The current group was staying at the nearby village of Kerem Maharal in a house that was made available by a local resident. The visitors were delighted to hear that Kerem Maharal was founded in 1949 by Czech immigrants who had survived the Holocaust. ‘MaHaRaL’ an acronym of the name of the 16th century chief Rabbi of Prague, Moreinu HaRav Loew.
Mira Zerhanded each participant a KKL-JNF T-shirt with the words “KKL-JNF volunteer” emblazoned in green across the front, accompanied by the KKL-JNF logo. She asked each guest to tell her why he had decided to come and volunteer in Israel.The first person to answer was Roman Sova who was sporting a pair of long peyot, ritual sidelocks, and displaying his tzitziot, ritual fringes. While working outdoors, he wore a woolen hat that bore the words Na Nach Nachma Nachman, a phrase associated with the Hassidic Rebbe of Breslov Rabbi Nachman.
“I have a wife and three children and we live as practicing Jews”, said Sova. “My father’s mother was Jewish and that always fascinated me. When I married my wife and she told me that she also had Jewish roots, I decided that I had found the path in life that I was looking for. Coming to Israel to volunteer to help build the country is a natural part of that.”
Petr Jezek, who is an IT specialist and speaks English, was translating Roman Sova’s words. He told Mira that he believes he also has Jewish roots. “I was examining our family tree and it became obvious to me that I had a Jewish connection. My theory was confirmed to be true by the anger generated by my grandfather when I questioned him about it. He was an outspoken anti-Semite.” Petr said that he had warm feelings for Israel and had no incentive to volunteer in any other country.
This was the second volunteering stint in Israel for Rudolf Vrba, who said: “Contrary to popular belief in Israel, most people in the Czech Republic respect the Jewish nation and Israel. We are mostly Catholic and we all know where we came from.”
Pavel Kana,who works in a steel mill back home,said that he loves Israel. “I heard about this initiative from a friend who had participated in the past. The possibility to come and volunteer for KKL-JNF in the Carmel Forest has become well known in church circles back home. I think there are more applications to attend than places available.”
Dalibor Pisula told Mira that he came on board because he wanted to get away for a break and he heard from a friend what a good time was to be had in Israel. “I was touched to hear that we came to work in the forest at the time of the Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat, which is the New Year for trees. It appears that the timing of the trip came from above.”
During the festive tea break, Omar, the group’s driver, took the opportunity to teach his passengers a few words in Hebrew. While holding up a piece of sliced orange he pointed to the fruit and said: “Say after me, ‘Tapuz’.” ‘Tapuz’ they all repeated in unison.
Later back in the field, while sawing through the low branches of a tree alongside the bicycle route, Stanislav Bocek said that there were indeed more applicants than places available and that people often have to wait for the next trip. “Our work is also supported by our churches and we receive donations to further this cause”, he said.
Mira Zer asked the participants to compose an itinerary of places around Israel that they would like to see, and that she would arrange to facilitate the visits. Bocek thanked Mira and KKL-JNF for the hospitality and the offer. He reminded her that they had come to work and that tourism was a lesser priority for them.