Young Philadelphians Volunteer in Israeli Partner City Netivot

Group of 15 Students Work in Gardens and With Local Teens

Courtesy Rukhl Schaechter

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published July 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Most students on 10-day guided tours to Israel come to climb Massada, snorkel and visit iconic tourist stops. Ava Skolnik, on the other hand, spent her days sowing gardens and digging mud ovens for a town in Southern Israel.

Skolnik, a student at Drexel University, and 15 other students from Philadelphia, were participants of “Philly Hillel in Netivot 2013”, a trip last month which enabled young American Jews to get to know the residents of the development town, Netivot, by working side-by-side with its residents on local projects aimed at improving their quality of life. Netivot and the Jewish community of Philadelphia have a special relationship as twin cities.

The program was run by Yahel Israel Service Learning, in partnership with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. Funding came from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Repair the World.

During the first few days of the trip, the students sowed a garden by the building that houses Potchim Atid, a club for 8-10-year old potentially at-risk children, as well as a mud oven for baking activities. Although the children knew no English, and few of the Philadelphia students knew much Hebrew, the children were eager to work together with them. “We ended up singing a lot together,” Skolnik said. “Amazingly, they knew all the words to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’!”

For the last few days of the trip, the Philly volunteers were helping local Ethiopian teens build their own garden next to Club 51, a center that provides Ethiopian and Mizrahi youth with afterschool informal education and leadership opportunities.

“It was hard because we were working on a deserted lot,” Skolnik said. “But still, we managed to turn over the soil and build a drip irrigation system. Most importantly, though, was getting the Ethiopian teens to realize that they can continue taking care of it after we’re gone.”

There were other volunteers helping out, too. Some were soldiers doing their tours of civil service, and others were young educated Israeli activist singles and families who had moved to Netivot in order to help the local young residents develop and improve their city.

“In all of our projects, we try to engage as many local Israeli grass-roots organizations as possible,” explained Rachel Olstein Kaplan, associate director of Yahel. “Instead of us Americans coming in and telling them what they need, we ask the Israelis how we can help, and then do what we can.”

Yahel’s main goal, according to its website, is to “deepen the connection between Israeli and Diaspora Jews through a common desire to work toward a more just world”.

In other words, bringing the American students to Netivot wasn’t just a matter of building gardens and mud ovens, but more importantly — relationships, said Kelilah Miller, the group leader of the Philadelphia volunteers. “In many ways, Netivot is disconnected from Israel’s central cities. Members of the community told us again and again how their children are leaving for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, because there isn’t enough of a cultural life or employment opportunities there. In many ways, the residents of Netivot feel forgotten by the world and by the ‘center’ of Israel.

“They couldn’t believe that a group of American students had actually chosen to spend a full week in their community, in order to invest time and energy into helping it thrive,” Miller added.

Although the goal of the trip was to encourage the children, teens and their families to consider the new gardens their own, many were shy about participating, at first. “Days went by while we tried to draw out the more reticent members of the community,” Miller said. “Slowly, more and more of the neighbors began coming down to watch us work. Then they started bringing snacks for us. Finally, they were digging in the dirt, picking out plants and raking the soil.”

By the end of the week, the Americans and local residents were sharing watermelon in the shade and playing pool on a taped-together pool table. “We also learned how to ask, often in very broken Hebrew, to use their bathrooms,” Miller said.

Probably the strongest connections made between the students and the community were through the home-stays. Students were housed with local families for the entire week, including Shabbat.

“At first, I was a little nervous,” Skolnik admitted. “Last summer I came to Israel with Birthright and ended up spending a month in Israel, but that was in a hotel, visiting touristy areas. I didn’t know what to expect living with a host family.”

By the end, she found the experience very gratifying. “It was really eye-opening to spend 10 days with one community, and eating meals with a host family. And even though I don’t speak much Hebrew, I was able to play with the kids because their Hebrew was easy enough for me to understand.”

The trip was also educational, for a different reason. “I never thought I’d learn so much about drip irrigation!” she said.

This article originally appeared in Yiddish in the Forverts.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.