Nitzana volunteers: Sam Zerin, Adam Finkel and Anna Gartman
What an incredible time we are having at Nitzana! The kids are wonderful, the staff is wonderful, the food is palatable, but most of all we feel that our very presence here is deeply appreciated. This was, of course, a primary concern of ours from the very beginning—not only what will we do, but will it really make a difference? During these past two weeks we've not only engaged the young Israelis in interesting conversations, but the kids themselves have engaged us, with thought-provoking questions and ideas in sometimes broken and sometimes surprisingly fluent English.
We have connected with the children, and they have connected with us, on a more personal level, even during those activities which have not required communication in our common language, even when the children resorted to using their own native tongue. During bicycle rides, hikes, and cooking in the waterless Nachal Nitzana, we feel that we have made a positive impression on the children - not simply as volunteers who have come halfway across the world to help them, and not only as strangers from another place and another culture, but most importantly, as friends. In the same way, so too have these Israeli children made a most profound influence on us. Despite our differences, both cultural and personal, we are all Jews, and above all we are all people and it is this commonality that has allowed us to cross all borders to connect with each other, and to inspire each other in long-lasting ways.
So what have we done here? We would like to share with you some of the experiences that we've had which have gone beyond our expectations -- those aspects of certain activities which have made a very strong impression both on us and the children during our time here at Nitzana.
We arrived on Sunday August 3 feeling very empowered and also a little uncertain. We came to help the children; what would that mean? How easy a task would that be? How do we begin to connect with these children who seem so foreign and strange, especially with a strong language barrier? We did not have to answer these questions - the children answered them for us.
As we were eating our lunch, less that an hour after our arrival at Nitzana, a young Israeli teenager came over to our table and invited us to pray with him at the synagogue. We almost made the required quorum for prayer; after we joined, they needed only one more person. The children were very excited to see us, and they bombarded us with all sorts of questions in English!
"Where are you from?" "How old are you?" "Do you know where Chicago is?" "Say something in Hebrew!" They helped us find our page in the prayer books, which were numbered with Hebrew letters instead of numerals, sat next to us, told us about their religious experiences and immediately became our friends.
We arrived in the middle of a camp session, after the children had already been there and gotten to know each other for almost a week, and only two days before they were ready to leave. And yet, they welcomed us, new-comers from a foreign land, into their circles and engaged us as friends. We were equally impressed not only by their friendliness, but by the strength and diversity of their personalities. As we climbed a canyon near Ben Gurion's grave - near the grave of Israel’s highest dreamer and a very strong activist - we talked (but mostly listened) with a young girl whose spiritual strength, desire for knowledge, and action to succeed gave us the most profound inspiration. She spoke with pride of her active childhood dancing, playing music, competing in archery competitions, exploring foreign countries, and reading books in several languages, including, recently, the Da Vinci Code, in English, with the constant help of her dictionary. She struck us as someone who was actively living her life to the fullest - not simply dreaming but acting to make her dreams a reality. We thought about all she had done, about her strength of character and will for success, and took it as a lesson and inspiration for ourselves, and one that we hope to pass on to others.
At the end of our first week in Nitzana, after the children had already left to go home, we were informed that an English language camp would begin in a few days, and there was a need for twenty-three copies of the seventy-five page English book! The three of us split up the duties, and spent six hours in the heat photocopying, collating, punching and binding the new textbooks. It was indeed tedious work, but someone had to do it, and we couldn't help but marvel at the impact our labor would have! There we were, half-way across the world, in the middle of the desert, in a country whose language we barely understood, putting together the textbooks for children who wished to learn English! A few days later, as we prepared a classroom for the new students, we carried by hand eight tables from one building to another, so that the children would have a well-equipped place for learning. These were experiences that none of us thought we would ever have, and ones that, quite frankly, we'd prefer not to have too much again! But these were experiences that gave us a strong feeling not only of importance but of mission - of taking an active role, and not simply dreaming, in the education of our people.
As we interacted with the children, both in casual conversations and focused classes, we could see very clearly not only the impact that they were having on us, but perhaps even more so the impact that we were having on them. The first group of children that we worked with in Nitzana had a class size of 82 children and one (fantastic) teacher. We were able to float around the class giving personal attention and help with their questions and studies, a task which would have been much more difficult with only the instructor alone. It was clear that some students were more fluent than others, and we could see both the struggle and the triumph in their eyes as we discussed cryogenics and psychology with the more advanced children, and the basic structures of sentences and the meanings of individual words and phrases with those less advanced. Often the students (of all levels) would struggle with a single word or phrase, staring blankly with our every attempt at an explanation, and then suddenly, their eyes would light up, they'd smile, and say: "ah, ken!" (“oh, yeah!”).
During the final week, the instructor gave us one hour every day to plan our own lessons with the children, to leave our own personal mark on the curriculum. In fact, each day when we presented our ideas to the instructor, he responded with caution: "That's too hard for them. Try something else instead." To our pleasant surprise, when we went forward with our original ideas, every time, the children became very involved and interested in the activities, struggling but managing to put into English words their own questions and ideas! Yesterday, we arranged for an IDF soldier to come and answer any questions in English that the children might have. We assumed that he would probably be there for ten to fifteen minutes, and then we'd break up the class for discussion. In fact, he was with us for almost an hour, because all of the students could not stop asking him questions!
We hope that you will forgive us for abbreviating our experiences into so few words, because there is truly so much more to say about all that we and the children experienced together at Nitzana. We can say with confidence that these past two weeks have been a very positive experience - both for us and the children. Beyond doubt, it is an experience well worth repeating in the future.
L’shana haba’ah b’Nitzana!
Sam, Anna, and Adam
Nitzana: A Desert Oasis of Knowledge
By Andrea Nadeau
It’s a sweltering August day in the middle of the desert. Nestled within the sand dunes and barren land of the Negev, lies the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Nitzana Youth Aliyah Village, offering an array of educational and recreational opportunities. Every year, people from all over the world travel to the Village, embracing environmental conservation, outdoorsmanship, learning about Israel’s agriculture, and experiencing Israel.
This summer, Nitzana hosted safe summer camps for children from Sderot and the Western Negev region—children who needed the respite and recreation offered by this majestic location. In addition to the campers and staff of the Village, American volunteers come to the Village working for two consecutive weeks at these special camps in Nitzana. The interaction between all the people at the Village has resulted in a better understanding of the importance of environmental conservation along with the appreciation of commonalities among human kind.
Arriving as a volunteer I did not know what to expect. Extensively barbed fences, security gate and guard addressed my question of safety. After settling in, the volunteers were given their assigned camp groups and proceeded to meet at their designated areas.
Nitzana truly is a science camp specializing in the conservation of resources in the desert. Campers learn the importance of acquiring resources that are not easily obtained. Classrooms are used to demonstrate various conservation tactics including desalination, solar harvesting and development of green space in desert climates. Campers learn about plants and animals indigenous to the Negev along with the cycle of natural water flow in the hot climate. In an outdoor activity, the group hiked outside of the village into the desert in order to harvest leaves from bushes that provide water and have nutritional value. On a different day, children use similar resources, leaves and pine, to make perfume and soap in a science lab. Children and volunteers learned that various resources can be extracted from nature to be used in a beneficial way.