It has now been a week since the conclusion of the KKL-JNF World Education Conference. Together with 250 other educators from 22 different countries, I saw a part of Israel that I have not seen on my previous 15 trips.
Having taken groups of students on Eighth Grade Israel trips and on March of the Living, over the course of my career, the sites we visit are often the same each trip. That is not to say that the guides we have do not help to connect us to these sites in different ways. They do. Each has a unique ability to inspire my students and to inspire through their storytelling.
This trip, however, was different. I was a participant, being shown sites and meeting people who have been impacted by the support of Keren Kayemit L’Israel, and specifically through the Jewish National Fund USA. I would like to highlight some of my reflections from the weeklong mission.
On our second day, we visited Emek Habacha, the Valley of Tears. We were met by Brigadier-General (res) Avigdor Kahalani, who told us of his heroics during the Yom Kippur War. This was not the first time I have heard Kahalani’s story. We often take our students to Emek Habacha and we teach them about the importance of the Golan Heights and how it was captured and saved by Israel during its wars. Hearing the story directly from Kahalani is inspiring. It shows the importance not only of the Golan from a strategic standpoint, but it shows the important role that one person can have in the future of the State of Israel. Kahalani spoke for an hour, in the hot sun, pausing only for a moment or two to sip from a bottle of water. He was passionate and his warmth could be felt by each one of us.
At the conclusion of his story, we loaded jeeps to tour the Golan and Syrian border. We passed a small memorial to Eli Cohen, Israel’s greatest spy. A different type of hero than Kahalani, yet one who made an impact on the history of our people.
Along the Syrian border, our guide, Ilan shared the important role that Israel had in helping Syrians during their civil war. When asked why the support of Israel has not been publicized, among the reasons Ilan provided was that Israel does not act the way that it does for PR purposes, but out of a sense of character values that are embedded in our DNA as Jews.
The same is happening in the Gaza Envelope, an area we visited on the fourth day of the trip. We saw an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants and learned how the community educates children about love. Ofir Libstein, Head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council shared the new industrial zone being built at the Gaza checkpoint with the goal of 10,000 Gazans crossing the border to work each day. We ventured close to the Gaza border to see how important the region is to Israel’s security. Again, these are not things that we read about daily in the papers or hear on the news, but it is part of what makes the fabric of Israel a light unto the nations.
This is a theme that echoed through many of the other stops during our mission; how Israel protects all of its citizens.
At Moshav Rehania, we learned about one of Israel’s minority populations, the Circassians, a people brought to the region by the Ottomans. Currently, there are two Circassian villages in Israel. They are Zionists and serve in the IDF. Numbering only 5000 in Israel, they are a small but loyal minority. Israel cares for its minority populations. They are included in the fabric of the land and in its security.
At Mechva Alon, we learned about how Israel meets the needs of all its soldiers and all those who want to serve. We heard from four lone soldiers from across the globe about how they get social integration through the work of Mechva Alon. Brigadier General Ophir Levius spoke about education and his storied career and recovery from injury while serving. He showed us that everyone can serve and make a difference in the security of Israel. Ophir reminded us that our students will be ok if we invest in our teachers. This message was driven home with the words, HaGur Shelanu, HaTur Shelanu. He explained that we are not in the business of building soldiers; we are building a nation.
This was driven home by Lieutenant Colonel (res) Tiran Atia, Director of the Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate, Special in Uniform. Special in Uniform is an innovative program that integrates young people with autism and other disabilities into the IDF and Israeli society. This example of inclusion is a model that touched me to my core. As an educator in a Jewish Day School, I find that it is my responsibility, no, my privilege, to find ways to include every student, every child who wants a Jewish education in the framework of our school. Special in Uniform does just this for the State of Israel. They work with young people who dream of being in the army and give them an opportunity to serve their country. They march, they are given uniforms, and at a special ceremony, just like every other soldier, receive their beret with their families watching on. What other country would include these soldiers in their army?
The impact that these soldiers have is not just on those who hear about the program, or on their families, but so too on every soldier in Israel’s military. I have often found that when including those with different needs in a classroom, the impact is on every other student and educator in that classroom. We learn empathy, we learn that it is our responsibility to take care of one another. And we learn that together we are stronger.
This message is one that was really driven home by Elie Klein, the North American Director of Development for ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation village in Israel’s south. Adi Negev is a 40-acre village with 170 residents with severe mental disabilities, who live there year-round. In addition to the permanent residents, there are 190 educational disabilities and special needs students who receive services. As Klein explained, no two people are alike and therefore you cannot teach two children in an identical way.
He shared that the 80 students in their integrated kindergarten, which includes neuro-typical kids, help students from a young age learn empathy and resilience. The program is so popular that a new children’s center is being built for 14 new kindergarten classes.
Parents and family members are also welcome to visit whenever they want. The most incredible aspect of ADI-Negev is the cost to families. There is no cost. Everything is covered through the $35 million-dollar-a-year budget.
With 150 additional acres just gifted, the goal is to build a fully inclusive town with 500 homes, all accessible to anyone with needs. This new town, called Merchavei Daniel, is a further indication of the work being done in Israel to meet the diverse needs of its population.
ADI is an acronym for Ability, Diversity, and Inclusion. ADI also means, jewel. This village is certainly a jewel in the landscape of Israel.
As an educator, my goal for joining the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Educators Mission was to strengthen the work that we are doing at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee. I was thrilled for new understandings of Ammunition Hill, through the story of Alon Wald, whose father fought and died during the 6-Day War; seeing the indoor playground and bomb shelters of Sderot; a visit to the 9/11 Memorial, the only memorial of its kind outside of the USA where all of the victims’ names are listed; visiting Katzrin with our guide, the barefooted Noga who was the 7th child born in modern Katzrin and reminded us that we must always look where we are going; and a visit to the ANU museum, where Miri, a participant in our group happened upon a Bible that unbeknownst to her had been donated by her grandparents. She recognized the Bible from her childhood and told us the story of leafing through the pages, only to see it on our last day, as a further reminder of the rich history of the State of Israel. I came home with much more than I had anticipated.
As Isaac Herzog said in his speech to the US Congress this past week, Israel is “a country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.
A state founded on complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender – as stipulated explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
A country which is ever evolving. A diverse amalgam of accents, beliefs, backgrounds and customs. Truly, a modern-day miracle.”
Herzog went on to say, “Our democracy is also 120 Members of Knesset, comprised of Jews, Muslims, Christians or Druze, representing every opinion under the Israeli sun, working and debating side by side. Our democracy is also late Friday afternoon, when the sound of the Muezzin calling to prayer, blends with the siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem, while one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride Parades in the world is going on in Tel Aviv.”
What I take home from this mission is a deeper appreciation for what Israel does for all its citizens and for all of us committed to its values.