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A Texan’s Perspective on AABGU’s Zin Fellows Program

A Texan’s Perspective on AABGU’s Zin Fellows Program

April 26, 2013

Homeland & Cyber Security, Negev Development & Community Programs

By Paul Strug

This story was originally published in Houston’s Jewish Herald-Voice.

The inaugural class of American Associates Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Zin Fellows, the new leadership development initiative designed to create a community of next-generation leaders committed to furthering David Ben-Gurion’s vision for Israel’s Negev, just concluded its two-year program cycle. I was fortunate to be one of the participants in this new innovative program.

I had not been in Israel since I was 17 when I participated on the Houston Federation’s pilgrimage for high school students. This time, I was honored to be among 15 individuals selected as the first cohort of AABGU’s Zin Fellows Leadership Development Program.

This was not your typical group tour of Israel. As Ben Gurion University’s mission includes an immersion into issues facing the Negev Desert, most of our time was spent in the southern half of the country. And the trip was a fascinating combination of places and people that resulted in an incredible journey and opportunity.

Paul Strug presents a gift to the group's Israeli tour guide at the closing ceremony overlooking the Zin Valley.

Paul Strug presents a gift to the group’s Israeli tour guide at the closing ceremony overlooking the Zin Valley.

The trip started with a surprise helicopter tour of Israel. Covering so much of the country in two hours also reinforced the sense of how geographically small, yet diverse, the State of Israel is.

The issue of Israeli security, and the critical role of the Negev in keeping Israel safe, was an interesting aspect of our trip. There were signs of the government’s efforts to take advantage of its last large parcels of available land in which to expand – from moving military bases, to strengthening towns and kibbutzim, to fostering additional tourism in through the remarkable natural wonders around Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon.

With Colonel (ret.) Miri Eisen as our guide, the group was taken to Kibbutz Revivim, learning about David Ben Gurion’s early attempts to prove to the world (and the U.N. in particular) that Israel could prosper in the wastelands of the Negev.

We continued on to a unique visit to the Israel-Egypt border and with unprecedented access to the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza, visiting with the head of operations of the logistics center that processes 300 truckloads of goods from around the world that pass into Gaza each day.

It is the only open crossing into Gaza for goods and merchandise (not taking into account the countless smuggling tunnels underneath the border between Egypt and Gaza). We saw Israelis and Palestinians working in concert for the safe and secure delivery of goods. Israel has kept the Kerem Shalom crossing open, even as Hamas launches rockets into Israel.

We hiked the Ein Avdat canyon in the Zin Valley, hopped onto jeeps to tour the Ramon Crater, visited Bedouin villages and went to the Ben-Gurion Archives and David Ben-Gurion’s home.

Some members of the group spent 48 hours in Jordan, touring the lost city of Petra, Mount Nebo (which the Bible tells us is the place from which Moses first saw the promised land, and where he was buried, never having reached it himself), Madaba (home of the sixth century mosaic floor depicting a remarkably accurate map of the Middle East) and Jerash (one of the best-preserved Roman towns in the world).

This trip was as much about the people with whom we visited as the places we saw. The group had lunch with BGU students in the Lillian and Larry Open Apartments Program, a student-led effort to help some of the disadvantaged neighborhoods of Beer-Sheva. The participants live in the community and help the people of Beer-Sheva with anything from preparing for Shabbat, to small repairs in their homes, to playing with young children after school.

Additionally, in visiting with these college students, one is quickly reminded that these students, like most of their peers, had already served in the Israeli military, which is not something we see often within the Jewish community of the Diaspora. It was a very rewarding and humbling experience.

We were thrilled to have discussions with Moshe Arens and Aharon Yadlin, two former ministers in the Israeli government who worked with David Ben-Gurion, as well as with Miri Eisen and Brigadier General Hezi Meshita, two high-ranking officers in the IDF.

There were also visits with middle school and high school students in the development town of Yerucham, who have shown the world their skills in advanced robotics. We also met with the mayor of Yerucham and the mayor of Hura, a Bedouin town.

Group members had dinner in the homes of BGU faculty members on the Sde Boker campus and learned about their cutting-edge research in the fields of construction in the desert, water resource management and solar power.

In the Negev, the sense of passion for community, instead of just passion for one’s self, is clear. There is still work to be done to push onward in fulfilling David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom, and I am privileged to be a Zin Fellow and to have begun to find a way to do a small part in trying to fulfill that dream.

You can too – on your next trip to Israel, add a day hiking the Zin Valley, tour Avdat, have lunch at a southern kibbutz, visit David Ben-Gurion’s archives and learn about the leading developments taking place at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. You too will return with the sense of community that permeates this generation’s pioneers.

For more information about AABGU’s Zin Fellow Program, please contact Deborah Bergeron, director of the Greater Texas Region, at 713-522-8284 or dbergeron@aabgu.org