Wisconsinite Julia Appel, 19, recently completed a gap year, including spring and summer in Israel, before starting as an undergraduate at Tufts University. She wrote this article about her participation in a four-month program in the fall and summer called Project TEN with NEXT. The program offers young adults the chance to “give of yourself while living in an authentic kibbutz-based or desert-based community,” according to the organization. It is affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
I’m a spreadsheet person, and so one of the first things I did after arriving in Israel was to set up a spreadsheet entitled “Mitzpe Ramon.”
The spreadsheet’s tabs track our (color-coded) group budget and hold our chore chart. It has reimbursements for bus travel to our volunteering locations, and the calendar where we’ve begun to sadly plan out the few weeks that remain of our time here. It’s the record of the last three months of our lives – the time we went over budget buying snacks when our free weekend was canceled because of the rockets, the weekly purchase of ingredients for Moroccan fish for our Friday night dinners and the many, many iterations of our chore chart. It’s not a simple thing, to stick eight people from four countries in a house together and have them make it a home. But we did it, and Mitzpe was the perfect place.
Not many people spend more than a few days in Mitzpe Ramon. It’s primarily famous for the hiking and stargazing opportunities created by its location on the edge of the world’s largest erosion crater. But even with a population of just 5,000, the development town turned tourist attraction is surprisingly diverse. Some of its residents came with the founding of the city in the 1950s. Many are olim from the former Soviet Union. There’s a community of religious Zionists and a community of Black Hebrew Israelites. The music and circus schools attract young people from around Israel, and there’s been a recent influx of young families looking to move out of crowded cities further north. Outside the city itself are Bedouin villages in various states of governmental recognition.
We didn’t just meet the people who live here, we worked with them. We pruned trees alongside Avishai and Gabi, theater people who are trying to run their olive farm the way the Nabbateans did it, hoping that their experimental pistachio tree will grow. We picked peaches for Pini, a career Air Force man who runs events at army bases for children with cancer and brought soldiers to volunteer alongside us on his farm. We stocked fruits and vegetables alongside the many owners of Ha’agala, the co-op grocery store, who are fighting to keep food affordable in a town whose chain supermarket used to be the most expensive in the country. I’ve chatted with students from the circus school and gone to concerts at the jazz club. I’ve spoken Russian with customers at the co-op grocery store, drawn pictures with kids from a nearby Bedouin village, and run activities at an elementary school. By volunteering here, by living here, we’ve woven the town into the fabric of our lives, and they’ve woven us into theirs.
We left Mitzpe. But this winter, the rock wall we built on Avishai and Gabi’s farm will keep out the floods, and Pini’s olive trees will grow strong thanks to our pruning. The kids from the elementary school will play the games we taught them. Because we’re a part of Mitzpe, and Mitzpe is a part of us. The eight of us made this town our town and made our house our home.