Roslyn Sugarman
Head Curator
Sydney Jewish Museum

Shakshuka, pickled herring, cottage cheese and salad. That combination has been on my breakfast plate every morning but today it was breakfast with a difference – in a cherry tomato factory surrounded by an exhibition of bronze sculptures by Naomi Rotem, the farmer’s wife.

Driving past acacia and palm trees and vast plains of the desert, we arrived at Peace Observation Point (donated by the Gonski’s in honour of peace) to view a vague view of the mountains of Jordan through the mist. Next stop brought us to the village of Edan, the pre-army camp called Mechina who take in young adults, 18 or 19 years old, and teach them to be good people with good values, leaving the army to teach them to be good soldiers. Mechina fosters young leadership for the benefit of their communities and society as a whole. There is a high demand to enter this program and I love their philosophy which is that better citizens become better soldiers. Not surprisingly, which organization sees the value of such a goal? JNF supports many Mechinot.

Next stop was the Arava Research and Development Centre, whose aim is to support farmers in the region. Tomato’s are a huge crop in the Arava and a number one seller for Israel. Experimenting with a hydroponic system of giving roots nutrients and water without soil allows researchers to try to find a way to increase the yield and affect the profit. Others are working with trees and shrubs that have the resilience to survive in the desert terrain and learn from the nomadic Bedouin population who have been using the healing properties from these plants for hundreds of years.

You might not expect to find zebra fish in the desert but then, once upon a time, this whole area was a sea. Researchers experiment using these fish to advance medicine. Their brain and spinal cord structure are similar to humans (believe it or not) and since zebra fish are transparent in the embryonic stage, one can see straight through their bodies. It’s weird but amazing to think that such fish may hold the answers to finding a solution to motor-neuron disease.
Shout out to the three Aussie researchers we met at this Centre: Stephanie, Jessica and Bo.

Next stop Masada. It is incredible to see this famous world heritage site, and comprehend why so many Jewish day schools have adopted its name. In a nutshell, King Herod built his fortress and palace here. His engineers designed a remarkable cistern system for collecting water from the rare 5 days of annual rain and delivering it 450 meters up the mountain. Our guide Noam joked that the 5th century Byzantine Church on top Masada was built with the help of JNF Australia.
But then the Romans came. All of Judea was under Roman occupation, Jews were turned into slaves. They conquered Masada, but not before the remaining 1000 Jews decided to commit suicide and die as free men and women (and children) rather than to be captured and live as slaves.
PS I climbed Masada! Bucket list tick.
The day was almost over but not before the busses stopped at the Dead Sea allowing time for everyone to dip their toes in the salty sea and take a selfie. Shocking fact that we learned: the Dead Sea is dying. It is losing 7cm of height every month, over a metre every year, but the ‘fake’ Dead Sea, built as pools for industry using water from the Sea is growing. PS (and this one took me by surprise) the water that visitors float in is actually the fake sea.

I’m sad that it’s our last night on the tour. Reflecting on what I’ve gained, and I know most others have too, we’ve learned so much about Jewish history and Zionism, about JNF’s role in purchasing and developing the land, about Israel and all its people and all its complexities; we’ve witnessed first-hand the enormous resilience of those who have suffered trauma and loss. We’ve experienced the inspiring projects that are creating ‘Tikkun Olam’ – to heal the world. I feel so enriched and much more empowered to take back what I’ve learned and weave it in to the work that I do at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
Roslyn Sugarman, Head Curator, Sydney Jewish Museum