Drawing on the enthusiasm and energy of its young leadership abroad, the KKL-JNF Latin American Department in Israel held its first Latin American Youth Leadership Conference over nine days, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4. The conference brought together young volunteers and professionals from seven countries, introducing them to the wide scope of KKL-JNF projects in Israel, as well as providing a platform for brainstorming and sharing of ideas and information.
"The young professional and volunteer leadership in Latin America is an untapped resource eager to contribute to the work of KKL-JNF. They are energetic, enthusiastic and creative, full of fresh ideas for unique and collaborative projects. We at the Latin American Desk aim to harness all of that youthful energy into one place, through this Young Leadership Conference, the first of its kind,” said Ariel Goldgewicht, Latin American Desk director.
Participants came from Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba.
“We want to form a cadre of future young leaders for KKL Mexico and Latin America,” said Nissim Shasho, KKL Mexico director and one of the conference initiators.
“We have young people working as volunteers with KKL Latin America and what better way to prepare them for leadership roles than to bring them to Israel and to actually live the KKL-JNF experience here?”
The conference included meetings with KKL-JNF leaders and leaders in local government, business and academics, as well as nine full days of touring to see a variety of KKL-JNF projects throughout the country, ranging from Hula Lake Park and Biriya Forest with its Path of the Righteous (Shvil HaTzaddikim) in the north, to Ariel Sharon Park in central Israel, to the Yair Research and Development Station in the Arava, in the south.
On January 2nd, the young leaders visited the Black Arrow Memorial near the Gaza border, where they got a firsthand view of the proximity of Gaza to this region and the complexity of the conflict in the area, with Israeli agricultural communities and fields a mere few hundred meters from the border.
In the distance they could see an Israeli farmer with a tractor peacefully working his green fields. But, noted Demian Krzymuski of the Latin American Desk, who accompanied the group, the entire border area had been a battle staging ground with soldiers and tanks stationed there.
“The area near the Gaza Strip is a very special area, in that on both sides of the border, people work their agricultural fields. But, the moment there is a battle, this land becomes army land,” said Demian, who had done reserve duty on the border during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
During Operation Protective Edge, KKL-JNF worked to pave roads to the fields so that wounded soldiers could be evacuated quickly and via unexpected routes. KKL-JNF also planted trees along local roads in order to shield local residents from the line of sight of terrorists launching missiles.
“KKL-JNF also played a very important role after the conflict in rehabilitating the land so it could be used again as agricultural fields,” Demian said.
Goldgewicht, who also accompanied the group, noted that the most dangerous issue along the border is the underground tunnels built by terrorists, some of which have actual exit holes in the midst of Israeli communities.
At the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village for people with special needs, the conference participants saw the impact of KKL-JNF on the quality of life of the residents. The sprawling village compound includes residential buildings as well as an outpatient clinic, a hydrotherapy pool, vocational workshops, therapeutic horseback riding, and an animal therapy corner. Some 500 patients live in the village with 18,000 people being treated in outpatient therapy a year. KKL-JNF, together with its friends worldwide, helped provide all the landscaping and green areas of the campus.
“The cooperation with KKL-JNF is very important for the landscaping and quality of life here,” said Shraga Evers, director of marketing and development in Europe for ALEH. “In the summer it gets very hot, and all the green elements and shading are very important.”
KKL Mexico's support made it possible to add green elements around the new school wing that was opened in September 2016, he noted.
A visit to the KKL-JNF tree nursery in Gilat and its director Pablo Chercasky provided the group with information about KKL-JNF’s work in providing thousands of trees and shrubs for forests and public spaces each year.
“It is a great satisfaction being here and actually seeing the work KKL-JNF does,” noted Sofia Dulcini, of KKL Uruguay. “A lot of times I asked myself: what do I know about KKL? We have the pamphlets in the office but you don’t actually know what it is until you see it with your own eyes. It is important for the young people who will be KKL leaders to get to know up close KKL-JNF projects and how KKL Latin America is really involved in so many aspects of Israeli life. Here we see what the money we raise actually does.”
The connection created between the participants is very important for future joint projects in Latin America, she said.
“KKL-JNF is everywhere and that is what I came to see: to see the length and breadth of the actual projects that KKL is involved in,” said Federico Kremenchuzky of Argentina. “KKL is not about just planting trees but it is really about the development of the country. Now I have lots more to do and people to meet. I will be able to show and tell people about a lot more projects in which KKL is active.”
At the western Negev community of Naveh, the group learned about the pioneering spirit still alive in Israel. Naveh on the Halutza Sands is one of three new communities founded for Gush Katif evacuees. It is located about five kilometers from the Gaza Strip and two kilometers east of the Egyptian border in an area which used to be a key smuggling route for drugs, arms and human trafficking. KKL-JNF has played a central role in establishing these towns and was responsible for carrying out earthworks for building homes, public buildings, temporary residential neighborhoods and agricultural fields.
Aharon Tzohar, rabbi of the second-year students at the community’s pre-military academy (mechina) met with the group. He told them that today, only 20 percent of the 300 families in Naveh are from Atzmona in Gush Katif.
“If you had come here eight or nine years ago all you would have seen was sand,” he said. “Eight years ago nobody had ever lived out here, ever. What you see here is really a miracle. Without the cooperation of KKL-JNF since this place was founded, we wouldn’t be able to live this modern pioneering. It’s not just about gardens, it is about the infrastructure. We are bad for ISIS and Hamas. Now when they see us, they see the entire Israeli nation behind us. They see KKL-JNF, Argentina, Uruguay, and they understand that we are all interconnected. Naveh is the Zionism of today and we are all part of this miracle.”
The Argentinean delegation was overjoyed to see the construction of the new synagogue that the community had been waiting to build for eight years. It construction was finally made possible by a donation from a Friend of KKL Argentina, as was the construction of the playground across from the synagogue.
“I am astounded with the prospects. It is more than I expected,” said Esteban Lasry of Argentina. “I see here the future development and the possibility that more families can come to live here.”
Concluding the day, Lucia Torres of Ecuador said that visiting the KKL-JNF projects had emphasized for her the possibility of "actually making dreams come true.”
“You see green places like this in the desert and there is a lot of positive energy to create things. You see that if you actually believe in your dream and work for it, you can make it happen,” she said.
Read this article in Spanish