Lauren Mescon reflects on recent trip to Israel

A sister city in the desert?

By Lauren MesconSpecial to the Ledger-Enquirer

The ability to travel abroad is indeed a privilege. It is one that I feel fortunate to have had recently. It was especially a privilege because my travel took me to a country in which I felt completely safe and accepted: Israel.

In March, I accompanied a group of volunteers for an organization known as JNF, the Jewish National Fund, to Israel. Jewish National Fund is a charitable organization whose mission has been the same since its creation in 1901: to be the caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of Jewish people everywhere.

One of the main purposes of our trip was to open an indoor playground in the little-known town of Sderot, Israel. Sderot sits less than one mile from the Gaza Strip. While the surrounding areas have been hit by 17,000 rockets launched from Gaza in the last eight years, the town of Sderot has been directly hit by the rocket fire no fewer than 7,000 times.

The 25,000 citizens in the town have only 15 seconds to reach safety from the time the “Code Red” sirens blast until the rocket hits. Needless to say, everyone in the town, including the thousands of young children, have been directly impacted as a result.

The JNF leaders went to Sderot to find out what was needed and heard again and again that parents wanted a place for their children to play. In response, a vision was born. With lightning speed, money was raised through private donations; an abandoned warehouse was located; it was reinforced with concrete and steel and a playground with indoor toddler areas, a soccer field, snack bar, teen area, movie room and therapy rooms was built.

The day before the Jewish celebration of Purim, the indoor playground was opened and the children swarmed in. They played and laughed and no one was upset that the words of the speakers, including politicians from the Knesset and the Mayor of Sderot, were drowned out. The day after the playground opened, there was a Purim carnival on the streets of Sderot, outside the playground. It was the first carnival in eight years for the town, because finally they could be safe if the sirens sounded.

You must wonder what this story has to do with the title of this article. It is just one example of the good work that the JNF does and one of the reasons I feel so at home in my new town of Columbus. Both Columbus State University and the town of Columbus reflect the ideals of true servant leadership. There are leaders in this town who could have taken their wisdom, time and money and put them into less altruistic ventures than investment in their hometown. I understand the meaning of servant leadership from watching many local icons in my short time here.

Sderot is located in the southern desert of Israel, in the Negev. Also in the Negev is the town of Be’er Sheva, another reason the JNF volunteers traveled to Israel. While the JNF responded to the crisis in Sderot, it also has a long-term vision: to see the desert bloom. At the center of this plan and at the center of the state of Israel, literally and figuratively, is the town of Be’er Sheva. The Negev makes up 60 percent of the land but is only home to eight percent of Israelis, with most of them residing in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and parts in between. Be’er Sheva is home to Ben-Gurion University and Saroka Medical Center.

Unfortunately, the students and professors head to Tel Aviv on the trains each weekend as do the doctors and medical residents. They do this because historically there has been “nothing to do” in Be’er Sheva. That is now changing with the building of the Be’er Sheva River Park. It will be the second largest park in the state of Israel, contain a 6-km riverwalk promenade much like ours in Columbus, an outdoor amphitheatre, a sport recreational area, a lake and the long-awaited reopening of Abraham’s Well to the public.

The plans are grand, but the citizens of Be’er Sheva, led by their mayor, support the growth and the challenge. While we were there we constantly asked people why they chose to live in Be’er Sheva rather than Tel Aviv. And every answer I heard made me think of Columbus and the reasons that my husband and I are so happy to have relocated here. People are friendlier than in … (fill in the blank: Tel Aviv or Atlanta), the pace is slower and calmer, there is no traffic here, etc.

Every time I heard these answers, they reflected the reasons I give for being happy I live here. A friend from Tel Aviv told me that he had read an article that the housing prices were dropping in Tel Aviv, but increasing in Be’er Sheva. What a great thought, and analogous to the news reports we hear that Columbus will be one of the first towns in Georgia to head out of the recession.

Upon my return from Israel, I wrote several articles for various papers in Atlanta, Jewish and secular, and did a brief interview on CBS for the good deeds segment of the local news. I want to convey that this is a wonderful town to live in, and that we do indeed have a sister city across the world, in a state smaller than New Jersey, called Be’er Sheva — and that good deeds, much like those done daily here, are being done across the world in an even smaller town called Sderot.