When Leah Weingast moved to Israel for five months this past year, the experience transformed her in unimaginable ways. The former Vassar College student was a part of Project TEN, a program established through the Jewish Agency for Israel that allows people ages 20 to 35 to volunteer at centers in Mexico, Israel, Ghana, Uganda and South Africa.
Dubbed “the Jewish Peace Corps,” Project TEN (Tikkun Empowerment Network) frames the experience through service-oriented programs that nurture the next generation of social activists.
Project TEN isn’t going to change the world, but all the participants can take something away from the cultural exchange. For example, farmers in Africa have increased their harvest by 20 percent.
“There is a real need for what we’re doing,” Lahav said.
Weingast lived in a kibbutz in Harduf, where she worked with Bedouin and other Arab communities. The interactions with Arabs changed her perception of Israel, she said. “I went to Israel at age 12 and visited, but I really don’t think I understood Israel until I got back from doing the TEN program.”
She lived communally in a forest and taught English to third-, fifth- and sixth-grade Muslim Bedouins. When she wasn’t teaching, she did odd jobs to help maintain the living space. The experience was a far cry from her comfortable home on Long Island, but she said it made a noticeable difference on how she engages with the world.
“My family said I was different,” Weingast said. “The biggest thing I noticed is I was able to see the big picture, which made me more patient, calm and more likely to seek out volunteer opportunities.”
She now is doing research on post-traumatic stress disorder in women at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Atlanta.
Nir Lahav, the founder of Project TEN, said he developed the program after living in Rwanda and witnessing how life there affected him and his family.
“It changes many people’s lives when they volunteer and help others,” Lahav said. “We live with 20 percent Arabs in Israel, and very few us know Arab communities, and very few of them know the Israeli community.”
When the volunteers go to Kaabiya, a Bedouin village, it is the first time many of the villagers have met a Jew or a non-Israeli Jew. Ilana Frankel, the director of North American recruitment, said those meetings foster dialogue about coexistence.
Frankel holds a master’s in conflict resolution and mediation and spent years working with Palestinians. She did the same work in the army and said it is fulfilling to train more Jewish social activists.
“Most Jews and non-Jews don’t know this kind of community exists in Israel,” Frankel said.
Most of the organic produce in Israel is grown at Kibbutz Harduf, and many of the volunteers and villagers work together to sustain the farmland. At-risk youths who have been kicked out of their homes get an opportunity to work in a positive environment.
Volunteers are welcomed and are invited to weddings and other celebrations to get to know the people and culture. Weingast said the generosity of the community was unparalleled and opened her eyes to what is going on in Israel.
“I couldn’t believe how warm and welcoming they were without knowing me, my language or background,” Weingast said. “You can’t characterize an Arab in one way, and you can’t characterize a certain population of people in one way. I see people as people.”
Viewing the world from a new perspective is a typical result of participation in Project TEN. Frankel said that when most people complete the program, they want to discuss their life-changing experiences.
“They don’t know how kind Israeli Arabs are despite what they’ve been taught,” Frankel said.
Twenty percent of participants move to Israel permanently or extend their stay, Lahav said.
“It gives them the opportunity to contemplate their identity and what drives others to help,” he said. “When you’re far away from home, it’s easier to look inside yourself.”