It’s 5:30am. I’m dressed in a white t-shirt stained permanently brown with mud; dark green cargo shorts that exude a dusty mist when I walk; dirty, sweaty socks, and running shoes so caked in mud and dirt that even a week and a half later I feel the need to wash my hands after handling them. I haven’t showered, I just woke up from four hours of sleep on an uncomfortable mattress, and I have nothing to protect me from the bitter cold outside. Yet I’m in love. There’s magic in this air and it’s affecting my rationality. I’m even eating cottage cheese! Sitting at my computer now, the idea of a cottage cheese, hard-boiled egg and matzo breakfast sounds like just about the worst thing in the world, but in Ayalim’s Kfar Adiel, surrounded by 200 Israelis just as dirty and sweaty as I was, it tasted like rain.
I’ll say it: God was in that sandwich. I’m not talking about the God of my neighbors down the way who wear heavy black coats in 90-degree heat and believe that a woman showing her elbows is a sign of the Apocalypse. I’m talking about something I can’t explain except to tell you what I saw. I saw houses rising straight out of the earth they rested on. I saw Americans come in and submit instantly and completely to the vision of an organization they hadn’t even heard of three days earlier. I saw teamwork—not 4th Grade soccer team teamwork, but Army-trained, efficient, no-nonsense teamwork that stacks 30-pound bricks like LEGOs. I saw those same people, after a grueling 13-hour workday, exhausted and covered in mud, fling more mud at each other with all the energy of middle school food fight.
In only 26 hours Ayalim completely changed my perception of modern Zionism. It may be troubling to some that the Kibbutzim are dying out, but I just spent a day and a half helping young Israelis build houses and revitalize a community—not in the busy hubs of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but in the middle of the desert! Ayalim refers to the 11 villages nestled in the Negev and Galilee regions as being “on the periphery,” which may be true geographically, but not ideologically. These villages are central to the idea of Israel and to 21st Century Zionism. The students have the same energy as their grandparents did sixty years ago, but they face different problems now, and have thus found different solutions.
God was never mentioned in Kfar Adiel (except for the occasional, “Oh my God this is heavy!”), but I saw evidence of her handiwork everywhere. She was in the mud fight. He was on my clothes at the end of the day. She was in the tan I admired all the way back to Jerusalem. He was in my sore muscles. I was so exhausted that when we paused for an oddly American afternoon snack of hot dogs and french-fries (and, it being Passover, matzo), the hot dogs—a food I haven’t even been tempted to eat in over a year—looked like candy from heaven.
How people were still standing after all that is beyond me, yet that night those same 200 people packed into a Bedouin-style tent and danced, without stopping, for four more energetic hours. People set up hookahs at the edges of the tent, and smoke mixed with dirt stomped up from the floor to shroud the whole place in dust, though the dancers didn’t seem to notice. For some the tent was too confining, so they took their party outside and started dancing in the middle of the desert. A group started a fire with broken wood from the build site, and some heard the music within as they danced out to the half-erect buildings and beyond. The band finally played their last song, to a still packed house, at 1:00am; and at 5:00am we woke up to start the day.
The energy in and of that village was incredibly moving and inspiring. From the moment I got off the bus I could feel it. It takes a special kind of commitment to put in 13-hour days of any kind, but especially days in the sun hauling around bricks and mud.
Think of the best concert you’ve ever been to. I bet that at some point there was a moment like this: The band starts jamming and you can tell they’re feeling it. You look around and notice the people around you are swaying. Then you look down and notice your knees are bending, and maybe without even realizing it you’re swaying too. The sound picks up, becoming cleaner, newer, as if the musicians are discovering their instruments for the first time—suddenly they aren’t a band playing their written music for fans; they’re just a group of friends in a garage trying to see what they’re capable of, using the electric feel of the crowd to power their fingers. Now the whole crowd is jumping and swaying and mashing and yelling and the hair on the back of your neck starts to tingle—this is incredible, you think; maybe this has never happened before, maybe it has; maybe this time, this song will transcend this one solitary moment, it will refuse to be categorized and filed away in your mind like some reference book at a library. Instead it will awaken a part of your soul that you didn’t even realize you’d shut off. You can’t pinpoint it, but there’s something special about what’s happening; this night adds up to more than the simple math of the band and their paying customers. This is a perfect fusion of art and life and you’re right in the middle of it. It’s a feeling you can’t quite describe later, except to say that you got goose bumps. I like to say that’s God; not some biblical guy with otherworldly, impossible power, but those goose bumps—that something you know you felt but can’t quite put into words. That feeling of being awestruck by the power of the human spirit.
I was awestruck at Kfar Adiel. Everyone—from Matan Dahan who founded Ayalim and has been there since Day One, to my friends and I who were only there for 26 hours—believed in an idea bigger than ourselves.
If you will it is no dream.
God was in Kfar Adiel those two days. You couldn’t help but feel it.
For more Information about Ayalim visit their website.
Also, please check out their About Us page. It has most of the stuff that got cut from this post when it started to focus more on my subjective experience.
I also highly recommend watching their promotional video.