Feb 12, 2024  By Zachary Narrett  Category: Travel,

Israel Impressions

Our Jewish National Fund-USA volunteer mission was based in Sde Boker, a small community founded in the Negev where Ben-Gurion lived during the final three decades of his life.   We stayed at the beautiful Kedma Hotel, designed to blend perfectly into the desert landscape.  

The first full day of our mission began early Monday morning when we visited Gvulot, a kibbutz that barely escaped the devastation of October 7. We spent the day weeding and planting lettuce and parsley by the grounds of the community school.  The mayor, a young man in his 30s, told us we were participating in a historical event: Our efforts were helping prepare the ground for school to reopen and for the return of many families.  

We visited the new gravesite of around 30 people murdered in the massacre on October 7. Rabbi Tobin led the Kaddish prayer which we all recited in unison. We heard testimonies from two elderly women who suffered heartbreaking losses. They were so brave to share their stories.  We walked back to the bus silently. Later, our spirits picked up when we visited a high school and packed care packages for soldiers. Israel is a remarkable, embattled, and deeply beloved country.

Tuesday began with more agricultural work.  We weeded a large field of green onions in Be’er Milka, a remote farming community (a moshav) close to the Egyptian border.  The moshav and neighboring communities are threatened by smugglers, thieves, and even by armed marauders.  With Jewish National Fund-USA’s help, the moshav has enlisted the support of HaShomer HaHadash, an organization that recruits young adults to help keep small farming communities safe and productive.  I enjoyed digging in the good earth on my hands and knees and knowing I made a difference.

After working in the bright sun, our group met on the edge of the field with members of the IDF’s Caracal force, which has both male and female soldiers.  Caracal’s female commander told us that her unit was among the first to respond on October 7, saving civilians under attack and killing many terrorists.  Every group member was inspired by her incredible story of courage and bravery.  

People are remarkably resilient here even as the nation mourns. Michal Uziyahu, a woman among the aspiring leaders of her community told us, "We will never be the same as we were before October 7th.  But we are determined to build back stronger and better. This is our home.”

Later on in our mission, we planted young eucalyptus trees at the site of the Nova music festival, which the terrorists turned into a killing field on October 7.  The green landscape was beautiful (and a startling contrast with the desert) and even more dazzling as dusk approached and orange and red streaks crossed the sky. Posters with the name and photo of each murdered person and of fallen soldiers, together with letters and inscriptions telling us about their lives were displayed. So many young lives were cruelly taken. Many people, including soldiers, were there to place stones, light candles, and perhaps leave a personal note to someone killed on that horrendous day. We talked to some soldiers who said they felt a deep sense of purpose in defending the people of Israel.  To take part in the planting of trees expressed our own hope for a better future for generations to come. We are a people who choose life.

On the last day of our trip I toured Ben-Gurion ’s nearby gravesite with several members of our JNF group.  The bright early morning sunlight illuminated each crevice in the desert hills and valleys.  Ben-Gurion  chose with great care when selecting his final resting place overlooking awe-inspiring views of the cliffs and hills and desert below.

We then visited ADI Negev, a remarkable facility that cares for children with special needs and the disabled. It gave me a warm feeling to see children having school outdoors and then helping prepare soup with homegrown cabbages. We weeded and repotted plants at ADI’s beautiful green care farm, with vegetable gardens, horse stables, greenhouses, and a petting zoo.  After our work we squeezed oranges and drank their delicious nectar Israeli style, using half of the squeezed orange as a cup.  No waste.  The rinds are fed to the farm animals and the children learn about gardening, farming, and composting.  The weather was perfect for our picnic lunch. Our gardening was an ideal activity for the day — this was the day of the Tu BiShvat holiday celebrating the fruits of the earth.  

Our experience on the Jewish National Fund-USA volunteering mission was so meaningful. For all the deep sorrow and anguish the people of Israel feel, I am continually struck by their strength, courage, resilience, and love of their country. Despite the horrors of October 7, Israel will recover and see brighter days.   Rebuilding is a huge task, requiring sustained effort and commitment, yet clearly has begun.  The people of Israel are its ultimate strength, and their spirit fills me with hope.