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Behind the Headlines in Season of Giving, Young Adults


They painted flowerbeds and underwater worlds on the walls of bomb shelters. They planted tree saplings and cleared brush on hillside forests scorched by Hezbollah rockets.

Hundreds of young adults from across the Jewish world rolled up their sleeves to give back to the residents of Israel’s war-battered North.

The group of 550 college students and young professionals from North America and Europe, from India and Australia, joined a mass community service project over the winter holidays called “Leading Up North,” funded by the Lynn and Charles Schusterman Family Foundation.

“When you live abroad and you are a Jew, it is a unique feeling when there is a war going on here — you feel as if it is your own family that is suffering,” said Gabriel Buznik, 29, a lawyer from Buenos Aires. “Here we can show them they are not alone, we are the same Jewish people.”

The young people, drawn from organizations such as their university Hillels and leadership programs sponsored by the Schusterman foundation, spread out over 10 northern communities for 10 days of volunteering and service.

They not only worked with their hands, they also interacted with local residents — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — and heard about their lives during and since the war.

The idea for the program followed the successes of Hillel-organized trips last year to areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and similar alternative spring breaks to places like Argentina and Ukraine that the Schusterman foundation helped fund in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

And it’s not the only program targeting the North: The Livnot U’Lehibanot program was recruited by the Israeli army’s Northern Command, the mayor of the city of Safed and the UJA-Federation of New York to create an educational community service program for citizens of the North and volunteers to work together on renovating bomb shelters.

“Empowering the residents to take care of themselves means doing serious ‘tacheles’ work. We need to set up the shelters so that in time of war they are in full operation and ready to go,” Aharon Botzer, Livnot’s founder, said in a press release.

Lynn Schusterman, who remembers volunteering in the community as a young girl alongside her father, said public service is one of the best ways to forge connections and do good in the world.

“It gives a feeling of self-worth to give back,” she told JTA while visiting with program participants in Kiryat Shemona, the Israeli border town hardest hit by Hezbollah rocket fire during last summer’s Lebanon war.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” she said, quoting one of her favorite phrases. Schusterman’s late husband, Charles, acquired his wealth in the oil business in Oklahoma.

The petite, silver-haired Schusterman was greeted with wild cheers and applause Tuesday in Kiryat Shemona.

Wearing a gray “Leading Up North” hooded sweatshirt and a backpack, she quickly joined the circles of hora dancing in the Naftali Hills Forest, where the group had met to plant trees. The forest lost about two-thirds of its trees to fires spread by falling Hezbollah rockets.

The $1.5 million project was sponsored by the Schusterman foundation’s Center for Leadership Initiatives. Volunteers paid a fee of $180, but the rest of their costs — including airfare and hotels — were covered by the institute. About 2,000 students applied for the 550 spots.

“It’s not just about fixing up and repairing the physical side, but the sprit as well,” said Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel. “One of the really nice aspects of this project is that it is aimed at the people who are living here.”

The participants said they were already setting up online networks to stay in touch and continue similar service projects in their own communities.

“This kind of volunteering is unlike anything else I’ve ever done before,” said Aviva Weber, 20, a student from Milwaukee.

Weber and her group painted bomb shelters in the town of Shlomi, transforming the dreary underground bunkers into colorful places of rainbows and palm trees in an effort to comfort the children.

“We hope they don’t have to use them,” she said, “but if they do it will be a less scary place to be.”

“It’s about creating a movement of people committed to service,” said Lisa Eisen, national program director for the Schusterman foundation.

Karoline Henriques, 24, a graduate student from Denmark, said interacting with the residents was her highlight.

“To talk to them on a people-to-people level was rich and rewarding,” she said. “They were so surprised to hear we really cared, not just with words. They wanted to know how we followed the war. This was teaching them about how connected you are with Israel from the Diaspora… here we brought two worlds together.”

On Tuesday the two worlds celebrated together, culminating in a large nighttime concert of major Israeli bands. The event was coordinated by Festival for a Shekel, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that brings culture to peripheral areas of the country. Among other events, a Tel Aviv art gallery set up shop in an old Ottoman stone building.

Earlier in the day, a carnival hosted by a Leading Up North group was held in a community center. The participants, dressed up in handmade clown costumes of yellow vinyl pants and hats made from plastic bags, walked on stilts among the children. They made balloon animals and manned arts-and-crafts booths.

Zvi Bellin, 27, a graduate student in pastoral counseling who lives in Silver Spring, Md., came down from his stilts to make balloon dogs and swords.

“Doing this is post-trauma work,” he said, handing a balloon to a young boy.

Shoshana Biton, 51, came to the carnival with her year-and-a-half-old granddaughter.

“They have come here to identify with us and give of their time,” she said of the visiting young people. “This makes us all very happy.”

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