This post was written by Gina Milano from New Jersey and Roseli Ejzenberg from Maryland who are among the first volunteers for Skilled Volunteers for Israel.
We are pioneers in the desert in more ways than one. We are volunteers from the new organization “Skilled Volunteers for Israel” started by Marla Gamoran in the U.S with Judy Gray as the overseas representative, women of vision and heart. Our volunteer project is at Nitzana, a rural, youth educational community in the Negev desert. We are assisting in an intensive English program geared to disadvantaged, lower income Israelis. We work in the classroom assisting the Master teacher several hours per day and then attend different trips and activities such as bike excursions, camel rides, team building activities, among many. Our English immersion program is funded by donors from the Jewish Agency for Israel, and costs about $1,000 dollars per student. Since Nitzana is not well known, they are in dire need of funds.
Together with Gina’s 17 year old son, we arrived at Nitzana with the perception that we had reached the ends of the earth. In many ways, it is. Nitzana is located one hour southwest of Beersheva and a few steps away from the Egyptian border in the middle of the Negev desert. As the days continued, we realize that in many ways, the opposite is true. Nitzana represents the confluence of multiple ethnicities, religious approaches, classes, ages, educational levels and culture.
Nitzana has an incredible variety of programs focusing on sustainability, environment, leadership development and humanitarian outreach. Some of the programs include a camp for children with special needs, a summer program for kids with obesity, diabetes and cancer, a science camp, and, of particular importance, short and long term educational immersion programs for disadvantaged youth, immigrants and refugees year round. Unbeknownst to many, Israel has a growing refugee population from many of the African nations such as Eritrea and Sudan. They are walking from their embattled nations to reach the “promised land” where they have, for the most part, been welcomed. In our dining room here, which boasts some of the most unappealing food in Israel, we are often seated next to teens that have been on harrowing journeys. One of the beautiful things that Nitzana does is that it gives these kids a safe haven until they turn 18 and hopefully equip them with the tools that they need to live independently.
There have been some challenges here, but mostly the experience has been wonderful and in some ways, life-transforming for all involved. Last night was Shabbat and we all assembled at the top of the hill at sunset overlooking the vast desert. In viewing distance, was the beginning of the 100 peace columns leading to the Egyptian border, each engraved with the word “peace” in ancient and modern languages. David Palmach, the director of Nitzana, had us form a circle which included Israeli soldiers, the refugees, the volunteers and the kids. We sang Leha Dodi together, swaying side by side, in a very zen moment. Nearby in the Bet Knesset, Sephardic Kabbalat Shabbat praying was taking place led by the students themselves, many of whom take Shabbat quite seriously. Once again, showing an example of Nitzana’s openness and acceptance of different backgrounds.
In discussion with the camp teens in our program, we have discovered some powerful stories of their lives. One teen told us how his father died when he was 2, another tearfully related her struggle to read and write with dyslexia, and we become aware of these youngsters’ courage. Some were reticent at the beginning of the program. They were a bit suspicious, particularly when they were told that if they spoke Hebrew they would be punished with sets of push- ups. Initially we thought this approach was overly strict. But as time passed, we got a better insight into the Master teacher’s idiosyncratic methodology. All elements were in place to make the goal of “Only English” attainable. And the teens love it here. “This is the experience of a lifetime.” “I’m so grateful for this experience.” “I’ll remember it for a long time, if not forever.” “I will go on to do great things because of this camp.” And we love them. They are warm and delightful.
And we would never have discovered this far flung oasis in the desert had it not been for Skilled Volunteers for Israel.
Roseli Ejzenberg Gina Milano
July 30, 2011