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As a past chair for the Washington DC Federation's Partnership 2000 program and having a daughter who has made Aliyah, I have been fortunate to visit Israel many times.  However, in all of my visits to Israel I have never spent time in the Negev, just flown over it on my way to Eilat or viewed it from a bus window coming and going from Massada.  So I was intrigued by the idea of spending one week in the Negev, camping, learning to drive a jeep, and bonding with other women on the 2010 Desert Queen Jeep Expedition.

I was one of 40 women (5 other American's ) participating in this year's Desert Queen Israel Experience. My jeep mates were Cynthia from Newark, Delaware, Amit who works for our P2K office in Bet Shemesh/Mateh Yehuda, and Liat, an artist from our partnership region who specializes in creating art from nature.

The Desert Queen Jeep Expedition started with a full day of orientation in the Ben Shemen forest where I was greeted by the Desert Queen staff who handed me a bag filled with my uniform for the week; 7 t-shirts, 2 sweatshirts, and 3 pair of khaki pants.  My first challenge was to go to the make shift dressing area ( a bunch of trees and purple fabric) and see if my uniform fit! 

The forest was filled with obstacle courses; part of our bonding experience. Tzipi Livni came on an official visit to greet us and express the importance of women from all parts of Israel coming together along with women from the United States and young women from the MASA program (4 young women; one from Guatemala, France, Moldova, and the US, respectively).  Tzipi's words were profound as she said that as Jews we are all the same, but our cultures make us different.  This week we will need patience and we will need to learn to respect each other's differences in order to achieve our goals.

With an assortment of flags (the Israeli flag, MASA, P2K, Gilad Shalit, Desert Queen) attached to the back of our jeeps,  our convoy made quite an impression as we made our way south through the Negev. The lead jeep was staffed by Vered our tour guide, jeep instructor and savior, along with a doctor, Rifka and our Geo Tour and designated male guide, Abadi.  Each jeep was equipped with a walkie talkie which was how we communicated while traveling and enough "snacks" that we personally brought to keep us going for at least a month.

Our days were filled with challenging driving through the rocky and surprisingly mountainous terrain of the Negev. There were times that the route was too difficult and it took the masterful communication skills of Vered to guide the driver of each jeep. No words were needed, just the concentration of the driver to focus on Vered's hand signals.  One by one, each jeep braked and shifted to get through the imposing obstacle.  Inevitably, it was the Israeli women who were the first to jump out of their jeeps, turn up the music, and dance and sing to celebrate their accomplishment and to cheer the other jeeps on.

There was no itinerary presented to us when we left for our week experience, each day was meant to be a surprise.  We traveled to historical sites, on roads that were once part of the spice route, through the Faran river bed, and drove along the IDF's road that they had to create when Israel captured Eilat from Jordan.  Sleeping was sometimes in tents, under the stars, or in modest kibbutzim.  Showers were far and few between and our basic necessities were accomplished by squatting behind the largest rock or desert bush.  I repelled (which the Israeli's refer to as scapelling) off Mitzpeh Ramon.

I not only conquered my fear of heights but put my trust in the hands of a young woman who assured me that she had the other end of the rope and that "I'll be safe".  One day after a fabulous morning hike we were met at the end with a prepared lunch of Chinese low mein - handed to us in "take out" containers with chop sticks, of course! During one morning excursion to the Sheazef lookout each "jeep team" painted large cut-out camels (creatively naming our camels and explaining to the entire group how we came up with our design). On another day while admiring the breathtaking scenery of the desert we were all handed paper kites and markers, instructed to write down our hopes and dreams. We then set our kites sailing overhead!

By the end of the week, I had met 39 incredible women. Women who had served in the IDF and then raised children to become soldiers.  Professionals who are shaping the economic future of Israel and volunteers, like the 4 women from WIZO who spend countless hours helping the less fortunate.  The 4 young women representing MASA shared with us their hope and dreams for their Jewish future and my new American friends all expressed how we felt fortunate having experienced this once in a life time opportunity. 

As a newly crowned Queen I am now part of an amazing group of women.  Yifat Yegger, who started the Desert Queen program 12 years ago has brought Israeli women to all parts of the world giving them an emotionally charged and empowering experience. Since partnering with the Jewish Agency there have been 3 Israel/Negev trips. To date there are over 10,000 Desert Queens.  Getting together a few times a year, the Desert Queens have created the largest networking group of Israeli women.  In addition, they have volunteered their time with a non profit organization, Elem helping at risk young girls.

Driving a Jeep, sleeping under the stars, and hiking through the Negev was magical. I will display my bumper sticker proudly "You are now following a Queen!"

Cindy Zitelman
2010 Desert Queen
Rockville, Maryland


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Thursday 24 April, 2014 (c) All rights reserved to the Jewish Agency יום חמישי כ"ד ניסן תשע"ד