ARAD, ISRAEL – A little girl raced up to the teachers’ lounge to present a small hand, carefully extended to show a tiny green inchworm dancing on the tips of her fingers.

“Look!” she squealed, before she was led out of the room at the Chabad-Lubavitch run Ohr Menachem school by a University of Vermont student. “It’s mine!”

The find resulted from an annual service trip that brings students from UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources to this desert city – a sister city of Burlington, Vt. – to help locals make the most of their ecologically-sensitive surroundings. As part of the program, the students paired up with pupils at Ohr Menachem’s boys and girls elementary schools to teach them about conservation, spruce up their gardens and this year, assemble stadium seats from recycled materials.

Led by professor Kimberly Wallin and UVM Hillel director Susan Leff, the team of six men and seven women demonstrated their skill at “making the most out of whatever is available,” said Ohr Menachem principal Chanie Mendelzohn. And in deference to the religious sensibilities of the local population, they did so while adhering to Jewish norms of modesty.

Graduate student Byron Murray led the men in tackling projects at the boys’ school, while the UVM women – bedecked in long skirts and three-quarter sleeves – got their hands dirty at the girls’ school under the direction of university teaching assistant Kim DePasquale.

As smatterings of Hebrew and English wafted through the air, Ohr Menachem students found the cross-cultural exchange amusing.

“For happy-go-lucky American girls, going ‘covered’ on a day when we were hit by a hot desert wind couldn’t have been so easy,” remarked 13-year-old Golda J. “But they never complained, and they were so much fun to be around!”

One of her partners quickly echoed that she wanted to “make sure that the children understand that there is more to American culture than just” pop stars.

All told, the group stayed in Arad for nearly two weeks, volunteering at selected sites in the community.

“How do you say ‘more’ in Hebrew?” asked one of the male students in English at the boys’ school. He needed to tell one his young charges to pour more sand into a mixture that eventually was transformed into a colorful covering for new basketball court benches.

“Say od,” answered a passing teacher.

With 24 spare tires, dozens of empty plastic bottles and buckets of sand to fill them, boys of all ages worked and kidded around with each other as the seats slowly formed.

The labor was broken up by rounds of races and pick-up basketball and soccer games between older yeshiva students and the UVM crew.

A UVM student, right, helps Ohr Menachem girls decide on plants for their school’s garden.
A UVM student, right, helps Ohr Menachem girls decide on plants for their school’s garden.

Fun and games also took place across the way at the girls’ school, where the primary activity was restoring the institution’s garden.

One girl wanted to know how to say ‘flower’ in English. A UVM student quickly answered back, proud that she had picked up enough Hebrew to understand the question while visiting the Chabad House at her university.

As piles of dirt grew in front of the school, students dug holes to plant flowers, small bushes and a few flowering trees in mammoth pots along the entry way.

“Make sure you drink plenty of water,” reminded Tzila Slaposnik, an Ohr Menachem teacher who supervised the girls as alternating classes took turns working with the visitors.

A heavy haze hung over the school as the predicted sharav – a hot desert wind – approached from the southwest. Everyone hurried to complete the garden before the heat became unbearable, lovingly handling plants carefully chosen just a day earlier.

“We were very lucky,” commented Mendelzohn. “Itzik Borodovsky and his brothers gave us a huge discount from their nursery on everything we needed for this project. Thanks to their help and the budget from the university, the entrance to our school has a beautiful new look!”