Volunteering in Israel

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    Gap Year, Part 1: Kibbutz Einat

    After my last exams at prep school, I left for Israel as a volunteer. Even though my family had nothing to do with the atrocities, and my late uncle refused to kill Jewish women and children then, I think many of us wanted to make up for the past. In addition, despite all of my travels in Europe and Africa, I had never been to the Middle East, and it sounded like a good adventure and a break from studying. I did not know then that my planned stay of six weeks (between prep school and college) would turn into more than six months.

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    I arrived in May 1980 as a group leader of young Germans. I had to organize everyone and file reports. We were assigned six to a house (a shack, really). We were dead tired from the long trip and fell asleep. Suddenly, we woke up from a loud scream, “Turn the light on! Turn the light on now! Something is moving in my bed and on my blanket.” Well, we did turn the light on, and I will never forget that sight. When the first flash of light hit them, hundreds of huge cockroaches started running at once…in every direction. They were on the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and on our blankets. Luckily they scurried away, and we slept with the light on that night. We found out the next day that the house had been sitting empty for quite a while, so I guess the roaches decided to make a home there. We were glad when there was no stampede that night, and our beds were safe.

    Many groups arrived in the next few days, and it was interesting to see the different group dynamics: The Swiss group had everything organized and chores evenly divided within five minutes. We Germans were somewhat efficient but argued more over who did what. The French organized nothing and just sat there, talking and smoking. The girl from Zimbabwe was nice but kept referring to her country as Rhodesia. The month-long independence of Zimbabwe had not yet registered. She was an individual (sent by her family to do her thing for Jesus, she said) like some others from Australia and New Zealand. The really strange group was the American group from Texas. The group leader would sit in the underground bomb shelter for hours and shout, “I have lost my people, Lord. Please help me get my people back.” The Australians thought he had gone mad and called him Moses.

    That very first day we were assigned jobs. I started in the bakery at the assembly belt. In a swift circular motion we had to twist and fold the dough and throw it onto the belt. After I worked there for a few days, I started talking to an older man who was originally from France. He said his wife was so young when they married, he needed the French president’s permission — an interesting story. My career in the bakery ended on a so-called chameshim,a day with a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. Working in the hot bakery near the ovens did not help. When I almost fainted, they moved me upstairs to the pumpernickel, the only air-conditioned place in the building. I guess pumpernickel likes it cold. So do I.

    I did not really want to milk the cows, and the work in the dining was not that appealing either, so I volunteered for the cotton fields. For the men that was hard work. They had to work the heavy machines. The women applied the pesticides. The liquid pesticide was filled into a long hollow plastic tube, which was attached to a loop of rope. The pesticide drenched the rope, and then we touched the plants with the rope as we walked through each row. We walked through those fields in sandals, and I didn’t realize until later that my body had absorbed some of those pesticides. The work was not hard however, and later we could relax on the soft cotton that had fallen from the machines.

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