Jan 18, 2016  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Education,

1,000 strong in Israel: First day of volunteering 'made my heart so happy,' student says

Photo: Lindsay Mysior/Instagram
Alternative Winter Break participant Lindsay Mysior in Tel Aviv. 

This winter alone, the JNF hosted over 1,000 young people in Israel -- through programs such as Alternative BreakJNFuture Volunteer Vacation, Alexander Muss High School in Israel, JNF on Campus' Caravan for Democracy, and Taglit-Birthright Israel-Shorashim. We will be profiling some of the trips, and you can see more directly through the eyes of the participants by searching the #PoweredByJNF hashtag on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter

After going on Birthright, I immediately wanted to return to Israel. When I heard about Alternate Winter Break, I knew it was a great opportunity to go back and not only travel, but give back to the people and the land. Today, our first day of the program, was such a great experience, and it is amazing to see how much of an impact 40 people can make in such a short amount of time. 

After waking up and eating breakfast, we played a few icebreaker games to get to know each other better before heading off to our work project for the day. Then we got on the bus and drove to Halutza, a small community located near the corner of Egypt and the Gaza Strip founded by former residents of Gush Katif, a bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza evacuated by Israel 10 years ago. (For scenes from Halutza, see our photo gallery below.)

This community has built itself from the bottom up in the past 10 years, which is amazing considering how big it is. Its members cannot always afford to renovate or keep up the land in their community, so today, we helped them renovate the main traffic circle in their square. We painted, put in fake grass, and planted trees. Planting the trees was a moving experience for all of us, because not only are we bringing life to their community, but something that we planted will remain part of their community, and belong to the land of Israel, forever. 

More on Halutza: 
From Gaza to Halutza: Stories from 10 pioneering years on a new frontier
Starting over: A tree from Gaza plants new roots in rabbi's yard

After lunch, we took a look at our finished project, and the difference that we made in three hours was unbelievable. Seeing such a small piece of land completely transform was the most incredible feeling, but the look on the residents' faces was one of the most rewarding feelings I have ever experienced. They thanked us, and you could tell just by looking at them how much they appreciated it. It made my heart so happy, and that moment alone made me realize how glad I am to be a part of this trip and to be helping out these incredible people in such an amazing place. 

When we finished working, we went over to the community greenhouses. It was great to see so much life in the middle of the desert, especially since they have only been there for six years. There was a rabbi who told us how he teaches kids who are straight out of high school, and they learn with him in the program for a year before entering the army. 
Photo: Alicia Yaffe
Day one of the author's adventure included a visit to the studio of 
artist Yaron Bob, who makes sculptures from missiles fired at Israel. 

He told us a story of one boy who wanted to be a combat soldier, but he was missing all the fingers on his right hand. The boy knew the odds weren’t great, but he persevered and never gave up, and eventually became a combat soldier. It was such an inspiring story, and really represented the Israeli spirit, and how they are so passionate about their country.

When we left the greenhouses, we went to a workshop that is owned by an artist, Yaron Bob, who takes missiles that are fired into the surrounding communities, and turns them into art. It was incredible seeing these beautiful pieces. He is taking something so disgusting and turning it into something amazing and beautiful. Again, it really represents how strong the Israeli spirit is, and how Israelis can be so passionate and positive about their country, even in the hardest situations.

Lindsay Mysior is a student at Cal State University Long Beach.