Young Judaism: Federation Co-sponsored Winter Break in Israel

By Hannah Weeks

Sitting on my flight home from Ben Gurion International Airport, I considered all that I had accomplished and contributed to Israel in a mere seven days. I positively impacted and left a mark on the Jewish State.

Through the Jewish National Fund and the generosity of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, I was able to participate in the Alternative Winter Break volunteer trip to the Negev, or Southern Desert of Israel. Previously, I had been on Birthright, but it was not enough. This trip provided me with the opportunity to return to Israel, and more importantly, to give back and do my part as a Jew.

We began in Gvulot, staying at the local kibbutz. Despite the plethora of hummus, Israeli salad, and wandering cats, it had not set in that I was in Israel quite yet. Our first project was at Holutza, a moshav that was developed in 2005. Prior to that, it was simply desert, not a fully functioning civilization as it is today. Our group of 40 college students from across the US, planted bushes and small green filler plants along their main street to brighten up the space. At the end, we were given the honor of planting our own trees on their property. Being in Holutza emphasized how dedicated Israelis are to make the most of their land.

For many in Israel, danger is their reality and they need to be prepared at all times. It was eye-opening to look out into the Gaza Strip and learn of the struggles between the two sides. Children are taught how to respond in case of an air attack, and innocence is taken away at a young age. To help give children their life and freedom back, an indoor playground was created in Sderot that has six surrounding bomb shelter rooms, allowing kids to safely be kids. For only 10 shekels, children can play, and parents are given peace of mind.

My favorite moment was going to Wadi Attir, a Bedouin settlement that develops desert farming techniques. There, I removed zatar from a large field to be replanted in an upper garden, along with planting trees to beautify the main walkway. Speaking to one of the Bedouin school’s teachers and farmers, it was apparent how grateful he was for all of the work our group was contributing to his land, which he loves dearly. He shared with me how when he goes out to the fields, he is at peace; the land brings tranquility to him. It is his dream that his children grow to have a similar love and appreciation for the land.

When our time was done in the Negev, we traveled into Jerusalem and helped at Latet Food Bank. There, we boxed monthly food packages for Holocaust survivors and, in a few hours, our work would help hundreds of survivors in the months to come. I was so happy to be a part of such a wonderful program for those in Israel.

Going to the Jewish state would not have been complete without a trip to the Shuk, an Israeli hub. The rows of dried herbs, fruits, and nuts filled the scene. Chaos was tangible as people shopped for last minute items before Shabbos began. From there, we went to the Kotel. Friday night brought rain, wind, and cold – just like the Berkshires. None of that mattered though. Once on the women’s side, the jubilation and chutzpah were palpable. All of the girls from my group joined mothers, soldiers, grandmothers, little ones, you name it, in song and dance. Praying before the Western Wall, feeling so surrounded by Judaism, is a feeling I can never forget.

Shabbos brought time to reflect and look back on the short, but meaningful trip I had embarked on, for Israel is the place of our people. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have gone with the support of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and I look forward to sharing my experience with others and returning to Israel someday soon.

Hannah Weeks is a resident of Pittsfield and a member of Knesset Israel. She currently is a sophomore at Union College in Schenectady following a pre-medical track with a major in Spanish and Hispanic Studies and a Psychology minor. Hannah is passionate about serving and helping within her community, whether at Berkshire Medical Center as a Courtesy Cart Volunteer, in her school community, or Jewish community. Outside of her studies, she plays in the Union College Early Wind Ensemble and is Outreach Chair for MedLife, a club dedicated to assisting those in the local community to improve their medical resources. Hannah loves to travel and Israel is one of her favorite places to visit!