by Judy Farron 5.11.08
I have been visiting Israel for the past thirteen years – ever since my daughter, Juliana, at the age of 23 decided to take a 5-month Ulpan program on a religious kibbutz. She stayed on that kibbutz (Kvutzat Yavne), married Shachar, a Yemenite Israeli and they now have four gorgeous children.
Two years ago, on one of my Israeli visits, Juliana said, “Mom, you have to see this documentary on TV. They take a group of Israeli women, put them in teams of four, give each team a Jeep and drive off-road in different countries for a week.” The next evening this documentary, Desert Queen, aired on Israeli TV. At the end of the show, I turned to Julie and said, “I have to participate in one of these expeditions. I want to be a Desert Queen.”
In the June 2008 issue of “L’Chayim” there was an article announcing a special Desert Queen expedition in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary. The expedition was offered through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 Program in combination with Geographic Tours (the company that created and produce the Desert Queen project). This expedition would be the first to stay inside Israel (a week in the Negev) and also the first to include women from outside Israel. The online application said, “Participants are put to the test as individuals – and no less important – as a team.” It specified only that applicants, “…like the outdoors, be physically fit, enjoy coping with challenges, be over 20 years old and have a valid driver’s license.” I filled out and submitted the application immediately, printed out the medical form my physician needed to sign and waited impatiently for a response which was to come around July 1.
Early in the morning on July 1st there it was – my email acceptance letter from Yifat, the Project Director of Desert Queen. I was ecstatic! I told my husband, Marc, who responded very mildly saying said he really had no idea what the whole thing was about. Then I realized I may be one of the only people outside Israel who actually saw (on Israeli TV) Desert Queen. No one in the states that I told knew how to react, but every Israeli I told was so excited. After telling my daughter, I continued to get phone calls and emails from people in Israel for days. Everyone there knows Desert Queen (Malkat haMidbar). Accompanying the acceptance letter was a list of supplies we needed to bring (including toilet paper). I called my son-in-law and he offered to lend me his army sleeping bag, backpack, flashlight and knife. Around this time I started wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. There was no turning back, so I made a personal resolution: that I was going to have a totally positive attitude and not let any insecurity or anxiety prevents me from having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A few days before leaving for Israel, each participant was sent by email the names of the other team members (with contact information) and a team assignment. During the week-long expedition each team would have to “perform” its assignment for the other 15 teams. My team’s assignment (Team #10) was to provide the other teams with a Shabbat treat. No other information was provided. Immediately, we started emailing each other (2 of my teammates spoke English) and we decided to focus on the candle lighting prayer which is one of the three Mitzvot designated for women.
I arrived in Israel 5 days before Desert Queen was scheduled to begin. I was greeted at the airport by Juliana and her family who were holding a huge red sign saying, “Welcome Your Majesty.” I had a few days to rest and assemble all the gear needed for the expedition. People on the kibbutz came to wish me well and ask me how I felt about the upcoming trip. I repeatedly told them my personal resolution: to have a totally positive attitude and not let any insecurity or anxiety prevent me from having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My daughter expressed her concern, saying, “Mom, you may be stepping outside your comfort zone. Every time you come to Israel you stay on the kibbutz. It’s familiar and everyone speaks English to you. On this trip you’ll be on your own, surrounded by people you don’t know and they’ll be speaking Hebrew.” I thought about what she said and thanked her, but told her I didn’t anticipate any problems. I reminded myself of my resolution, but her words stuck in my mind.
Out of the 60 Queens there were 41 Israelis and 19 from outside Israel. Ten were from the States. On the first day all the women met in Ben Shemen – a beautiful park outside Jerusalem. The purpose of this day was for team members to meet and have the opportunity of getting to know each other.
The next morning everyone met at the Jewish Agency Compound in Jerusalem. There was an amazing opening ceremony with speeches, food and music. Around 11 AM our trucks arrived (provided by AVIS) and we loaded our things into the back, got in and tested the walkie-talkies in each truck.
Everywhere we drove, Sigal gave us lots of historical, geological and archaeological information. The stark physical beauty of the Negev is outstanding – different formations and colors everywhere. Each morning we first awoke to coffee and sweets. A short while later there was freshly baked bread and beautifully prepared breakfasts - lots of Israeli salads and cheeses. We had our own private caterer and you can’t begin to imagine what a spread they laid out at each meal. After we drove for four or five hours every morning, often over some rough spots in the desert, it was such a treat to spot in the distance the white lunch tent blowing in the wind, decorated with flowers.
Every day we woke up in a different place, except Shabbat when we spent two nights in Nizzanah, a Jewish agency youth village. Some nights were spent in campgrounds, and some simply under the stars. There were times we had showers available to us and times we didn’t. We created ingenious ways to give ourselves privacy when we needed to urinate or move our bowels. Each time we took a driving break, one of the Israeli teams would open its truck doors and turn on a CD – usually playing some strongly rhythmic Moroccan tune that got everyone up and dancing. There is really no way I can describe the emotions I felt at these moments. I was enormously thankful to have the opportunity to be sharing this trip with these women, joyous to be a “sister Jew” with them and enormously envious of their shared culture. It didn’t matter if they were Ashkenazi or Sefardi, young or old, from the north or south, a city or a kibbutz. They were all part of something. I also believe that the Israeli women treat each other better than American women do. It may have something to do with their army service. We even discussed these things and others agreed with me.
It would be impossible to recount every sight we saw and everything we did. For example, we visited and camped in an ancient Nabatean city. We saw naturally formed erosive craters and interviewed the women fighters of Karakal Batallion at an army base. We biked at 4:30 in the morning to watch the sun rise, drove along the ancient Spice Route. On the second night we had a surprise party waiting for us at the end of the day. When we parked our trucks, all the Desert Queens from past expeditions (the Desert Queen program started ten years ago) were waiting for us. This event left me speechless. A band played until 3 AM, photographs from Desert Queen expeditions were projected on the cliffs surrounding us. Though this event must have taken a lot to organize, it was all done in a typical Israeli style: no fuss, lots of food, lots of loud people, lots of laughter and lots of fun. It made me cry.
For our final evening we ended up in Eilat, where we spent the night in a beautiful hotel. We had an opportunity to share our feelings about the trip with each other, ate a wonderful dinner, sang and danced to the music of Israeli folk singer, Einat Saruf, had an emotional closing ceremony and went out drinking on the beach at midnight. From the first day to this point, the feelings we had and the camaraderie that developed evolved profoundly. We had grown so comfortable with each other. There was so much hugging, laughing, crying and sharing our lives.
My daughter’s concern about leaving my comfort zone didn’t happen. In fact, I was amazed how comfortable I felt. I can only attribute this to the amazingly warm, funny, loving welcoming Israeli women who shared this trip with me. I made some real friends and have several invitations to visit people. I can’t thank enough the organizers and staff of this wonderful expedition and it’s hard to imagine the time, effort and love they put into creating and executing this adventure. I couldn’t help but notice that they too seemed to enjoy the week we shared. If I ever have the opportunity to go on another Desert Queen expedition, I will go for sure, in a heartbeat. I loved Israel before this trip, but came away with a newfound love for this beautiful land and a deep respect for my “Sister Jews.”
Judy Farron is the owner/director of Fort Myers Language Center in Fort Myers, Florida. She has a Masters Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. Her center offers English as a Second Language classes (ESL) to local foreigners, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to vacationers from overseas. The center has just started to offer Hebrew language classes to anyone who is interested – with an Israeli teacher, of course