In the Negev, inspiration and sadness

In the Negev, inspiration and sadness

In November, Saul and Janet Cooperman of Bernardsville signed on to the Partnership 2Gether Volunteer Corps in Arad.

P2Gether is the Jewish Agency for Israel program that links Jewish communities in the Diaspora with towns in Israel, forging people-to-people connections and building community. The Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey partners with the Negev communities of Arad and Tamar.

The Coopermans spent two weeks in Arad, tutoring high school students in English and working with kids and seniors. The couple also had the opportunity to meet many members of the local community and do some touring.

Saul Cooperman, who is a former commissioner of education for the State of New Jersey, shared his impressions of the couple’s Israel experience.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities in Arad, contact Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president, at or 908-288-2405.

MY WIFE JANET and I responded to an advertisement in New Jersey Jewish News seeking people willing to volunteer their time in Arad. We signed up and found our two weeks there to be a wonderful experience.

The town of Arad is located in the Negev, between the Dead Sea and Be’er Sheva. Where the town ends, the desert begins. The population is about 27,000, almost 45 percent of whom are Russian immigrants. Besides the Israeli-born sabras, there are many immigrants who made aliya from places like Morocco and the former Soviet Union; other area residents are Ethiopian Jews, some Sudanese, Israeli Arabs, and Bedouins. There are secular Jews, several Orthodox groups, and Muslims.

Avi, a taxi driver, told us that he belonged to a small group that settled Arad several decades ago and shared with us how he has watched it grow and change. “It was all desert when we came here; we lived in tents,” he said. Today’s youth tend to see the lights of Tel Aviv or Haifa as their future, not Arad with its few industries. There is only one supermarket, no movie theater, and though there are cultural events every now and then, the sidewalks are generally emptied by eight o’clock on most evenings.

Every day I walked about three miles to different parts of the city, viewing apartment buildings that had seen better days and lovely homes that could be part of any American suburban landscape. The air is clean and clear, as is the sky. Because the town is in the Negev, there is very little rain and the sun shone every day we were there. The cars were all small by our American standards, although the gasoline prices were significantly higher than ours.

We met a couple whose story was inspiring and heartbreaking. The husband, Mordechai, who was from Poland, fought with the Bielski brothers (who fought the Nazis in the forests of Poland and whose story was told in the movie Defiance) when he was 14 and then fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence when he was 18.

When I mentioned to him that I had read about Jews getting off the boats in Tel Aviv and receiving only two hours of training before they were sent to fight at Latrun, he gently corrected me and said, “I ‘trained’ many in how to use a machine gun, and we gave them about 20 minutes of instruction.”

Mordechai’s wife, Ann, a Russian, had a colorful history of her own; she and her family had fled from the Nazis, leaving their home and all their material possessions. She said that for several weeks, her family subsisted on meager quantities of water, bread, and garlic, and that they eventually found sanctuary in Siberia, beyond the Nazis’ grasp.

Another person we got to know was Eli, who had just retired as a nuclear engineer and physicist and was a joy to be with. Like many Israelis we met, he seemed to have an opinion on everything political, and, like many, he seemed to feel that peace in the region was unlikely. His wife, Lali, a former paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and an upbeat lady, has a studio in Arad where she makes jewelry.

We met Yaakov, who took us to the Green Line to show us the area’s close proximity to the Arab towns in the Palestinian Authority. That was an enlightening experience as we met with a settler who was adamant about his right to be there.

We also spoke extensively with Jerry, an American who came to Israel 30 years ago, and Aliza, his Moroccan wife. Jerry was full of opinions, and I had several spirited discussions with him. Aliza, small in stature but strong in resolve like so many Israelis, had an art studio in their home. Her tapestries are beautiful.

I spent a morning in a senior citizens home and had a good time talking with one of the most positive men I met in Arad. He read, he sang, he worked in the greenhouse, and he helped other people see the bright side of life.

One afternoon we met with a young man at the community center who was just starting his job, which focused on trying to prevent high school students from dropping out of school. He was full of intelligence, passion, energy, and organizational skills; he was, as I told my wife, “the real deal.”

We helped Arad’s high school sophomores with their English and also took some trips: to Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People, Ben-Gurion University, and Sde Boker to learn about research being conducted in areas of water and solar energy.

We visited with the renowned glass artist Gideon Fridman and were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear him explain his art. We attended a moving tribute to Yitzhak Rabin on the 16th anniversary of his assassination.

Finally, we saw many young people in the army — some leaving Arad for assignment, others returning to the town for a visit with their loved ones. What really was apparent is that the military presence in Israel is consistent, and it is hard to forget that Israel, the island of democracy in the sea of Islamic terror, must defend the homeland every day of the year.

read more: