Jan 8, 2016  By Megan E. Turner  Category: Education,

1,000 strong in Israel: U.S. college kids spend winter break volunteering in the desert

This winter alone, the JNF hosted over 1,000 young people in Israel -- through programs such as Alternative Break, JNFuture 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 Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

When you were in college, what did you do with that magical, month-long break between semesters? Did you backpack through Europe? Travel home to be with your family? Sit around in pajamas and take the idea of couch potato to a whole new level? While many of us can intimately relate to these scenarios, to a group of Zionist college kids, these options simply weren't fulfilling enough.

Seventy-five students from college campuses across the United States chose to do something more with their free time during this winter break by traveling to Israel and volunteering with a range of unique projects across the country’s south through Jewish National Fund's Alternative Winter Break program

Students arrived for seven intense days of community building and volunteer work in places like Halutza, a thriving Negev community focused on settling and farming the desert; Wadi Attir, a model for building sustainable desert communities in partnership with the Negev's Bedouin population; and Earth's Promise, an urban organic farm located in Be'er Sheva, the booming capital of the Negev.

All of these projects are part of JNF's Blueprint Negev initiative, which aims to develop the Negev region and bring new populations to settle the peripheral areas of Israel.

Students are each required to fundraise almost $1,000 for various Blueprint Negev projects, like those listed above, before actually making this monumental trip to Israel. The travel itself is generously funded by JNF donors who have made the Alternative Break programs possible. 

With the beautiful Lauder Employment Center in Be'er Sheva as a backdrop -- the product of a joint partnership between JNF and Ben Gurion University of the Negev -- Rashel Maikhor, 21, of the University of Maryland explained why she had chosen to take part in this unique program. "I love humanitarian work and social justice," Maikhor said, "and I get to see what JNF does first hand and give back to Israel."

Eve Tenenbaum, 20, a campus fellow from Florida Atlantic University who helped recruit for the trip and is taking a leadership role during the group's time in Israel, is on JNF's Alternative Break program for a second time this year. "I get to see the follow-up from the work that I did a few months ago, and how one group of 20 students changed the course for the next group of 40 students," Tenenbaum explained. 

Tenenbaum was especially happy to see the results from her work with Earth’s Promise from her previous visit. "When I was here last time, the place was totally different -- we were picking up trash and generally cleaning up," she said. "This time, we were harvesting citrus trees. I can't believe how much it has changed in such a short period of time."

It's this hands-on work that highlights the point of these Alternative Breaks. 

Gabe Axler, director of educational tourism at Tor Hamidbar/Netiot at the Lauder Employment Center, led the group in a short course on community building and its importance, especially in the development of the Negev. 

He explained the significance of these types of volunteer-based programs: "When people are visiting Israel, it's a one-way experience when going to museums and seeing sites, and it's hard to bring that back home with them. This is something they can take home through the stories they tell and the experiences they share. That is how you build roots and make an investment." 

Maikhor added, "It has made me think about what I will do after, where my life will go. It has been very eye-opening." It is through programs like JNF's Alternative Break that strong and influential young people, who are ready to become agents of change,  will find their ways back to Israel, and help build a more prosperous and safe country for all Israelis.