Written by Simon Griver; photos by Paula Londe
More than 40 Jewish women from Israel and the Diaspora came together last month to spend a week traveling across the Negev desert in the Jewish Agency’s Desert Queen expedition. The event, which was first held in 1999, and is organized by Geographical Tours Ltd., and took place for the second time in Israel, is an important celebration of feminism, Zionism and Jewish unity.
One of the 4x4 vehicles in the jeep expedition was crewed by Paula Londe from Atlanta, Georgia, and Hagar Ben-Shalom and Analia Aloni from Yokneam-Megiddo. They had been teamed together within the framework of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program, which for more than a decade has twinned Yokneam-Megiddo with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.
“Desert Queen was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life,” said Aloni, who is leads the sport activities at the Yokneam Community Center. “It was a truly moving Zionist experience and feminist experience. I’d never done anything like this before.”
The 40 women set out from the Erez Checkpoint on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip after meeting the family of Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by the Palestinians for the past three and a half years. For the following week they drove across the Negev before reaching Eilat.
Aloni said, “Meeting Gilad Shalit’s family was very emotional. Two of the women who participated in Desert Queen were sisters of the soldiers kidnapped and killed in Lebanon. I think this gave us a sense of proportion throughout the event that any difficulties we encountered were trivial.”
Londe stressed that Desert Queen was a wonderful chance to meet people she would never have otherwise encountered. She said, “Analia graciously hosted me in her home before the trip began, inviting me to stay before we even met! Her family is funny and charming, and welcomed me as if I were family myself. It was comfortable and relaxed.”
She added, “Analia and Hagar were patient and helpful with my elementary school Hebrew, which was rusty from years of not being used. I said that it was stuck in my head and couldn’t find it’s way to my mouth! But as our time together progressed the Hebrew came much more quickly. And their English was incredible!!”
Arkady Hasidovich, Regional Coordinator for P2K Yokneam/Megiddo said that Desert Queen provides the perfect format for bringing together Jewish women from Israel and North America. He said, “The experiences they go through together shows them how much they have in common.”
Lori Abramson, a US immigrant living in Yokneam and a Partnership 2000 volunteer prepared Aloni and Ben-Shalom for Desert Queen. “The event meant the Yokneam-Megiddo women would be spending the week with a lot of North American Jewish women, so I helped polish up their English and explained to them about US Jewry, the Federations system and structure. They found it very enlightening.”
Ben-Shalom, a social worker with the Megiddo Regional Council said that for her one of the highlights of Desert Queen was the Kabbalat Shabbat and Friday night meal they all shared in a Negev field school. Ben-Shalom said, “There was a great sense of togetherness throughout the week and never was this more evident than at the Kabbalat Shabbat, which stressed how much we Israeli and Jewish women had in common.”
Judy Yuda, the Jewish Agency’s Yokneam/Megiddo Partnership Director, who herself participated in last year’s Desert Queen journey in the Negev said that the experience was amazing. She said, “It was an opportunity to see Israel in a totally different way for both Israeli and Diaspora women. Sleeping under the stars, changing flat tires and holding desert parties created a uniquely intimate and intense atmosphere, in which we were all able to get to know each other.”