Dec 3, 2012  By Bob Levine  Category: Travel,

Our recent mission to Israel - Bob Levine

Helen and I have just finished another amazing JNF Leadership Tour of Israel. We have visited sites all over the Negev and the Galil and are feeling so proud of JNF's contributions to making Israel "a better place.
Our mission began on Sunday evening with an opening banquet in Jerusalem where we were addressed by the former Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon.  He gave us an overview of Israel and its international relations issues.  He is always a truly dynamic speaker.
PS – the food was delicious.

Monday morning we went to the Jerusalem Headquarters of the Israeli firefighters.  There we saw a demonstration as to how different types of fires have to be handled.  We also saw many different types of trucks and equipment as the Israeli fire department has both urban and forest responsibilities to fight fires.  Several of the trucks bore JNF emblems as they had been donate by JNF USA.  At one point the fire chief asked to be introduced to me and invited me up to his office to show me something.  He said we had something in common.  I was stretching my mind to figure out what that could be.  I was remembering that as a teenager I had almost started a forest fire.  In any event, there on his office wall was a large picture with 4 people.  He was on the left and I was on the right.  We were standing mid-court at a Hapoel Jerusalem basketball game presenting gifts to a seriously ill young man.  This was done by the Jerusalem team but they chose the four of us to make the presentation. What a small world!  The Chief indicated to us that he was seriously understaffed considering the size of Jerusalem, new and old cities.  In fact there is NO fire station in the Old City.  He wants one desperately.

From the fire headquarters we travelled to the Gush Etzion block to see a proposed JNF project which is to refurbish and upgrade the museum in memory of the defenders of the Gush bloc all of whom died in the War of Independence when Arabs and Jordanian troops surrounded the Gush bloc. The Jewish residents fought to the last man but in the end they all perished when they ran out of ammunition. Today wives and children of those early settlers and defenders as well as new residents are living there in a thriving group of communities with industry, agriculture and educational institutions.  After lunch we had four of their representatives talk to us about their politics, industry, culture and agriculture. We returned to Jerusalem to another feast meal at the hotel and a talk by the minister of trade and industry.

Tuesday we drove down south to the Negev.  This has been a prime area for JNF activity in which we have undertaken many projects.  We drove down the new Route 6 superhighway and could see where the railroad from Tel Aviv to Beersheva is now fully two tracked so that trains don't have to be shunted to a siding to pass each other.  The trip can be made one way in 55 minutes. A reasonable commute.

We have seen the amazing Beersheva River project in which JNF is building a lake in the middle of the desert. It will be second in size only to the Kinneret and because of our creative thinking it will use reclaimed water so as not to use precious drinking water. Our group planted Eucalyptus trees along the river banks. We visited the Beersheva Amphitheatre project with 4,000 permanent seats and an additional 8,000 lawn seats which will make it the largest in Israel. It will help be a magnet to bring people to the desert. We then visited the construction sites for several new Negev communities to attract both religious and non-religious people to the Negev.

We also visited the Abraham's Well tourist site still under construction.  Before we left Beersheva we stopped to see the Pipes Bridge, which was funded by a client of mine with some assistance from Helen and me.  It is an amazing site to see. We also visited the development town of Arad where we dedicated our gift of a Skate Board course in their Central park as a gift to the children of Arad. We also visited the new community of Givot Bar, 5 miles from Beersheva, where we visited our gift of a brand new "Central Park" with its playground equipment and a little water stream to flow through it creating a great place for fun and relaxation under shade
trees. We saw the newly completed primary school and nursery and the thirty new homes under construction.

We ended our tour of the Negev with a visit to the magnificent indoor bomb-proof playground in Sederot. We got there about 5 pm and the building was filled with over 600 children.  Some were playing soccer or using the disco or the rock climbing wall or the computer room or the pin pong, knock hockey or computer game machines. The younger children were playing in the miniature supermarket filling up their shopping carts with make believe canned foods, loaves of bread, etc. Parents were sitting in the cafe area sipping tea or coffee and munching on a danish while enjoying watching their children gleefully playing. IT WAS SO GRATIFYING TO KNOW THAT WE HAD BROUGHT TREMENDOUS JOY into what would otherwise be a sad lonely existence staying at home near their safe room (BOMB SHELTER) in the event of a rocket attack from Gaza.  How proud all of us JNFers are or should be! Wednesday we left Jerusalem and drove north.  Our first stop was a sewerage recycling plant in Israel opposite Tulkarem in the Palestinian West Bank.  Unfortunately the Palestinians do not process their sewerage letting it run through the streets and down the mountainside into Israel.  With JNF assistance a recycling plant captures the runoff sewage and treats it so that it becomes "safe" water.  If not, the Alexander River (which flows out to the Mediterranean) would be polluted, the fish would die and all the picnic and other park sites would be unusable due to the stench.  Kudos to us!

From there we traveled further north to Lotem, an amazing JNF park facility.  Nature provides a spring that spouts water all year round near the top of a mountain and flows down to the bottom of the mountain where Kibbutz Ein Hashofet is located.  The name means the "spring of the judge."  It was named in memory of Judge Louis Dembitz Brandeis by some American settlers.  JNF built a forest trail alongside a paved path (wide enough for a wheelchair and sloped so that a reasonably strong occupant of the chair, or caretaker, can roll himself up the mountain (down is really easy).   There are picnic areas and many groups of physically challenged kids as well as injured soldiers are brought here for outdoor experiences in addition to scouting and other youth groups.  Every time I go there I have plenty of opportunities to perform magic shows for the groups.  They are very appreciative audiences.

From Lotem we traveled to a Druze village (Usafiya) for a kosher Druze lunch.  It was delicious!  Unfortunately, it was in this village that two Druze boys were outside smoking an Arab water-pipe.  When they had finished smoking they tapped their pipes to empty the ashes. Unfortunately all of the embers were not extinguished and as a result they started to burn some forest tinder and in a very short time the disastrous Carmel Forest fire was begun.  The fire turned out to be the worst in Israel's history.  The fire caused 44 deaths including one 15 year old Junior fire fighter.  After lunch we traversed the forest and ended up at the Carmel Hotel Spa, a very luxurious hotel. When we arrived we were met by a representative of the youth group, Green Horizons, together with about a dozen of the youngster members. Green Horizons is an outdoor hiking, camping, leadership training group which promotes social responsibility, physical and mental development and leadership training for kids of high school age and older.  They invited our mission participants to join them on a short hike in the Carmel mountains.  About a dozen of us agreed to join them.  The kids were bright, knowledgeable, very friendly and were chosen because they all knew English.  As we hiked along the crest of the mountain we could see nature at its finest.  The kids pointed out plants and flowers. They told us which were edible and which were poisonous.  They explained how the forest was regenerating itself after the fire and much more. Halfway along the trail they surprised us. There were three kids who had been sent ahead, made a "protected" fire and made tea from plants we had seen on the trail.  It was delicious.  We returned to the Hotel, I did another magic show for the kids, they left and we prepared for another delicious dinner.

Thursday, our last mission day, was another moving experience.  We started by driving to the memorial site that has been erected in the Carmel forest for the 45 victims of the fire (the prison guards, the police chief, the firefighters and the 15 year old junior fire fighter). There we had a surprise dedication of a small forest fire truck that had been bought with the funds raised by a young Bar Mitzvah boy who, two years ago, asked that in lieu of Bar Mitzvah gifts that his friends and family help buy a fire truck.  He had joined his mother on this trip and to the cheers and applause of all of us, climbed behind the wheel of the truck with cameras flashing all around. It was a beautiful and symbolic act of practicality.  After the truck was properly presented to the fire chief we moved on to the memorial plaza. The memorial sculpture is a long piece of steel that curves off into space and partially turns back and abruptly ends.  It is moving in its simplicity.  There is a commemorative wall that lists all the names and ages.  We had with us at the memorial ceremony the mother of the 15 year old boy who perished.  He was her only child.  She had been devastated by the loss and did not leave her house for 7 months from the time of his death.  Russell Robinson, our CEO of JNF of America,
would visit her on each of his visits to Israel (he had visited her on the third day after his death) trying to comfort her and Russell told her that JNF had created a scholarship for other teen agers to be fire scouts like her son.  JNF also contacted the boy's school and agreed with the principal to build an area on the school grounds in his memory.  Students of the school and members of JNF's college program, Alternative Winter Break worked together to build the memorial space. It is a hallowed ground at the school and an inspiration to many other youngsters to volunteer for service to the nation. His mother spoke and told us of her son, of his dedication, of JNF's support to her and her husband and of her great appreciation for Russell's friendship As she put it… "A friend found me."  We all said Kaddish and were moved to tears.  Tears of sadness for the loss….tears of joy for the
good man can do for man.  As we got back on the bus I couldn't help but feel so proud.

During the four days we trans versed Israel from Negev to Galilee many of our co-travelers took the mike and addressed the group.  They spoke of the projects that they had sponsored and the sense of pride and satisfaction when they saw the joy they had brought to others, of our amazing collective effort on behalf of the environment and our constant efforts to improve the quality of life.

We, the Jewish People, have a reputation for goodness, and deeds of loving kindness.  Everything JNF had done that we had witnessed showed our concern for the land and people of Israel.  We have been working to transform the desert into a paradise, to improve the quality of life for all the residents of Israel, Jew and non-Jew.  We have done it with hard work, creativity, enthusiasm, integrity and love for the land and its people.  How proud we are that our efforts are being appreciated by so many.  How thrilled we are to know how many mitzvahs we are performing.  Increasing those deeds of loving kindness is dependent on bringing many more JNFers to see Israel with their own eyes and have them find the challenge that they want to address…. to make Israel and the world a better place.