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Hot, Dry and Just Getting Started

I’m sitting inside an bus barreling through the Negev desert, straight south to Kibbutz Ketura, deeper and deeper through endless hills and mountains of raw and arid earth. The region is unlike anything I’ve seen; from some vantage points, the dunes seem to stretch on forever — looking more and more like an old woman’s wrinkled cheeks as they shrink into the horizon. There are trees here, but they don’t thrive so much as survive, each a small, determined spot of life in a hot, blinding landscape. The air here is crisp and clean (many asthmatics come to Arad, where I now live, simply because it helps them breathe); it’s light and tastes sweet in the mornings.

I moved to Arad two weeks ago, the first location of three in the gap year program I’m staffing for the next nine months. The first week was my orientation — how to get around, where to find the best pita, which 10 or 15 minutes a day my bank is open, and mostly what to expect when seventy-five 18-year-olds showed up; the second week was theirs — the Young Judaea Year Course staff and I picked them up, all wide-eyed and blinking after a 9- or 11- or 12-hour flight, split them up into three sections, one headed to Bat Yam, one to Jerusalem and one with me, to the desert, boarded buses and began the year.

When I took this job, I knew I had a unique challenge ahead of me — as a madrich, or guide, it’s my responsibility to make sure these (mostly American) post-high school kids get where they need to go, stay safe and follow the rules, all the while experiencing a year of Israeli life. But, thing is, I’m experiencing all of this along with them. I haven’t lived here before, save a few two-week trips that every Jewish American tourist embarks on. So their amazement at, say, a particular lookout from which you can see straight over the Dead Sea into Jordan, is my amazement too.

To foster their enthusiasm, my amature-in-Israel nature can’t hurt — teenagers won’t get more excited by their been-there counselor deadpanning “And this is the Kotel. Write a note. Put it in the wall. Have a moment with God. Be back in 15 minutes.” But logistically, it won’t help. My Hebrew is poor, and my familiarity with Israel’s complex bus system, my ability to quickly navigate to the nearest clinic or my skills filling out bank paperwork are all equally lacking. But after the first week, I think I’m doing just fine.

Starting in Arad doesn’t hurt. It’s a town of 27,000, with lots of old Russian immigrants and new Sudanese and Ethiopian ones, with a tiny, immaculately tight community of Chasidim, with a mall in its center, two restaurants, two banks, a post office and no stoplights. So helping these kids find the Laundromat; that I can do.

Arad isn’t like a desert city in the states. There aren’t suburbs, so to speak. There’s Arad, then outside Arad there’s the desert. Cross a certain street, look forward and you’ll see for miles and miles. We’re a short drive to the Dead Sea, to Masada. It’s a town of service and hotel workers who bus out to a few of the country’s biggest tourist draws every day and back home every night. But the town doesn’t feel transient. There are real lives here, parents whose parents grew up here and whose kids will never leave. They don’t get bored; they just explore a little further into the desert, hiking and camping and looking and almost certainly finding something beautiful, something breathtaking, another view of the desert, another way to watch the sunset, a new path up a hill, closer to the glowing, searing sun and away from anything that resembles worry or stress.

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