February 15, 2007 / 27 Shevat 5767
Rachel Present, 23, arrived in Israel on the final day of the second Lebanon war. She is one of hundreds of young, North American volunteers who are helping to complete the next chapter of recovery in Israel’s war torn northern region by directly assisting residents in need. Rachel says that the war did not shake her resolve to come to Israel. “It only strengthened my decision to come. We weren’t going to back down just because of the violence. Jews might be more physically safe in the United States, but Israel is our place and running away from your place is, to me, the antithesis of what it means to be a Jew."
Rachel, hailing from Rochester, New York, came as part of the Jewish Agency’s MASA/Israel Journey program that provides young Jewish adults, ages 18 to 30, the opportunity to participate in a long-term volunteer and educational program in Israel. There are nearly 150 individual programs that fall under the MASA umbrella, including Project Otzma in which Rachel is taking part. It has been an unforgettable experience for her, strengthening her connection to the land and the people of Israel. “I’m having a great year. I don’t want to leave,” says Rachel.
Playing an essential role in the Jewish Agency’s efforts to complete post-war rebuilding and rehabilitation, Rachel finds her work very fulfilling. She is currently living in the northern city of Haifa, volunteering in the pediatric oncology ward of Rambam Hospital. She plays with the children, entertaining them as they undergo chemotherapy treatments and helps the children keep up with schoolwork in the unit’s classrooms. “I love what I do there. You would think a cancer ward would be the most depressing place on earth, but most days it inspires me. There is nothing like a child with cancer to give you some perspective on what you think is a bad day.”
Rambam Hospital is the largest hospital in the North and serves every religious and cultural segment of Israel's heterogeneous population. There Rachel interacts in a meaningful way with Bedouins and Druze, Arab-Israelis and Palestinians, Christians and Jews, providing vital support for northern residents. “It serves as a wonderful model for what this country can look like. You see Jewish kids playing with Arab kids, and everyone is playing, working and learning together. The parents all take care of each others kids.”
Rachel is a graduate of Brandeis University in Boston where she studied politics and philosophy. Before moving to the North she spent time at the Yeelim Absorption Center in Beer Sheva which is home to immigrants from more than 27 countries including Peru, Argentina, India and France. There she learned in an ulpan and volunteered several times as an English teacher in a neighborhood school.
When she finishes her volunteer duty in the North, Rachel will go to Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and then intern at the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel. She brings valuable experience to the table, having spent a summer working on food policy in Washington D.C. and two summers working in a Rochester food bank. At Brandeis she was also a research assistant in the Center on Hunger and Poverty.
The Jewish Agency has recently put forth an exciting initiative in its "Final Steps Toward Recovery Plan" to develop a Student Israel Corps that will play a pivotal role in helping northern residents recover from the war and regain their sense of normalcy. The Corps, which includes the expansion of the MASA Goes North Program will mobilize motivated, talented, young-adults like Rachel and bring them to Israel through diverse programs to teach in schools, facilitate informal educational activities and study in Northern Israel’s colleges. It can provide the kind of "fire" the next generation of Jewish leadership needs to forge unbreakable bonds between the Jews in Israel and Jews from around the world.