“It’s amazing that people from the other side of the world have come to support us.”
Directors of JNF Victoria, Australia spent five days touring the length and breadth of Israel. During their visit they inaugurated new projects and looked into other possible ventures for the continuation of the enduring collaboration between Israel and Friends of JNF Australia.
One of the fascinating focal points of the trip was the visit to communities in the Gaza Periphery, where members of the board of directors met up with local residents who live near the border between Israel and Gaza and were favorably impressed with the contribution made by the various projects supported by Friends of JNF Australia.
“Seeing these projects is inspiring, because it shows us how many wonderful things are happening in Israel, and that we have a variety of ways to create a significant bond with different communities,” said Simone Szalmuk-Singer, Co-President of JNF Victoria.
Recycling water in Bror Hayil
The first port of call was Kibbutz Bror Hayil, where a water reclamation facility was inaugurated. This new facility includes an upgraded pumping station and effluent pipes that extend for 1.2 kilometers all the way to the regional sewage purification plant in Sderot, where the water will be treated before being sent back for use in irrigation. Apart from supplying water to the fields, the upgraded facility will help to keep the environment clean, ensure improved quality of life for residents and prevent sanitation problems liable to delay expansion of the kibbutz.
“You are increasing our capacity to cope with life in an area that is very sensitive security-wise,” said Alon Schuster, Chairman of the Shaar HaNegev Regional Council, who took part in the ceremony held at the site.
“The new system is very important both to us and to other kibbutzim in the area,” said Simon Guthrie, Bror Hayil’s economic coordinator. “We use the water to irrigate the fields, and without proper sewage treatment facilities we can’t accept additional residents and expand the kibbutz. It’s amazing that people from the other side of the world have come to support our community.”
Today almost three hundred families live on Bror Hayil, and the plan is to expand up to four hundred in the next few years. Dozens of houses are under construction in the new neighborhood, and twenty new families were welcomed into the community during the week of the Australian delegation’s visit.
The kibbutz’s old oxygenation pools provided poor quality water that did not meet the standards set by Israel’s ministry of health. The new facility, however, is expected to yield daily around 200 cubic meters of high-quality water suitable for irrigating food crops of all kinds.
Michael Carp, Co-President of JNF Victoria, recalled his previous visit to the site, which took place about a year ago, when the jojoba plants growing near the pumping station were much smaller. “The pumping station is the first stage of the project,” he said. “During the next stage the jojoba plants will continue to grow, their oil will be marketed all over the world and the enterprise will provide a living for local residents.”
In his speech Karp mentioned members of Ma`alot 360, a group of donors from Victoria. “Like kibbutz members, we’re a smallish group of people who know one another personally and work together,” he said.
A well-kept yard at the Daat School
The next stop was Kibbutz Saad’s Daat School, which was established four years ago in place of the old school building that had offered insufficient protection against rockets. The schoolyard was landscaped with the support of JNF Victoria.
The project includes well tended gardens, schoolyard equipment, roofed sports facilities and a shady spot on the lawn where people can congregate. The vegetable garden and petting zoo at the site enable the children to get in touch with nature and the environment and help them learn to assume responsibility. In the alternative energy facility, model planes can be activated by mirrors or bicycles.
The main contribution to the project was donated by Dina Munzer and her family in memory of her husband Mark Munzer. Their daughter Ronit Fraid toured the school as the family’s representative. Greatly moved, she told those present: “At home I learned to love Israel, and I regard contributing to the country as our commitment and responsibility. It’s very satisfying to see the fruits of our labors for the benefit of education and the environment.”
Ronit Bart, who teaches English, guided the delegates on their tour of the school and told them, “Our job is to teach children who feel secure, and you have helped us to make that possible.”
Amid this placid rural tranquility it is easy to forget for a moment that Gaza is only 3.5 kilometers away. Over twenty qassam rockets landed around the school during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and two actually fell in the schoolyard, causing damage to the buildings. Fortunately the children were on holiday at the time. One of the rockets has been preserved as a memorial at the site where it fell, and Israel’s president planted an olive tree beside it as a symbol of the yearning for peace.
“Just a few years ago the school looked like a big bomb shelter – and just look at it now!” said Simone Szalmuk-Singer. Addressing the children directly, she added: “Remember that you have friends in Australia. We are your partners, and we want you to go out into the world and be happy.”
Zeev Kedem, Director of KKL-JNF’s Fundraising Division, concurred that the school had undergone an amazing transformation. “Together we are changing the lives of people who live along the border,” he told the guests from Australia.
Tamir Idan, Chairman of the Sdot Negev Regional Council, came to meet the delegates, and in his speech he reminded them of David Ben Gurion’s exhortation to make the desert bloom. “The residents of this area are modern pioneers who cleave to the land and are turning the region into a paradise,” he said.
Several pupils from the school took part in the inauguration ceremony and their singing provided enjoyable musical interludes. At the end of the visit, one of the pupils made a brief speech: “Thank you for having made our school such a beautiful place,” she said.
New projects in border communities
After their visit to the primary school, the delegation moved up a grade or two and made its way to the Shaar HaNegev Regional High School. “Everything that’s green at the school is thanks to you,” declared Principal Aharale Rothstein as he walked with his guests around the beautiful schoolyard, which was created with donations from JNF Australia. “Our task is to give every student the chance to succeed,” he told them.
In the sciences building, the delegation members heard how groups of students had taken the initiative to come up with ideas for ways of combating the terrorists’ tunnels. Now they are planning to build a satellite that will photograph the region from space.
Looking at the impressive school buildings and the beautifully landscaped green campus with its fine archeological display, the observer finds it hard to realize that the entire complex is, in fact, a giant bomb shelter that is completely fortified against rocket fire. The portable shelters scattered around the yard among the trees and lawns are the only reminder of the fact that an alert could sound at any moment.
The delegation visited two more kibbutzim: Kfar Aza and Nahal Oz. At Kfar Aza they heard about plans for new educational projects, and at Nahal Oz they looked over the border towards Gaza and heard about the old reservoir that is to be restored and upgraded with the help of donations from JNF Australia.
Itai Maoz, who is in charge of field crops on Nahal Oz, explained that the reservoir, which has a capacity of 320,000 cubic meters, collects floodwater that is used to irrigate the kibbutz fields.
“The problem is that over the years the reservoir has silted up, and its capacity has been significantly reduced as a result,” explained Maoz. “Thanks to the donation from Australia we can now renovate it, clean it and, where necessary, reseal it. Once this is done it will be able to hold a greater quantity of water and we can continue to develop our agriculture.”
In Ofakim, the visitors met with Mayor Itzik Danino and toured the Nahal Vatikim site where KKL-JNF is developing a leafy park on a neglected and polluted plot of land. Once complete, the park will include a promenade, wooden bridges, footpaths, single-track cycle trails, scenic lookouts and, of course, explanatory signs.
“Ofakim and the Negev as a whole have a giant window of opportunity now,” said Danino. “The Nahal Vatikim project will make nature accessible to all local residents and improve the quality of life in the city.”
The fascinating and eventful day concluded with a visit to the community of Naveh in the Halutza Sands, where the delegates investigated a new project that JNF Victoria is expected to support: providing a pipeline to the Dan Region Sewage Reclamation Plant, which carries reclaimed water from the center of the country to the Negev.
The new pipeline will provide the farmers with cheap water that will replace the expensive potable water they use at present. This will enable them to extend their fields and support themselves by their own efforts. The plan is to plant new avocado groves that will be irrigated with the reclaimed water. A large tract of land is also being prepared for planting potatoes.
A chance encounter with IDF combat soldiers who were patrolling the border to safeguard local residents proved particularly exciting. The delegates chatted with the soldiers and expressed their enormous appreciation of them. They plied them with fruit and cold drinks – and, of course, they didn’t forget to have souvenir photographs taken.
While at Naveh, the delegates visited the Otzem Pre-Military Torah Academy, whose well-kept yard was created and landscaped thanks to a donation from JNF Australia. The garden is based upon local vegetation that is naturally suited to the hot dry climate. “These green surroundings provide the link between Jewish tradition and life and the soil, and represent our ambition to make the Negev bloom,” declared Rabbi Eli Adler, who teaches at the academy.
The visitors climbed on to the roof of the academy building to get a bird’s eye view of the community, whose swift development over just a few years had greatly impressed them. Explosions could be heard echoing in the background, and columns of smoke were seen rising from the nearby border with Egypt where the Egyptian army was fighting against ISIS. The border with the Gaza Strip is just a few kilometers away.
Despite the wars, the harsh climate and the distance from the center of the country, these modern pioneers continue to settle the border area and make the desert bloom – and their Friends from Australia play an important part in this Zionist undertaking.
“If Israel wants to grow and flourish, we have to help settle these areas, which in the past were just sand,” said Michael Carp. “I’m looking forward to visiting in another year’s time and seeing the progress that’s been made. I’m sure that both they and we will be proud of the work we’ve accomplished together.”