Americans volunteering in the Southern Israeli city of Arad, Far form friendships far from home and prove that community has no boundaries.
By Itay Ben-Eliezer
While a sense of community can be experienced within the limits of a neighborhood, a small village or a country, it can also be felt on a global scale.
In the small desert city of Arad, American Jews and Israelis have been coming together and creating a community of their own due to efforts of the New Jersey/Delaware – Arad/Tamar Partnership. Established in 1995 as part of the Jewish Agency’s P2G platform, the Partnership’s mission is to connect between Jewish American communities from New Jersey and Delaware with the city of Arad and Tamar Regional Council in Israel, while offering Jewish Americans an opportunity to participate in overseas collaborations and volunteer in Israel.
In February of 2012, Isabel Strasser of Brick Township, NJ, and Louise and Martin Abrams of New York arrived in Arad to take part in the Partnership’s volunteer program, which offers American Jews a unique opportunity to experience life in Arad and volunteer within its communities. For three weeks, Isabel, Louise and Martin resided in an apartment in the center of Arad, enjoying the city’s unique ambiance and relaxed atmosphere. Isabel and Louise, who are both teachers by profession, settled naturally in Yaelim-Ofarim School, helping two local teachers teach English to 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders, mainly through joint activities and conversation, with Martin joining in as well.
“We were able to give these children everyday English and they became very fluent and knowledgeable,” recalls Louise, “we started a blog with the 5th graders and we will be writing in it. Hopefully I’ll add 10 children from NY to the blog, as well”.
Sophie Kaniazev, the children’s English teacher, had nothing but praise for her volunteers. “They are truly special people and their work was heartfelt. Isabel and Louise are both teachers and Marty took a course so that he could volunteer. They clearly know what they are doing. They really helped us and did a lot for the children”.
For Strasser, who visited Israel many times in the past and volunteered in Arad in 2011, the decision to return was an easy one. “I love it here. I formed relationships with the kids and became close to the teachers. Some kids remembered me from last year, some were like ‘where do I know her from?”
Isabel, Louise and Martin’s volunteer spirit did not end with the ring of the bell, as they also volunteered once a week at Beit Gil-Ad, a local senior day-care center. It was there that they were able to really get to know the local community and form meaningful friendships. The three volunteers invited several of Beit Gil-Ad’s residents over for dinner and became close with their families.
“The program’s goal is to create an opportunity for the volunteers to integrate within the community,” says Ruthie Dan-Guri, the Partnership’s Living Bridge Coordinator who oversees the volunteer program, “their community service gives them a chance to meet people”.
“Isabel told us about this program last year, and it has been very exciting. I came along with Louise, and it has been wonderful,” reflects Martin, while Louise adds, “Meeting these wonderful children, teachers and people in Arad, it is a very trusting and caring community. For me, Israel is like welcome home. I felt this in Arad”.
The people of Arad welcomed Isabel, Louise and Martin with open arms, and 2012’s volunteer program is a success by all standards. By interacting with children, teachers and senior citizens and making friends with people in town, the volunteers helped create a richer, more caring community. They were suddenly part of something bigger. They become part of Arad life.
“It is important to get people to come to Israel. So many people can do it. It would really help the children”, says Strasser, “I have dates for when I am coming next year. I will also Skype with the children. It is a great way for them to practice their English”.
“I really appreciate people who come here and want to volunteer and invest their time in helping the children, and I really hope we will stay in touch,” says Kaniazev, “I want to take this opportunity to say thank you”.