyes to our host families and eating sweet watermelon, we looked out at the life we’d begun, and felt that even if we hadn’t completed our work, we had begun something beautiful and perhaps lasting. l
Elyse Richter is starting her junior year at Drexel University, where she is studying graphic design. Melody Nielsen, also a junior at Drexel, is studying English.