Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Little Trip to the West Bank

After writing the last post, I realized I left out the main point I wanted to make. Oops. Funny how the whole post was supposed to come down to the difference between North vs. South in the city I currently live in and I got so distracted that I forgot to add it in. Oh well. So here it is now:

The North-South divide in TLV is very pronounced and impossible to go unnoticed by tourists, locals, and natives. Although I can’t give you a precise dividing line, anywhere below Levinsky St. can definitely be included in the south. I live in a very southern neighborhood; so many people living even in TLV haven’t even heard of it! I’m still considered to be in the city, but the lush parks and residential buildings give it a suburban feel. Although I haven’t experienced it myself, sometimes some of my friends have been asked if they are sure they want to go to Kiryat Shalom, the neighborhood where we live, when in a taxi. Almost every time I take a taxi home though, I do have to give the driver directions, unless of course he has a GPS.

Almost all of the volunteer sites in my track in TLV are located in the south of the city and that is precisely why we live there as well. Not only do I get negative reactions when speaking of the population I work with, but when I mention that I work near the Central Bus Station they can’t comprehend how I could go to work every day. In most cases I don’t even try to explain how I feel completely comfortable walking around near the bus station including the very busy street where Ezu’s restaurant is located. A pedestrian-only street, Neve Sha’anan is usually packed with foreigners selling things outside much like a flea market as well as numerous stores and restaurants. It’s interesting that the only people that have made me feel like an outsider are Israelis living in the north who either feel obliged to yell things at Americans or “cheer” Lisa and me on when going on runs. I cannot recall a single instance when a refugee or immigrant has yelled at me, ever.

In program news, this is the last week of the 1st semester. I don’t think I’ve officially filled everyone in on my decision, but I have decided to leave Tikkun Olam at the end of this semester. I had originally planned to participate in the program for the full 10 months, but towards the beginning of November I realized I wasn’t happy with the amount of time I was being able to put into my volunteer sites. Although it has been very interesting learning about Jewish identity and trying to figure out my own, I think I’ve had enough. I’m going to miss ulpan, the Hebrew classes, but I may be able to pick up some classes somewhere else. Anyway, I’m going home this Sat. (!!!!!) for about 2 weeks and will touch back down in TLV on Feb. 15. I’ve already found a place to live with my friend and roommate Sara (also from Tikkun Olam) and it is definitely going to be a great change for us. Though living in the south was an interesting experience, we’ve decided to move smack-dab in the center of the action next to King George and Sheinkin. If you’re wondering how we stumbled upon this gem, believe it or not, it was Craigslist. I’m going to be volunteering (almost) full-time at the refugee center—I’ve already started to develop new projects—and will continue volunteering a couple hours a week at the day care. I feel like I’m finally going to be a real Tel Avivi!

Last week we traveled on our last tour day. This time we boarded a bus to cross over the “Green Line” into the West Bank. Yes, don’t worry, I’m fine. I’m not sure what I expected to see there, but I was a little nervous knowing we were going to be entering into one of the Occupied Territories. There was no way I was going to pass up the trip and plus, there was also no way our program would take us into a dangerous place. On the way in I didn’t notice any check points, but that may have been because I was asleep for most of the ride.

Our 1st stop was an Arab village that had been divided and put back together and then divided again due to the ever-changing Israeli politics. It sits right near the border between the West Bank and Israel so families and friends have been split up. Our guide for the town, some Canadian guy who made aliyah awhile ago and speaks like 10 languages has been doing research in different Arab neighborhoods and also throughout the Middle East studying linguistics while focusing on the differences in various types of spoken Arabic. Though he was a bit too full of himself for my liking, he surprised us all with a trip to a friend and local man’s house. A friendly man (Palestinian obviously) greeted all 20 of us at his front door and insisted we cram inside for some coffee and pastries. He spoke in Hebrew while one of our program leaders translated to English and told of his experiences living in the West Bank. It was honestly difficult to follow everything considering every sentence had to be translated, but he was a very interesting man. Something I came away from the meeting with was the fact that in Arab villages, street addresses don’t exist. It is thus extremely difficult to give people directions to your home and mail doesn’t get delivered until 2 months later. Apparently a lot of people have the same names too so he said that the whole town ends up reading your letter, which probably isn’t even relevant by the time it arrives at your house.

Our guide also told us that Israelis are able to pass freely from Israel into the West Bank as often as they please. For those Palestinians living in the West Bank though, traveling is not so easy. Apparently—if I understood correctly—since the Arab village where we were is located on both sides of the Green Line, Palestinians can relatively easily travel from one side to the other so long as they remain within the village. If they decide to continue into the rest of Israel, the police will arrest them. How will they get caught, you may ask? Well racial profiling, of course! This doesn’t mean that plenty of people do this quite regularly; I can’t imagine being completely confined to one place.

Next we were off to a Jewish settlement, Beit El. Again, there was no barbed wire, no soldiers patrolling the streets. Everything seemed very quiet and “normal.” We met our guide Baruch on the side of the road. When he got on the bus and so eloquently spoke into the bus’s microphone, “Hi, y’all!” I was very confused as to who this guy was. Originally from Tennessee, Baruch made aliyah maybe 30 years ago and I really wouldn’t doubt if he hasn’t left even to travel somewhere else since. He said that he finished his freshman year at Tufts in Boston, then transferred to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for his sophomore year where he decided that he had had enough of secular studies and ultimately ended up in the orthodox yeshiva in Beit El. He studied and taught there for 10 years and has never lived anywhere else since.

Baruch, in Beit El
Baruch led us around the area where the bus was parked carrying an open siddur, prayer book. We stopped next to what looked like a large puddle, though he enthusiastically pointed out that it used to be a wine press. He stopped for a second and informed us he may cry so someone better be ready with a Kleenex. He read a passage from the book, translated it to English, and then so joyfully stated that we were in fact standing in the very same place Jews had been thousands of years ago. Oh, really? He brought us across the street to the top of a hill overlooking a green landscape dotted with tan stone houses. He showed us a hole and read another passage from the prayer book. Baruch stated that the hole in front of us was a grave for Jews thousands of years ago. Oh, really? Only a few steps away he brought us to a large stone formation that may have at one time served as a shelter, whether a house or other building I’m not sure, and practically yelled out of sheer excitement that this very spot is where Jacob had laid his head upon a rock and had his famous dream of the ladder. Oh, REALLY? I guess that’s what happens when you base your life on a (fictional) text written about 3,000 years ago. You gotta believe it.

Our program leaders informed us we were going to Baruch’s house for an all-American lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers, kosher of course. His beautifully constructed modern house blew me away. His wife barely even greeted us after having prepared an amazing feast and remained in the kitchen for our entire visit. Let’s hear it for equality in the orthodox community! Baruch continued to explain what it is like living in the West Bank. Interesting to note: he never referred to where he lives as the “West Bank.” Instead, it was Judea and Samaria, the names found in the bible. Scared yet?! He obviously went on and on about how important it is to have all of Israel for the Jews and urged us to move there and make Jewish babies, per usual. He said that a lot of Beit El’s residents work in Jerusalem—the commute is only about 20-25 minutes. He deemed the settlement freeze as “silly” and is thrilled that Israel has once again started building Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Er, I mean Judea and Samaria. However, he did mention that he says “Good morning,” to his Arab neighbors, as he doesn’t see a problem with that. Glad to see his southern hospitality carried through all the years.

Settlement of Amona
Thankfully we were on to our last stop of the day. A short drive away, the Jewish settlement of Amona could be seen from the hills of Beit El. When we pulled up to the village I didn’t really understand what was going on. It wasn’t actually a village, or a town, or a city, or anything substantial for that matter. There were a collection of trailer homes and a few buildings standing by themselves. Um, what? We met an orthodox woman who explained that Amona was one of the settlements the Israeli government and army had destructed during a previous disengagement from the area. She showed us piles of houses that have yet to be cleaned up, serving as a constant reminder of what Israel did to their homes. She spoke of the strong desire, even need, to live in the settlement of Amona, in the hills there. Probably as you are wondering now, and as I was contemplating then, why not just move to another settlement, or better yet, back into Israel? Well, she really can’t be budged. We watched a video inside the small visitors’ center including the actual day the Israeli soldiers fought off the residents of the settlement. It was really disturbing to see people being clubbed in front of their children and tear gas being thrown; no one should ever be treated this way. Again though, it was eerie how attached this woman was to the land where she was living in a trailer with her husband and 5 small children just because she “has” to. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.
A destructed house 

Following the tour day, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the people we met and the places we saw. (Of yeah, on our way back into Israel, one of our leaders spoke to the guy at the checkpoint and no one even looked twice at our bus). These trips have been so eye opening and life changing that I truly am grateful that I have been able to visit these diverse and unique sites. If anything though, I am walking away from these past 5 months more confused about Israel than when I started. It’s so complex and difficult to not only understand the situation, the politics, the Conflict, etc., but to actually form your own opinions on it, forget about it.

Stay tuned this week for another entry about my volunteer sites and the good-bye party J

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

North vs. South

Happy New Year! I seriously cannot believe it is 2011, but that does mean I will be coming home for a visit in only a few short weeks.

If you’re wondering what the deal is with the New Year here, AKA the Christian New Year, considering the Jewish New Year (Rosha HaShanah) already passed back in September, I shall fill you in. The regular New Year isn’t as important in Israel, but is still celebrated in similar ways as everywhere else in the world: champagne, countdowns, party favors, the works. In class last Wednesday when practicing the future tense—“What will you do on New Year’s Eve”—I asked my Sudanese students if they countdown to midnight. They didn’t quite understand what I meant so using one of the maybe three Arabic words I know I said, “Ya know like ‘ashara…’” They started laughing and said yes repeatedly. Ashara means ten by the way (so close to Hebrew’s 10, eser, or if masculine esra). Some friends and I went to Florentin, a pretty hip neighborhood with nice bars for a street party on New Year’s Eve. It was totally packed and really young; I saw some of the kids that go to the high school where I tutor English. We didn’t end up staying that long, but we did pop champagne when the clock struck 12.

Last week I went with my friend Lisa to her English lesson, which she now gives in one of her student’s apartments near the Central Bus Station in south TLV. His name is Mustafa and is such a character. Mustafa is 50 years old and is from Sudan. Back home, he has two wives and at least fifteen children. He explained it is common to have more than one wife in Africa. Here in TLV, he lives with a young couple from Senegal who have a beautiful baby girl, Fatima. As soon as Lisa told me she also teaches the woman of the couple, Maria, I insisted I come for a visit in order to speak French with her. When we arrived, Maria’s husband greeted us and he was surprised I spoke French, but the conversation went normally. After a few minutes Maria finally came into the room and sat down next to me. Nag na def? I asked. “How are you?” No, that isn’t French; it’s Wolof, the second official language of Senegal. Magnifi, she answered naturally. “Good.” Then she did a double take. “Wait, you speak Wolof?!” Sadly I had to answer no, but we did have a nice conversation in French. I stayed for the hour-long lesson and helped to translate any new vocabulary words she wasn’t quite sure of. It was a lot of fun and Lisa said that she keeps asking for me. I can’t wait to go back.

One of my assignments recently at the ARDC is to create country profiles for each African country the refugees in Israel are coming from. Specifically, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Ivory Coast. I was really excited to get this assignment because I always feel like I should know more about each country. I’m definitely becoming a lot more knowledgeable about each one and I feel more confident speaking with my students about their home countries. An interesting phenomenon I’ve come across is the divide between north and south. For most this probably isn’t a new thing, but for some reason when researching about these African countries, the concept really resonated within me. What is the deal with North vs. South though? Think about it, there have been so many wars, battles, and arguments involving such divide: the American Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, and I’m sure other ones I conveniently can’t think of right now. But anyway, I can now add to the list Congo and Sudan. If you’re thinking, “Where is Darfur located?” Well, that would be in the west, so that doesn’t really count. However, there is a huge divide between north and south Sudan—Muslims vs. Christians—so it applies. South Sudan may even become its own country. This past Sunday, the people of Sudan voted on a referendum on whether or not south Sudan should secede from the north. All of my students are crossing their fingers for the permanent divide. The south is safe for them.

To address Mark’s comment about the protest against refugees only a few weeks ago, I ended up missing the event although it took place in Kiryat Shalom, the neighborhood where we live. There is a lot of opposition to African refugees in TLV and in Israel in general. Proud of what I’m doing here, I am not afraid to state where I am volunteering and who I am here to help. In terms of vocal opposition, it really depends on who you’re talking to. I find that I get a lot of slack from older Israelis whose arguments usually consist of the same questions/statements: “Why aren’t you helping the Jews?” “Old people need help too.” “They shouldn’t even be here.” I’ve gotten very upset while out talking to Israelis (young ones too) and trying to justify wanting to help people who are coming from genocide. It’s almost mind-boggling that I have to defend wanting to work with refugees coming from a war-torn country (almost all of my students’ fathers, or other family members, have been killed by the governmental army). What is wrong with Israelis?! Don’t we, as Jews, come from a freakishly similar past? Yes, of course they can’t argue with that, but I honestly don’t even like pulling the Holocaust card on the issue. You don’t have to have lost people in a genocide to understand why you should do something about a different one.

In all fairness though, I don’t have an answer or solution to the ridiculously complex issue of African asylum seekers currently in Israel. This country was not made for this many people or for this many diverse problems; not to mention it is still so new. It’s true, if all of these Africans were to be granted citizenship they would throw off the Jewish majority, not entirely, but to some extent, I guess. But what’s interesting is that they didn’t come here to find work or to take over the Jewish holy land, even if Jerusalem is super holy for them too as Muslims. As one of my students, Mohammed, plainly stated: “Over there is death, Israel equals life.” That’s it.

Whenever I meet an understanding person here actually interested in what I’m doing (often times people just don’t even know what is going on) I usually get asked why I decided to come to Israel and how come to work with these specific people. My answer is usually simple: If you met them, you would want to help too.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

We Are All Refugees

What a weekend. Christmas weekend in Israel is just like any other weekend with almost no signs of the Christian holiday. It’s a pretty interesting feeling having grown up in the US, but I don’t mind it in the least. Although I didn’t open gifts or sing carols, I did have an action-packed weekend that actually may have been one of the best weekends yet.

This past Friday, 12/24, marked my 1st ever protest. I had only heard about it the Sunday before at work at the ARDC (refugee center) when my boss mentioned that he was going. The demonstration would be in protest against the labor camp the Israeli government is planning to build in the heart of the Negev Desert as a sort of holding place for African asylum seekers. Since the gov’t still doesn’t know what to do with the more than 25,000 Africans living in its country, someone thought it would be a great idea to just dump them in the desert with some barbed wire. Cool. More generally, it was a fight for refugee rights. What’s interesting about the Africans’ situation is that Israel really, really doesn’t want to give them refugee rights—they are still considered to be asylum seekers—because if they were to grant them the refugee rights, then they would have to deal with *gasp* the Palestinians who don’t have rights either. Considering I had sadly missed the Human Rights Day March on 12/10, I was so excited to check this protest out.

Israeli kids at the protest

Friday rolled around and a few friends and I met the small group of Israelis and other foreigners on the corner of Rothschild and Sheinkin (downtown TLV) at 10 am. We were all getting pumped for the event, handing out stickers and signs, when I heard a bunch of kids screaming. I turned to my left and here came a group of at least 30 Israeli children under the age of 10 chanting slogans in protest of their own governmental policies. It was amazing to see them in support of the refugees holding signs saying “Culanu plitim” “We are all refugees,” and “Hem gam b’nai adam” “They are also humans.” Then came the wave of Africans and other Israeli organizations including the Israeli chapter of Amnesty International. I had no idea what to expect in terms of the number of people, and was pleasantly surprised that at least 1,000 people showed up for the march.
Julie and me before the march

We were off. We began walking towards King George Street guarded by police officers and stared at by passersby. There was a drum group in the march that got everyone excited for the cause and multiple people on loudspeakers yelling phrases we were then to repeat. Most of the sayings were in English because the majority of Africans do not speak Hebrew, and even then, their English may not be too great. But we managed. It was funny each time an Israeli yelled something in Hebrew to have everyone else yell back, most people went silent, kindof just faking some sort of sounds that resembled the actual words.

Examples of things shouted in English:
-We are not criminals!
-We are refugees!
- Deportation no more!
-Deportation, No! Protection, Yes!
And my personal favorite: -We need protection!

Needless to say, I was totally into the shouting because the energy was just through the roof. One of my friends and I got swallowed up into a group of Eritrean men who were clapping intensely and shouting loudly. It was so much fun. At one point we were repeating the phrase “We need protection!” which I obviously shouted loudly along with everyone else, when one Eritrean guy looks at me and asks skeptically, “YOU need protection?” Taken completely off-guard, I stuttered something like “Well, no, I, uh, I’m just helping you!” He laughed and we shared a brief moment. The media coverage was amazing, too. I really hope it had some effect.

When we finally arrived to the park on King George Street after about an hour of marching, everyone gathered around in a huge circle to hear the various speakers. The chants continued though before the 1st speaker took the mic. At one point, the chant was “ Deportation no more!” and although most people knew what to say, I heard another Eritrean man next to me yelling something like, “ Protection no more!” I told my friends and one said to me, “English teacher, take care of it.” So, I turned to him and his friends and mentioned that he should be yelling “deportation” because “protection” is actually something you want. I don’t think he got it. I also righted a sticker in Hebrew one of them had stuck upside-down to his shirt. It was pretty comical. It was really awesome to see how warm and open the guys became as soon as you start a conversation or small relationship with them. I can’t imagine they have much interaction with Israelis AKA white people in TLV, and at 1st when I started talking to them you could see the hesitation. But as soon as they realized I was there to help, huge smiles appeared on their faces. What an amazing feeling.

Every single speaker was so great; I can’t stress it enough. Israeli politicians, Africans from Eritrea and Sudan, and Israeli artists took the stage. The speeches were in both Hebrew and English and sometimes Tigrinya (the language spoken in Eritrea) meaning I could understand most of what was going on. But even if you didn’t get the words, the energy was moving enough. I ran into some coworkers from the refugee center and other people that work at different refugee organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). One friend Julie, who I work with at the day care center, also volunteers at PHR. She noticed one of the patients at the protest who is a young man in a wheelchair. Julie told me that he is from Sudan and is now paralyzed from the waist down having be shot 7 times by Egyptian border police when crossing the border into Israel. She said he faked death until Israeli soldiers came around to check the bodies. He was smiling and happy to be alive. These are the kinds of stories we hear.
The crowd in the park

An Eritrean woman gave one of the most incredible speeches that may have not even been rehearsed previously, but made no difference either way. Although I work with some people from Eritrea (if you’re wondering, it borders Sudan on the eastern border), I don’t know much about their country nor their current situation; most of my students are from Darfur so I hear many more stories about life in Sudan. The woman speaker explained how living in Eritrea means living under a dictatorship that takes most of its practices and laws from communist countries such as Russia and China. She expressed her frustration with Israel wondering aloud, “Why does Israel want to put us in prison? We’re coming from a prison. We are not criminals.”

Another awesome speaker was a current politician in the government, whose name I of course forget. He compared the genocide and horrible conditions of the Africans to those of the Jews in the not so distant past. “How easily we forget,” he stated. Writing this now is bringing back of the emotions I felt during his speech: anger, confusion, empathy, frustration, helplessness, and pride. Why pride? Because we were some of those people who didn’t forget.

"Forget" in a star that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust
Saturday was Christmas day, which I usually spend lounging around the house or handing out hot food at the soup kitchen back at home with my family. This year was different. I went to church. That’s right. Funny I haven’t been to a synagogue since I’ve been in Israel, but I did go to a Christian service. Riddle me that.

One of the women at the new day care has been inviting Julie and me to go to her church for mass on Saturday mornings. We kept putting it off until finally I decided I would go for Christmas. Because hey, if you’re going to go, might as well go big or go home. She gave us a flyer with the times and address of the church and I promised I would be there. Julie didn’t end up coming along, but I did convince one of my friends, Morgan, to come instead.

Saturday morning I started walking to the church, located on Har Tsyion Street near the Central Bus Station and Levinsky Park. On my way there, I walked from the bottom of Har Tsyion street and on my way, a car started to slow down next to me until it actually started crawling along with me. I’m honestly a little sick of people asking for dirctions—which happens on an average of 4 times a week—because my answer is usually “Ani lo yoda’at” “I don’t know,” but this time it seemed a little weird. I got a little freaked out because no one was yelling anything to me so I decided to stop, and then the car drove off. Very bizarre. A few minutes later a car on the other side of the 4-lane road slowed down and began honking continuously. I looked over and I’m pretty sure the honking was for me. What was going on? It was 9:30 in the morning on Shabbat and yes I was wearing a dress, but I was going to church for god’s sake, it wasn’t anything is the slightest bit revealing. The car seemed to drive away until it magically appeared next to me and did the same crawling maneuver the previous one had done. Seriously WTF?! The car eventually left and I made it to the park. I took out the flyer when I noticed that #12 appeared to be a closed storefront. I called Morgan who said she would be there within the next 10 minutes so after explaining to her my predicament, I decided to take a seat on the edge of the park. I really didn’t mind waiting at all because there must have been hundreds of Eritreans arriving in the park dressed in their Christmas best. Oh yeah, I’ve also heard that a lot of Christians are fleeing religious persecution in Eritrea. The men wore snazzy suits while the women were dressed in long white dresses and lace white veils. I wanted to take a lot of the family portraits they were all posed for, but decided it would be too creepy. Here are a few I snapped:

These men definitely caught me
Looking sharp
Morgan arrived shortly after my stalking session and we started wandering the streets in search of the Deeper Life Bible Church. I stopped random men on the street in hopes of a positive answer, but no one seemed to know of the church’s existence. Everyone was really friendly though. When I approached them I wasn’t sure whether to speak in Hebrew or English so I usually just started in English, but here is one of the conversations (loosely) that took place between one of the men and me:

Me: Hi, do you know where this is? (Showing him the flyer)
Man: Hmmm (silence while reading the flyer)
Me: I’m looking for this church.
Man: Church? Christian?
Me: Yes, Christian.
Man: At m’daberet ivrit? (Do you speak Hebrew?)
Me: Ken, aifo ze? (Yes, where is this?)
Man: Church, shachor o lavan? (Church, black or white?)
Me: (giggling nervously) Shachor, lama lo?! (Black, why not?!)
Man: (laughing) Ze shama v’yamina. (It’s that way and then right)

Well, it wasn’t, but thanks anyway. I asked another group of men who told me to follow this random guy on a bike. He had no idea where it was either. Defeated, Morgan and I settled on people watching in the park until we felt like going home. I took out the flyer again and realized there were 3 phone numbers on it. I was hesitant to call considering it was now 10:45 and the service was supposed to have started at 10. I called the 1st number to no avail. A man answered the 2nd number and informed me he was going outside for me. Then, click. But where are you?! I called back after a few minutes and he again stated he was on the street waiting for me. He was in fact on the street corner in front of Har Tsyion #12. He took Morgan and me around the building up the stairs to an apartment building. We entered a door of the 2nd floor and found a room filled with people and an energetic man behind an orange microphone. On our feet, we joined in clapping and even a little dancing with the rest of the churchgoers. If synagogue was as fun as this maybe I would go more. Maybe. I noticed the older Nigerian woman I work with and when we went over to sit with her she gave us the biggest hugs so thrilled we had made it. We stayed for about 2 hours at which point we had had enough. At least the service was in English. When I told the woman I had to leave she wasn’t very happy. But we left anyway. On our way out, an usher handed us 2 plastic bags with a juice can and a small water bottle. The man, Francis, who had originally answered the phone and waited for us outside, was in the hallway chatting with some friends. He asked if we would come back and wondered if we had liked what we had seen. I tried to hint we only came to check out this special day, but I don’t think he got it. Or rather, he chose not too. He asked us both back inside to fill out “First Timers to the Church” cards and I mean, we couldn’t say no! I’d bet money we’ll both get calls next week reminding us to come to church on Saturday.

On our way back, Morgan and I took the same route I had taken there, back on Har Tsyion street. We noticed a woman in very tights clothes and very high heels on the street when a car pulled up to her. The 2 men must have asked her something—directions I had presumed—and then drove off. Morgan said something like, “I guess they weren’t interested.” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “This is where the prostitutes get picked up,” she said. Ahhh, it all makes sense now. Walking to church on a Saturday morning at 9:30, 2 separate cars thought I was waiting to get picked up. I feel totally violated.

In the evening, a few friends and I continued the American Jewish tradition on Christmas going to a Chinese restaurant and watching a movie. It was a great end to an awesome weekend. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Obama in Israel?

Today marked the 1st day at the new day care center. This one, owned and run by a woman from Ghana, is located in the Southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva. I’m familiar with the area because there is also an open-air market there I frequent to buy cheap fruits and veggies. This center is way smaller and with less children. I’d say there are somewhere between 10-20 kids in the day care center at a time. I feel like the change may be a good thing after all seeing as we’ll be able to get to know the kids on a more personal and intimate level.

I love meeting all of them and figuring out their unique personalities. There is always the tough guy who is too cool to come over and see what you’re all about. There’s the quiet, shy one who likes to watch from afar until he feels comfortable enough to play with everyone else. The content one who never cries even if someone steals his toy from him. And then of course the attention hog. Sometimes there may be more than one toddler that wants to put on a show, but in this center, there is no mistaking who that 1 child is, even after the 1st two hours of being there. Originally from a francophone African country (yes, I was extremely excited to find this out after he repeated “Bravo!” each time he threw the “ballon” and yelled “Dora”—referring to the 1 and only Explorer—with a guttural “r”), this little boy couldn’t be older than 3 years old. I usually have no idea the ages of the kids, but something gives it away: His name is Obama. Straight up, first name. I asked the woman what everyone’s names are and when she got to him, we couldn’t help but laugh. But don’t worry, Obama loved it and was jumping up and down. The whole time Julie and I were there playing with the kids, he was constantly climbing all over us and loving the attention. I can’t tell you how many times we yelled his name. Talk about pressure though growing up with a name like that. I’ll really try to get some pictures before my time is up at this place; seriously some of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen.

One of my English students at the ARDC, David (his real name is Abdallah, but there are 2 in the class so he said to call him “David” although I’m not sure where the nickname comes from because it probably took him about 2 weeks to respond to it) from Darfur, walks home with me after class every Wednesday because we live very close to each other. Last week he asked if there was any way we could organize some sort of informal English discussions because he is really interested in improving his English. I definitely have experience in running French Tables, but I realized it would be a bit more difficult to start an English Circle when the students and other people interested in attending aren’t always in the same place. Nevertheless, I decided to put something small together for this past weekend. Another student, Ezu also from Darfur and only 25 years old, opened his own restaurant in Southern Tel Aviv last week! He has such an amazing and inspiring story saying that he had to work 2 jobs for over a year having come from a broken family due to the war in his home country. I sent out an email to everyone in my program inviting them to come and try Sudanese food and to meet some great men from Darfur in hopes of practicing English with them.

9 of my friends showed up, including participants from both the Tel Aviv and the Yafo tracks. Love you guys! Only 4 of my students ended up coming, but still, even then I was impressed with the turn out. Ezu led the way from the ARDC office, where we met, to his newly opened restaurant on the street Neve Sha’anan, directly across from the New Central Bus Station. A mixed race, nationality, religious group of 14 sat down in the Sudanese restaurant. I was blown away by the plasma screens hanging in the large dining room, the friendly kitchen staff I went over to exchange some words in Hebrew too—all Africans by the way—and the food. The food was SO DELICIOUS. I don’t think I can really tell you what Sudanese food is, but I do know that we ate a lot of beef, including beef liver, rice, beans, vegetables, and really, really scrumptious dessert. In a bowl we mixed cooked barley, halva, raisins, bananas, and drizzled some rose petal syrup on top. Perfection. The whole time, Ezu was handing out bottled and canned drinks, fresh squeezed orange juice, and pita for everyone. We kept trying to refuse, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The 3 other students from Darfur were mixed among the Americans (and 1 Australian) and were constantly getting up to help Ezu bring out some more food and clear the table. I got my hands dirty too because I wanted the students to enjoy themselves as much as they could.
The group at Ezu's Restaurant

Ezu and Me
After more than 2 hours, we decided it was time to go and since I knew we weren’t going to be handed a check, we pulled together a total of 400 shekels to pay for the exquisite meal. Ezu literally refused to take the money. I tried many tactics: left it on the table, put it in his front pocket, hid it under a napkin. Well, he wasn’t having any of it. He took me aside when we were still in the restaurant and very sternly informed me we were not to pay. I’ve never seen him be more serious than that in the 2 months that I’ve been his teacher. I couldn’t believe it. This man literally opened his own restaurant 1 week earlier, which still didn’t have a name nor menus nor a full variation of foods, and he was not allowing a group of 14 people to pay for their meal. We were even chasing him around the street by the way, just to let you know how hard we tried. The evening ended up to be a great success and I’m really excited to continue to have these cultural events and definitely to go back to Ezu’s restaurant soon *Guests be warned: anyone who comes to visit me will be going for dinner there J

This past Sunday was the last day of English classes at the ARDC for this 2-month semester. Can’t believe my 1st class has graduated already! Unfortunately the office that the org. is renting is too big and we can’t afford the price anymore so we have to move buildings. We’re not sure where yet, but I think it will happen in January. Well this is bad news for the education dept. because the potential new office doesn’t have classrooms so we’re currently looking for places to hold the classes. Anyway, the next 2-month semester (Dec. & Jan.) had to be cancelled because of the move, but I am hoping to continue teaching my students with my co-teacher only once a week. I’m really happy with the relationship we’ve all created during the time we’ve spent in the classroom and it’s awesome to see their progression. I feel like a real teacher!
My students on the last day of class in the ARDC office
Left to Right: Yaacob, David, Me, Mohammed, Ezu
Front and Center: Abdallah

Chanukah, or The Festival of Lights, started this week and it’s the Holiday Season over here in the Middle East. Well, sortof. Chanukah isn’t that big of a deal considering it’s more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. Rather a miracle, if you will. A huge menorah appeared in front of the bank in our neighborhood at the beginning of the week and there are regular-sized menorahs everywhere around the city. The high school students have off this coming week for the holiday. It’s so cool that it’s the Chanukah break. A bunch of us got together on Wednesday night to light the candles together the 1st night of the holiday. We ate so many latkes and sufganiyot (donuts without holes that are traditionally eaten during Chanukah—I guess you’re supposed to eat a lot of foods cooked in oil—check!) and had a really good time singing songs. Yes, we sang the traditional American Chanukah songs; don’t be hatin’. One girl who lives in the other TLV apartment decided to be the one to light the candles because it was her 1st Chanukah experience ever. She comes from a Russian family who relocated to Philly (shout out to my peeps in Fishtown) right before she was born and has never known what it means to be Jewish until coming here on the program. It’s really interesting. Anyway, she took the middle candle and went to light the other one and while we were all singing the prayer together she started to blow out the middle candle. The crowd’s reaction was priceless. Seriously we all screamed “NOOOOO!!!!!!!” like it was the WORST thing she could have done. I mean what would have happened? We probably would have just lit it again. It was really funny though. Maybe you had to be there…

In terms of the weather, it’s still pretty hot. Apparently this is the hottest winter Israel has had in a really long time. Sara and I went to the beach today. I didn’t go in the water, but the sun felt great. At night it’s getting pretty cool, but let’s be real, it doesn’t get lower than 55 degrees. Although it feels freezing to us because we’re so used to the heat considering I’ve now had summer since the end of last May. It’s going to be brutal coming home in February.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard about it yet, but there are horrible fires going on in the north of Israel right now. They’re not sure how they started yet, but they are trying everything they can to get them under control. They are mostly in the Carmel region near Haifa. This is exactly where we went on our first overnight trip—we hiked on the Carmel Mountain—and then again when we visited the Druze village. Over 15,000 people have been evacuated from the region and I sincerely hope everyone will be OK.

Shalom V’Ahava
Peace & Love

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"You're Living Their Reality"

Of course I knew before coming to Israel that the work I was about to begin was going to be challenging. Being an emotional person, I was certainly nervous to embark on this difficult journey working with people of cultures I had never encountered and dealing with issues I had never been exposed to. But still, you can’t always be prepared for everything.

Last week, after spending an amazing day learning about coexistence and meeting a group of Israelis and Palestinians who participate in cross-cultural understanding programs in Jerusalem, I got a call from my volunteering coordinator, Tamar. She wanted to let Julie and me know that we would no longer be working at the day care center where we have been spending time with the migrant workers’ kids every Wednesday morning. So, first off I have to inform all of you that I have been telling you the wrong thing about the day care center. I had thought that it was run by a governmental organization Mesila; I guess there was a miscommunication at some point. Anyway, the day care center was a privately owned place that was only overseen by Mesila, run by the Tel Aviv Municipality, after it was discovered. Apparently all of the day cares that are associated with Mesila are privately owned and often go a long time without being found because then, they are able to charge less to parents who can’t afford better ones and do not have to follow governmental standards.

Last week, during one of our shifts at this particular day care, a few Israelis came in and looked around. No one said much and then they left. I’m guessing they were checking out the place to see if everything was running smoothly. Obviously it wasn’t. Tamar explained that the owner of the center was warned several times to fix certain aspects of the day care and neglected to do so, ultimately causing her to be forced to shut it down. There is no telling exactly which day care centers the children will now find themselves, but it must be such a difficult adjustment. I felt angry and confused when I found out the news that I would no longer be working with the same children. Julie and I had just felt the week before that we had FINALLY broken some of the barriers with the toddlers especially the tough boys who wouldn’t play with us previously. Now we have to start over with a new set of kids. At first I wasn’t sure if wanted to take on this task, but after thinking it over for maybe 15 minutes I snapped out of my selfish thoughts and realized there was no question. Even spending a few weeks or months with these children I know will make a difference. Sure, it’s going to be emotionally difficult to start over and honestly, it sucks really bad that I didn’t get to say good-bye to the others, but I gotta do it. And you would too if you saw how cute they all were.

When Julie and I met with Tamar to talk about what had happened there, we ended up getting pretty chocked up about the whole thing. It was really tough to think about the parents and their little babies who have to relocate on a second’s notice, especially now because that’s exactly what we have to do too. “You’re living their reality,” Tamar said. And she’s absolutely right.

*Very soon to come: posts about trip to the Dead Sea & Judean Desert as well as a night out with my Sudanese students!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

All or Nothing

Shalom Chaverim, Hello Friends!
I’ve been meaning to fill you in on the recent happenings here in TLV, but you know the drill. The past few weeks have been eye-opening for me in many ways. Let’s forget for a bit that Jews are the majority here in Israel and look at the bigger picture. When doing this, even in Tel Aviv, you’ll be surprised at how much diversity exists in the Jewish State. So, yallah, let’s jump right in.

Two weeks ago (yes, I know I’m behind), we traveled to a town called Abu Ghosh, a few miles outside of Jerusalem. After some of us sampled “The #1 Hummus in the World” in local restaurants and cafes, we made our way through the village to meet Rabbi Ron Kronish, president of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel. Ron had made aliyah probably 30 years ago, but so obviously comes from Florida there is no mistaking his Miami-roots. Sorry to use the stereotype, but think about old American Jews in Florida and all of the characteristics that go with it, and you’ll have Ron. He was a nice guy and to give him some credit, he did speak Hebrew, but I have never heard such a thick American accent. Anyway, our 1st speaker was an Arab Israeli man named Issa (actually I think that was his name; as you can tell, it’s hard for me to keep track of people’s names; they don’t stick because I’m not used to them!) who talked about what it’s like for Arab Israelis living in Israel as the minority as well as the school systems, daily life, etc. I was so enthralled by everything he had to say in his nearly perfect English that I even took notes.

Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there were a lot of Arabs living on the land here. Then when the Jews declared their own state, most of the Arabs found themselves within the new borders. First reaction: shock. Issa tried to explain that once this happened, these Arab Israelis now had to redefine themselves, find a new identity in a way. I think he was trying to compare Arabs to Diaspora Jews (Jews who live outside of Israel) showing that both peoples have family outside of Israel and also a strong connection to the country. (*Side note: I’m not sure if you can use the terms “Arab Israeli” and “Israeli Arab” interchangeably, but labels are stupid anyway. I think they are the same so in case I switch between the two, there is no significance to that.) It was refreshing to hear his side of the story considering, especially in the US, all we hear is conflict and horrible fighting between religious groups in Israel, but of course that’s not really what it’s like all of the time. Besides, who could even live here if it was that bad? And more importantly, why would I have come here???

A moderate, Issa’s choice of words was very interesting and is still causing me to think about certain things that have never really challenged me before in regards to the State of Israel. First, the Israeli State vs. the Arab/Palestinian Nation. He doesn’t recognize the “Land of Israel,” but gladly accepts the existence of the “State of Israel” and the “Palestinian Territory” (West Bank & Gaza). So what is the difference between the Land and the State? Well, the “Land of Israel” is totally religious and is what god gave to the Jewish people, if you believe that. I remember sitting in the small conference room and having a light bulb go off above my head. Aha! That is genius! Issa also said that it obviously isn’t so easy to be the minority living in the Jewish state, especially when you are part of the enemy religion. He talked about the daily dilemma of Arab Israelis longing to identify themselves as Israelis, but constantly being treated as Arabs. I’m not going to lie, and I’m sure you’re aware that it happens here anyway, but there is so much racial profiling and racism towards Arabs—and Africans, and mostly towards non-Jews in general—that it makes it difficult to keep a high spirit on a daily basis.

What about the Israeli army? All Israelis have to serve in the army here—although there are exceptions if you’re orthodox or even do something else, whatever I don’t really know—but Arab Israelis don’t serve. I’ve always thought that in order to feel truly Israeli you have to serve in the army just because it’s such an important part of life here, so how can these people feel they are an equal part of society if they don’t participate? I’ve gathered they can’t, another reason they are set apart. I’ve thought previously that Arab Israelis are simply not allowed to serve in the Israeli army, but according to the Military Law of 1949, it is stated that every Israeli must serve, regardless of religion. However, the government said that Arab Israelis shouldn’t have to fight against their brothers because like I mentioned, they have a lot of family outside of Israel, which just so happen to be ALL Arab countries. Anyway, the real reason is because the Israeli government doesn’t want to take its chances with allowing the Arab Israelis to serve AKA they don’t trust them. Great. In order for some Arab Israelis to feel a greater connection to Israeli society they do serve in the National Service instead of the army.

Lastly, and not surprisingly, Issa discussed the best solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Israel and the Territories. Simple: 2 state solution. No hesitation. Although, in his opinion, he thinks that even if there was an independent Palestinian state, 99% of Arab Israelis would stay in Israel. OK, what? He said that Arab Israelis have a sense of belonging to the homeland, not the political regime, so it wouldn’t really matter for the Arab Israelis. He compared the potential Palestinian state to the likes of Syria and Lebanon, two places he said he has no interest in inhabiting. So for now, what does he want? Arabs and Jews together “living a peaceful life inside Israel.” If only, Issa, if only.
Abu Ghosh

Next, still in Abu Ghosh, we made our way down a hill and entered into a French Monastery. From the top of the hill you could also see several large Jewish stars signaling synagogues in the area. So many religions right on top of each other. I don’t really remember much that was discussed with Brother Jean-Michel, but I did catch that these Christians don’t have any participation in the Israeli government, and honestly, are pretty content with that. It was nice hearing all of these positive stories and experiences from so many different people in regards to Israeli society. Check out this picture I snapped inside the 900-year-old monastery.
Brother Jean-Michel (this wasn't planned!)
Our last stop was the community center where we met several Arab women who participate in many secular activities within the center. Part of a women’s empowerment group, these women meet several times a week to talk about women’s health and to let loose in a way. They are currently working towards greater education including English and computer classes. Although this may not seem like much, it is a huge accomplishment that these women have come so far already. Kol hakavod! All the respect!

The day ended in Jerusalem. We had only an hour and a half to grab some dinner on Ben Yehuda Street, the touristiest street in the city—if you’ve been on Birthright, you’ve been there. I also had my 1st shawarma experience. Shawarma is the meat you see in Mediterranean restaurants (I usually think of Greek places) where they slice meat off of this huge spinning thing in the shape of a really, really big cylinder. Sorry to say, I still like falafel better.

We then made our way to the main event of the night. MASA, the organization that my program is a part of, held a huge event in Jerusalem for all of its different programs. My group walked into the concert venue and felt completely overwhelmed by American Jews…everywhere. Apparently there are 200 MASA programs including 10,000 young Jews (not only from the US) and the majority of whom were all running around the lobby. It was mayhem. As we all eventually filed in to take our seats, intense propaganda and threats to “make aliyah or else!” were thrown at us. The main event was a concert by Israel’s Idan Raichel, whose music is a mix of all different world genres. The concert was really great.

The next day, Tuesday, we hopped back onto the bus and made our way north to Mt. Carmel—where we had gone hiking a few weeks ago—to visit the Druze village Isfiya. The Druze people are a very small minority in Israel, only about 100,000, and have their completely own religion and way of life. Our tour guide for the day, Ezzim, is a secular Druze who has lived in the same small town his whole life. He was such a great speaker and made us feel so comfortable constantly addressing us as “My Friends.” I had heard of the Druze people before, but hadn’t really understood what they were all about. I’m not going to give you the whole history and background and current situation of the Druze, but I’ll fill you in on some interesting facts.

The Druze people moved mostly from Lebanon to Israel in the 16th century and have lived peacefully under any political regime they have found themselves in. Although their first language is Arabic, they have absolutely no connection to Islam (or to Christianity or to Judaism, for that matter) and seem to be a people without a homeland; they have been adapting and assimilating to any society they become a part of. Druze serve in the Israeli army, speak Hebrew, and are “regular” Israelis. Well, mostly. In terms of the religion, there are only 2 sects: ultra religious or totally secular. That’s it. No reformed, no conservative, no half-and-half. Thus the phrase Ezzim used, “All or Nothing.” At the age of 14, the Druzes’ “Bar Mitzvah age,” every Druze has the right to choose whether s/he will lead a religious or secular lifestyle. Regardless of how you were raised thus far, you can choose either path and your family (should) completely support your decision. There is a catch though. If you decide to be religious you have to be completely committed to the religion and you pretty much can’t do anything “normal” AKA go to the beach, go to parties, drink alcohol. As Ezzim put it simply “have fun.” But, if you choose the secular way, you aren’t even allowed to step foot inside of their place of worship. He did mention that Druze in both sects are allowed to spend time together though, so that’s good. Druze believe in reincarnation, but not in karma, so I guess you can get away with stuff and still come back as a great person. What I remember most about the discussion is the way they think of death. Since Druze believe in reincarnation, they think that as soon as someone dies, he is immediately reborn and therefore his body is completely useless.
View from Mt. Carmel

After we wandered through the narrow streets of the village, we stopped by the small cemetery. They recycle the graves and so they only have a small plot of land in order to have a proper burial service. We then found ourselves inside someone’s house eating some of the tastiest food I’ve had yet in Israel. And talk about a view. We were on the side of the mountain overlooking a beautiful landscape eating home cooked food. SO. GOOD. We expressed our gratitude and made our way back to TLV.

A few days later, Saturday night, marked the 15th anniversary of Israel’s former Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin. A leftist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Rabin was assassinated after signing the Oslo Accords with Egypt. Only the fifth Israeli PM, an Israeli rightist shot and killed Rabin on November 4, 1995. Every year there is a huge ceremony commemorating Rabin and this year was even more significant as the 15th year since his death. I didn’t end up staying for that long because it was so crowded and everything was obviously in Hebrew and trying to understand people speaking in front of thousands of people in a foreign language is just a headache. I’m definitely glad I went to witness it though.

The crowd at the Commemoration
Me in front of Rabin's slogan: "Peace Now"
What I really love about being in Israel is the amount of diversity around me all of the time. You’re probably wondering, “what diversity?!” Well, there’s a lot more than you may think, especially in TLV. 

Before arriving at the Rabin Commemoration on that Saturday night, I had met up with another participant, Anna, to grab some dinner. She had spent the day at the beach so I had to travel alone to get to her and on my 30-minute journey I passed by so many interesting people and locations. Starting in my own neighborhood, religious Jews were everywhere unable to mistake their yarmulkes and long skirts for anyone else. I then walked about 20 minutes north to the Tachanah Merkazit, the Central Bus Station. On my way to the sheruit, shared taxi, I was going to take downtown I passed by a few other large taxi vans stationed in a parking lot outside of the bus station. As I walked behind the vans, I noticed a man in a sort of “downward facing dog” position with his forehead pressed to the floor of the trunk on top of a mat. I quickly realized I had just caught a Muslim man praying during 1 of the 5 calls to prayer in the Islamic religion. I then boarded the #4 sheruit, paid 7 shekels, and sat back for the ride downtown. As the taxi filled up, all different people boarded, mostly foreigners. I tried to recognize accents, possibly ranging from Russia to the Far East back home to the good ol’ US of A. Exiting the bus station, we passed by the park/garden that is directly next to it. A safe haven and hangout for refugees, the Levinsky Garden was packed with Africans and other asylum seekers with nothing to do on the Jewish holy day, Shabbat. After I jumped off of the taxi, I met up with Anna and we strolled through the quiet streets of the secular city.

*Writer’s note: I added a new feature to the blog! On the top right corner I’m going to be placing “helpful” phrases and words to know when living and/or traveling in Israel. Make sure to take a look when you visit the site J

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"If I were a Rothschild"

After a super intense 1st week of volunteering, we, as an entire group, took off for the weekend on our 1st overnight trip of the year. Each month, 3 people from the program get together and plan an overnight trip for all of the participants in Tikkun Olam. This month, we traveled to Mt. Carmel in the north near Haifa. Instead of plopping onto a tour bus and feeling like we were having Birthright déjà-vu, we rented cars. I volunteered to drive figuring that if I’m able to make it through the mean streets of the Big Apple, I could survive in Israel.
Road signs in Israel have 3 languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English

Friday morning all 8 drivers showed up at the car rental place—2 drivers per car, 4 cars for participants—ready to put rubber to the pavement. I paired up with Adam and we jumped right into our 7-seat minivan. The car rental man (is there an official title for that position?) showed us every knick and ding on the entire car and handed over the keys. Before we were off, I asked if he had any maps of Israel because we only have hand maps of Tel Aviv. The man looked at us puzzled as if to say, “Why the heck would I have a map for YOU?” But instead, he simply said, “No.” Awesome. I took the wheel first and wound my way through the south side of the city we had only known on foot and bus. Back at the apartment, the rest of the passengers loaded their belongings and piled in. We were told we were going to travel in a convoy en route to the different places we were visiting in the next 2 days. First stop: Binyamina Winery.

The Winery was located, conveniently, in Binyamina and was originally created to be a perfume factory, but when Israelis realized they weren’t good at making perfume they decided to make something more practical. Or something like that. The winery is completely kosher meaning we weren’t allowed to touch anything with our hands, else we shall taint the alcoholic drink. Seriously, there were orthodox men monitoring our tour making sure we kept our hands to ourselves. It was fascinating to walk through the process of making wine and even more fascinating to try the different kinds. Our tour guide looked like he was 16 and I suppose legal (enough) to drink in Israel. He showed us how to properly taste wine using 3 of the 5 senses. First, tilt the glass 45 degrees to look at the color. Then, stick your nose in the glass to smell the fragrance. And finally, take a sip, swish it around in your mouth, and taste the flavor. Some people bought some bottles, others didn’t. This tour took place at approximately 10 am.

Some Wine Barrels

Next, we were off to an Arab village, Fardes, where we met an Arab woman, Ib Tisam, a peace activist who works for coexistence between all peoples in Israel. For 20 years now, Tisam has been empowering both Arab and Jewish women and holding circle discussions in order to bring the close neighbors together. Although a traditional Arab woman, Tisam has broken free from some of the social restraints her culture and religion place upon her and other Muslim women. She is now one of the most respected Arab women in her neighborhood. Her power and activism have spanned much farther outside of her village and even her country as well. In 2007, she earned the Unsung Hero of Compassion Award from the Dalai Lama. Talk about Girl Power!

The day ended at the eco-friendly campsite we had chosen to inhabit for the night. There’s a green movement going on in Israel right now considering it is the #2 country in the world that creates the most garbage per person per year. Obviously, the US is #1, but who would expect anything less? A bunch of us volunteered (I guess we’re good at that) to cook dinner in the outdoor kitchen and just enjoyed each other’s company outside of the busy life of TLV. The generator switched off at about 10:30 pm forcing us to get a rather good night’s sleep.

Dante, loving life at the campsite

 Saturday morning I woke up to some other participants banging plates and silverware around in the kitchen at about 6 am in preparation of making breakfast and lunch for the hike ahead. We packed all of our belongings and once again piled into the rental cars. This time, we were headed to the top of Har HaCarmel, Mt. Carmel, to hike down the side of the mountain to the Mediterranean. The view from the top was really beautiful as we entered into the grounds of The Rothschild family gardens. Baron Rothschild was a super rich guy from England in the banking business who took great interest in Israel, before it was officially the Jewish State. Known for his wealth in Israel, people here quote, “If I were a Rothschild,” while us Americans stick to Fiddler on the Roof’s, “If I were a rich man,” or the ever-so-popular Gwen Stefani remake, “If I were a rich a girl.” Whichever strikes your fancy.

After wandering through the gardens, we started our descent down the mountain following our tourguide, a young Israeli named Ronit. She effortlessly led the way while we tried not to slip on rocks or slide on moving dirt. Every so often we would stop and have a mandatory water break while Ronit would tell us something interesting about where we were. Oh yeah, remember when I said it was getting cooler here? Not so much. It was probably 95 degrees that day. And this past Thursday, over 100—actually broke Israel’s record of the hottest day in October. Anyway, on the hike, we followed one path down that specifically took us from the gardens to the sea, but along the way we crossed paths with the Israeli Trail, one that connects the entire country. Apparently if you start from the top and make your way all the way to the bottom, it will take you about a month. The Israeli Trail is marked with different colors of posts along the way. Three colors in particular let you know which way you are headed: blue=East, towards the Med Sea, orange=South, towards the Negev Desert, white= North, towards the mountains. Whichever color is marked the highest among the 3 is the direction in which you are hiking.

Orange is highest, heading South towards the Negev
Towards the beginning of the hike we stumbled upon some ancient ruins overlooking the water. We were able to climb all over them and snap some pictures.

Me on top
After a few hours, the whole group successfully made their way to the bottom. We gratefully ate our packed lunches and grew excited knowing we were about to jump in the sea. A few of us had to pick up the cars and with that, we took a dip in the Med and made our way home.

Last stop: Mediterranean
Back to reality. Sunday I was back at the ARDC for my 2nd round of donation distribution. This time I had it under control. One person was allowed in the storage room at a time allowing me to easily find their names in the binder, mark down the food items handed out, and see if diapers were also in need. We must have gotten a much better donation this past week because the food closet was stocked. Canned corn and pickles, tuna, rice, lentils, flour, pasta, and couscous were all available. Diapers, nappies, Pampers, or as the women call them “Pamperes,” were also in abundance although the sizes didn’t always match the requests.

One of my favorite times of the week, teaching English to refugee men is such a fun thing to do. I think my teaching skills are slowly improving although I let my co-teacher do most of the grammar presentation while I stick to conversational work and fun activities. This past week I decided to incorporate songs into the lesson to spice things up. Sunday night it was the Beatles hit “She Loves You” to remind students of the “S” on 3rd person present verbs and Wednesday, Grease’s “Summer Nights” gave examples of verbs in the simple past. Our class is still continuing to grow having started with only 2 Sudanese men on the 1st day of class to now, 6 Sudanese, 1 Ivorian (Ivory Coast), and 1 Colombian.

Although I want to ask these men so many personal inquiries, I obviously refrain. Sometimes though, other students ask the questions I’m interested in knowing. For example, last week we did an exercise to actually practice asking questions and before the activity began, we stated that you didn’t have to answer anything you didn’t feel comfortable sharing. We’ve learned a little bit about each student previously including that no one is an only child and some have sisters who are fatter than them and they are the most intelligent person in their families (that lesson was about comparative adjectives and superlatives if you couldn’t tell). Each person had to stand in front of the class while every student took turns asking him 2 questions each. One man asked another (both from Sudan), “How many hours did it take you to get to Israel?” The man started, “How many hours? Hmmm. I don’t know, maybe 100?” It was like a slap in the face. I had figured that all of my students had run away from their war torn homes, mostly in Darfur, to seek help and freedom in Israel, but to hear him struggling to answer a question that in my mind should be so simple (me sure, it was a 10 hour flight) just made their situation that much more real.

Monday was one of our study days. I spent the whole day in the secular yeshiva learning Hebrew and having discussions about Jewish identity. I’m going to be honest, I was a little skeptical about this part of the program before it started, but I’m really starting to like it. I have been pleasantly surprised by other participants’ Jewish affiliations whether it be on the more conservative side, reformed, or more secular, like me. We’ve had some great dialogues already talking about how we identify ourselves, how others view us, and the importance of Israel and Hebrew as the official language. I wouldn’t say I remain too quiet, but in group settings I don’t always speak up too much unless I have something I really feel strongly about. Like this week for instance.

Our program director, Moshe, leads  a class every Monday about Jewish identity and this week’s topic was about the Hebrew language. We read some old texts about how important and holy it is and the usually “Chosen Language” spiel, but it really got interesting when the topic was opened to everyone. I can’t say I was too surprised, but some people began expressing their frustration towards Israelis’ lack of inclusion into society, specifically with Hebrew. Some have been feeling discouraged and disappointed when they ask a question in Hebrew only to get a quick response in English. Feeling almost like a Catch-22, they don’t answer you in Hebrew, but then exclude you from the Hebrew club because you aren’t good enough to have a conversation. Well, with that, my hand shot up immediately. “You’ve obviously never studied French nor tried to speak it in France, especially Paris,” I rudely stated. I know it probably wasn’t very nice, but I was honestly more on the side of the Israelis this time. Why should people here go out of their way to help us? Can you imagine how many American Jews roam the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on a daily basis? Sure, I get pretty PO’ed when I manage to ask a question in Hebrew to only have the answer be delivered in broken English, but I think Jews (esp. Americans) forget that Israel isn’t some utopian society where all Jews from the Diaspora can come and learn the language much more easily. In this case, Israel has to been seen equivalent to any other country; they just happen to speak Hebrew here. As the conversation carried on, my anger continued to grow. Why are we sitting here feeling sorry for ourselves as Jews, the majority, in Israel, while we are working with refugees and migrant workers who are so obviously excluded from EVERYTHING in Israel? I tried to keep my cool, but I did stress my opinion more than once. Hope I didn’t offend anyone.

I played with babies again on Wednesday morning, this time a little more calmly. We sang the ABC’s and played Simon Says with the toddlers while I picked up babies in their cribs if only to hold them for a few minutes. I finished my workweek at Ironi Hey, the high school tutoring 10th and 8th graders. The students love to ask me about New York and all other sorts of questions that so conveniently have nothing to do with the assignment that they should be completing. If I’m learning anything from this volunteer place it is the fact that I never want to work in the Israeli school system. Disorganized and late, the students are literally out of control showing absolutely no respect for the teacher, cursing, running around, and continually disobeying. When it came time to choose 5 students to send to work with me in the library, one 10th grader said that I wasn’t tough enough to kick people out for being rude. I slammed my fist on the table and stated I was, but a small smirk still appeared on my face.

Thursday night was a send-off party for Dan, a previous Tikkun Olamer who then worked for the program and made aliyah was now being drafted into the army here. We gathered on the rooftop of the other TLV apartment drinking Goldstar, eating homemade cake, and smoking Hookah. It was a really good time.

Yesterday, determined to do something during my weekend, Sara and I made our way 45 minutes north to the Port, probably the most touristy thing I’ve done yet. It was so pleasant to wander the boardwalk window-shopping and to sit outside overlooking the water indulging on a huge late-afternoon brunch. I still can’t believe I live here.