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Young Judaea Year Course: A Personal Israel Experience

Part 2: Experiential Learning
By Michael Duke
ARAD, Israel – The winter sun barely breaks horizon. Every other Young Judaea Year Course participant still is in bed.
Not Americans Hannah Alexander, Tamar Gaffin-Cahn and Simon Mann-Gow.
These three boarded a bus before dawn in order to traverse the badlands of the northern Negev, dog legging and hair pinning the 20-mile stretch between the quaint desert town of Arad and the ancient mountaintop fortress, Masada.
They’ll be among the first on the peak that morning – working. They’ve come to Masada – the iconic last-stand of Jewish resistance against Roman invasion – for an experiential learning experience, one offered only by Young Judaea Year Course.
“You can do volunteer work around the world. But, we choose to do it in Israel, on Masada, and it’s really great,” said a broom-wielding Alexander of Ann Arbor, Mich.
The JH-V met up with Alexander the morning of Jan. 17. She and the other two Masada volunteers are among the more than 300 North American and European 18- and 19-year-olds who are living, laboring and studying in Israel for a nine-month gap between high school graduation and the start of college.
Year Course, now in its 55th year of operation, is the longest-running gap year program in the State of Israel.
"I decided to do the Masada project because I’ve always had an interest in history,” said Gow of Fairfax, Vt. “I remember years ago my mother gave me a book about Masada, and since I was going to be here, I thought why not check it out for real?”
Cahn, from Newton, Mass., shares an interest in history.
“I’ve been to Masada before and it’s been a very powerful place to me. I wanted to work here and get to know the workers, to get to know what it’s like to be up here everyday,” Cahn said.
According to Eitan Campbell, director of Masada National Park, YC participants perform vital work at Israel’s second most popular tourist attraction, which also is a recognized United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization site.
Thus far this field season, Cahn, Gow and Alexander have helped with restoration on Masada’s Western Palace, located on the eastern quadrant of the site, near the Roman siege ramp. The chanachim helped rebuild a wall in the Western Palace and then helped prep for the restoration team to begin work on the Eastern Cistern.
The overall goal is to prepare the site for flooding and to replenish the Eastern Cistern, which has dropped to dangerous levels, the park’s director explained. Winter is the rainy season in Israel and a few recent cloudbursts did severe damage to the mountain.
“I think the Year Course participants get a better understanding of people who live here in the country,” said Campbell, commenting on what the chanachim get out of volunteering at Masada.
“I think they get a sense of how important Israel is also to people abroad when they see the variety and the amount of tourists who come visit this UNESCO site. It puts them in a little different place on the map than where we are in relation to everything else around us. And, I hope they have fun,” Campbell said.
‘Earthy experience’
Cahn said she loves to visit with Birthright groups when they scale Masada.
“It’s a lot of fun – we like to sit and talk to them. Sometimes they are going to the schools that we’re going to next year. It’s really nice just to talk to them, to get to known them and see why they love Israel,” Cahn said.
“For most of the Birthright students, it’s their first time here, so it’s really nice to see and share their first reactions,” she added.
Alexander also likes the human interaction at what otherwise is a remote place. She said she chose the Masada project for her volunteer work over other options, such as working with Sudanese children or with a Bedouin community, because she wanted a more “earthy experience.”
“I found that I really like being up here because people come from all over the world – people who aren’t even Jewish. We hear hundreds of different languages and dialects being spoken, and they all love this place and they all can connect to it in a certain way,” Alexander said.
“Spending so much time here, we get to learn so much more history, little tidbits about this place even before the Jews came here for refuge (during the Great Revolt against Rome in 66 C.E.). We get to walk around and see things that most people don’t, and that’s really special,” she added.
Own mark
The YC participants are grateful for having the opportunity to leave an impression at Masada.
“We kept this place clean, and I think we developed really good relationships with the people on the mountain,” Alexander said. “I don’t know so much about what we left on the actual mountain. What matters is all the people who talked to us, who came here, that it impacted them.”
Campbell said he hopes the chanachim learn the true message of Masada by volunteering at the site.
“You don’t come to Masada to learn how to die – it’s just the opposite,” he said. “You come to the mountain to take strength for life. This is what we try and facilitate for visitors and this is what we try to share with the Young Judaeans.”
Bedouin village
After Masada, the JH-V traveled to a nearby Bedouin village, Kfar Hanokdim, in the Judean desert. There, two more chanachim from the Arad section were volunteering.
“I love this experience – it’s different than anything I’ve done before,” said Talya Rind of Palo Alto, Calif. “I’ve never done ‘man labor’ before – using things like power tools, saws, building stuff. I’ve never done this before and in an atmosphere that’s really unique.”
Rind said she communicates with her Bedouin hosts primarily through broken Hebrew and English. She’s help build tents, done fencing, landscaping, maintenance and has tended to animals, including camels.
A Bedouin leader named Khalid spoke to the JH-V and said that his people appreciate having the chanachim around helping out and teaching English.
According to YC Arad section head, Roni Shrager, there are approximately 230,000 semi-nomadic Arab tribes-people who identify as Bedouin in Israel today. Some 160,000 live in the Negev, comprising about 25 percent of the total Negev population. About 250 Bedouin families live in the Kfar Hanokdim area between Arad and Masada.
Simon Hurvitz of Stanford, Conn., also volunteers at Kfar Hanokdim.
“This is a part of Israel you don’t really hear about in the news. It’s so peaceful out here, you can enjoy a nice quiet rest after a hard day’s work,” Hurvitz said.
“We’re treated so well out here, the people are so friendly, so hospitable, the food is amazing and their tea is fantastic. The camels are very affectionate animals, but can be a bit dangerous, too. Every now and then, when there’s room, we get to go out trekking with them,” he added.
‘Diverse dynamic’
In Bat Yam, the section where the current Arad chanachim began Year Course, Rind volunteered at a local gan (kindergarten).
“This was an extremely different experience,” Rind said. “I really enjoyed working with Israeli kids, and now I’m working in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the desert. Before this, I had never even been to a desert before! Year Course has created a really nice dynamic, a diverse dynamic, for my Israel experience.”
Year Course is constantly tweaking and tailoring its programming to fit the needs of its current participants, explained YC director Adam Jenshil.
Shrager noted that over the past three years, the program has increased the amount of time, the level of involvement and the number of chanachim that it sends to Arad.
“Arad is more authentic Israeli,” said Shrager, a native of Arad.
“If you walk the streets of Bat Yam or Jerusalem (the other YC sections), these are big cities. Mentally, you have the same feeling going to any big city. But, when you go to Arad, it’s a small town. It’s very Israeli and it’s very much in your face, too, because when you go out into the streets, you see a lot of Israelis, Bedouins, Russians, Sudanese, all of them live together, it’s much more out there.
“And, not a lot of people speak English, so even if the chanachim go to the convenience store, they need to speak Hebrew. And, that’s one way of creating a closer connection to your environment.
“The first day, it’s hard for them. But, after two weeks, and the culture shock has worn off, they already know the worker in the convenience store, they already know he has two kids, and there’s a good chance they even have had dinner at his house.
“This is something that only happens in a small town – you can’t be anonymous here,” Shrager said.
New perspective on Masada
Simon Mann-Gow of Fairfax, Vt., is volunteering at Masada on the Young Judaea Year Course program.
He said his work there has changed his perspective on the ancient mountaintop fortress.
“We followed a tour guide one day and he told us two different stories about what happened on Masada. One apparently is the more public view of how all these Jews held up against the Romans for all these many years,” Gow said.
“The other story he told us was how that was more Israeli propaganda to give heroes to young Israelis that were needed during the inception of Israeli statehood, and that those heroes are becoming less and less relevant today as there are more and more Israeli heroes to be found in modern, contemporary times.
“That was pretty eye-opening, especially since the book on Masada I got from my mother as a kid told the first story,” he said.
Which story will Gow tell his own children when that day comes, based on his own Masada experiences from Year Course?
“Probably both,” he said. “You’ve gotta have both perspectives. They’re both equally important to different people.”

Next week: Part 3: Jerusalem

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