Thank you so much for an incredibly meaningful and truly fun day. When my dear friend Haviva invited me I did not know what to expect. In the US, we hear about the conflict all the time but in all my many trips to Israel I have never really seen it. It’s so easy to come here and never be exposed to the daily life of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Getting to spend the day introducing moms and kids to the beach for the first time was bittersweet. Seeing their trepidation turning into excitement and joy was visceral. Feeling the sand, the sea, floating on a wave — all experienced for the first time by people who live so close to the ocean yet cannot experience it without months of planning, permits, checkpoints, volunteers, etc is just so sad yet playing with the kids was so joyous, especially the little girls — it’s hard to reconcile those feelings and experiences. Thank you for this opportunity. I hope more and more people volunteer.
Victoria S. Cook
Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz
What a perfect way to spend a day at the beach! Both meaningful and delightful.
Something that is such a given pleasure to us is not only a luxury, but a fantasy, for people like the group I met today from the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani on the West Bank. While many of them have family lore of living near the sea before 1948, they themselves have never been. Crossing into Israel requires permits and passing through checkpoints. Without connections this is nearly impossible.
My family left our northern kibbutz, Hannaton, at 6:30 this morning to be at Tel Baruch beach in Tel Aviv by 8:30. I had heard about the organization Min el Bahar’s amazing work and decided it was about time I volunteer and experience it for myself.
Water is my element. I swim every day and run the only mikveh (ritual immersion pool) in Israel open to all who want to immerse how and when they choose. I am quite active in Arab-Jewish shared society work in Galilee, but not peace work with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Helping bring Palestinians who have never seen the sea to spend a day at the beach felt like an ideal way for a water person like me to start.
The experience was truly magical. Despite the organization’s hard work securing the proper permits, the bus was almost two hours late, as they had difficulty crossing the checkpoints. Volunteers were briefed and prepared by three of the organization’s founders – Rachel Afek, Amira Itiel, and Tali Gout -- and then we waited patiently, getting to know one another, and hearing updates on the group’s progress at the checkpoints.
When the bus full of mostly women and children, but with a few men as well, finally arrived, the excitement began. It is hard to describe the experience of witnessing a group of people at their first-ever (and perhaps last) visit to the beach. Even watching them see a jellyfish for the first time brought tears to my eyes!
I tuned into a young girl named Zana (in the pink shirt in the video below). What first caught her eyes was the sand. She sat and started playing in the dry sand near the parking lot where we met the group. While other kids rushed to put on sunscreen, grab and floaty tube, and get in the water, she held back. I asked if she’d like to go down to the water, and she shook her head.
I sat beside her, and after a while, she warmed up to the idea of taking my hand and at least walking down to the shoreline. “There is sand there too,” I told her in my broken Arabic and with the help of body language and the vocabulary sheet the organization had provided.
Finally, she agreed. For a while she sat and played with the sand next to the water, building sandcastles. Next, she agreed to sit in the blow-up pool the organizers had brought and filled with sea water. (These women thought of everything!) After more coaxing, she agreed to get her feet wet in the surf.
Then, a while later, her father managed to convince her to put on a tube and join him with her siblings in the water while her mother sat with some women friends in tubes letting the waves wash over them. Within half an hour, Zana was happily playing in the water on her own, without her father but still with a tube.
By the end of the day, Zana was braving the shallow water alone and with no tube at all. (No need to worry, as the organizers hire a private Arabic speaking lifeguard for their groups. Ours was Toni, who grew up in Nazareth but now lives in Tel Aviv and is studying physical education at Tel Aviv University(.
When we left, I waved goodbye to Zana and she skipped away happily to wash off the sand she had found so mesmerizing when she had first arrived. After a few hours at the beach, she was a pro.
I wondered if she knew she may never return. All the more reason to keep working towards putting an end to this conflict, a task that sometimes seems impossible. Until that happens, knowing there are people like Rachel, Amira, and Tali in the world doing this incredibly holy work gives me hope.
For more information about Min el Bahar and how you can volunteer and/or donate, the link to their website is in the comments.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David
Mikveh Specialist, Spiritual Companion and Writer
Founding Rabbi, Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul