Connecting to Israel through NFTY Mitzvah Corps

NFTY MItzvah Corps Israel 2014By Rachel Barnehama

No matter how many times I have heard the flight attendant announce “Baruchim Haboim L”yisroel” “Welcome to Israel” over the loudspeaker, a chill radiates throughout my body. Each trip brings with it a sense of excitement, adventure and an opportunity for growth. Every visit feels as if it is my first visit. It allows me to discover a new facet of Jewish and Israeli culture and diversity. The land of Israel: home of my forefathers and my home as well!

Israel has always been a recurring theme in my household. It is difficult for me to separate my spiritual connection and Israel’s legacy of historical events, from that of my strong Zionist feelings. Judaism is a rich culture that dates back to our forefathers and Israel is a country that has been built on Jewish values, humanitarianism and Zionism. Israel is on the forefront of technological development – think Microsoft, Google, and all of the many other companies that make the best of Israeli creativity – or drip irrigation and solar energy technology. It’s people are full of life and passion, creating art that traverses the globe and are constantly striving to make the world a better place in a myriad of ways. This past summer re-emphasized my commitment to Israel and made me more determined to share with my peers, colleagues and students the positive impact Israel has on the larger global community.

As a child, I was always taught that Tzedeka was not only the act of dropping a coin in a box, but involves giving of ourselves and time to others. Hands on work leaves a lasting impact on those receiving as well as giving. This summer I worked for NFTY (the Reform Jewish Youth Movement) in Israel as a staff member on its Mitzvah Corps Israel trip. Mitzvah Corps Israel in partnership with NFTY, provides Jewish Youth with the opportunity to explore the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and Jewish traditions while engaging in direct service learning. The opportunity to be immersed in Israeli culture allowed us to dedicate ourselves to the development and growth of the land the way that the chalutzim (settlers) did. This new formed connection to Israel allowed us to grow deeper roots in the land and become more linked with the culture, regardless of any religious significance. We were not tourists traveling through the land seeing its marvelous sites, rather we were pilgrims letting the land pass through us as we began to feel at home.

As part of our week of community service we partnered with the Leo Baeck Institute in Haifa, a center for progressive and family based Jewish Education in a pluralistic society focused on Tikkun Olam and learning through doing. Alongside High School students from Leo Baeck, we spent the week volunteering at a school for special needs children and an assisted living facility for Holocaust survivors. Throughout this project, I was incredibly impressed with the excitement, dedication, and enthusiasm shown by the participants. I spent the week with the campers who were volunteering at the assisted living facility for Holocaust survivors. While communication with the Holocaust survivors was a challenge due to a the language barrier, the emotions shared between people created a bond that would last a lifetime. Hearing stories from survivors now living in Israel provided a unique perspective on the Holocaust that we had never heard before. While these people went through such horrific experiences and suffered tremendously solely because of their religion, they still managed to keep their faith close to their hearts. They then took a leap of faith and made Aliyah to Israel which was not even a developed or established country yet. In this new land they were able to practice their beliefs in peace and finally feel at home.

We were supposed to spend our second week of community service volunteering with Tikkun Olam Tel Aviv. However, due to the current situation in Israel, we were relocated to Kibbutz Yahel, a reform Kibbutz located in the Arava desert. We spent some time at Kibbutz Lotan (a reform Eco-friendly kibbutz) just down the road, learning about sustainable living and made our own bricks out of sand, straw and water. We volunteered at the day camp at kibbutz Yahel, and made care packages for the kibbutz members who were called up to the army. While relocation and constant schedule changes might have caused slight bumps in the road, it provided the participants with a better understanding that it’s not about them missing out on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but about being in Israel and gaining the most unique perspective of Israel they will ever receive.

While this summer did not provide the exact program we had originally planned, the experience, memories and learning opportunities surpassed our expectations. I hope that this incredible month is only the first step in a lifelong journey of growing closer to our Jewish roots, our connection with Israel and Tikkun Olam. Over the course of this trip, our definition of helping others has broadened in ways that are unique only to Israel. As we set off on different paths this year, some of us to college, some as NFTY Regional board members and some beginning senior year, I look forward to seeing how this trip impacts the decisions we make and plays a role in our everyday lives. Whether we return to Israel in a year, or 10 years from now, these four weeks will forever be a time that we will cherish as the time we stood by Israel – and learned to love the people we have become because of it.

Rachel Barnehama works as the Director of Public Relations at North Shore Hebrew Academy. She also teaches 1st grade at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck’s religious school.