By Danielle Neeman
I have always admired the beauty of the impressive mountains on the Jordanian side of the Arava desert. The small villages scattered along the mountains running parallel to Israel’s kibbutzim are just close enough to see from the Israeli side but unreachable, being separated by an international border. During my time in Israel, I had the unique opportunity to be a part of a meeting between cultures, and to visit one of these villages.
I spent a semester interning at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an institute consisting of both academic and research programs, where Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and other international students work cooperatively on environmental challenges. This unique, eye-opening program also offers an environmental leadership seminar, which includes an “eco lab,” an opportunity to apply some of the skills learned in the seminar within the community.
For my eco lab, we traveled, with a group of high school students who lived in the surrounding kibbutzim, to a nearby Jordanian village, called Rahme. This village is located directly across from Kibbutz Ketura, home to the Arava Institute; we are only separated by an international border in the short bit of desert between us. This environmental outreach was a way to build a relationship between desert neighbors.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how the day would work. We were visiting a group of students from an all-girls school, many of whom could not speak English, and I was the only leading eco lab member who could not speak Arabic (there were three other members leading this eco lab with me: two Jordanians and an Arab-Israeli).
When we arrived at the village, we were immediately met by our hosts. About 40 women and girls, many of the older women adorned in makeup, heels and hijabs, greeted us. While we were not all able to communicate directly through language, our smiles, gestures and intentions conveyed a sense of openness, trust and mutual respect for one another. I found it easiest to communicate with the younger students through humor, facial expressions and teaching one another the names of different objects around us in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
We spent the day in the Arava desert and in the Gulf of Aqaba, a large gulf at the northern tip of the Red Sea, neighboring the Eilat beach. The other students and I led workshops related to the geology of the region and covered several marine science concepts about the Red Sea. We also discussed why it is important to protect and care for our environment.
Through this shared experience, I was lucky to get to know my neighbors. I was also reminded that no matter where we come from, if we let down our guard and open our minds, we can find a common ground that brings us together.
DANIELLE NEEMAN of Providence, attended the Alperin Schechter Day School and Syracuse University. Her trip was partially funded by a grant from the Leonard I. Salmanson Endowment Fund, established at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.