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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Let the Volunteering Begin

Dear Family, Friends, and devout followers, I sincerely apologize for the delay in posting. But fear not, I am back and ready to fill y’all in on the past 3 weeks.
Let’s see, what the heck have I been doing???

Ulpan has been filling up the majority of time in my weekly schedule whether it be trekking to and from the Jaffa apartments, the Shapira Community Center, or remaining in Tel Aviv. Ani lomedet harbeh ivrit kol hazaman, I am studying a lot of Hebrew all of the time! No doubt my Hebrew is improving, but living with a bunch of Americans is not ideal in using the language outside of the classroom. Sure I’m able to order food and ask the driver where the bus is headed, but as far as conversation goes, simple sentences only please. Oh right, can’t forget the popular answer to what I’m doing in Israel: Ani meetnadevet, I am a volunteer. It’s OK, I’ll be here another 9 months.

Aside from memorizing intensive verb conjugations and pulling my hair out when I can’t remember the difference between ka-day, in order to, and ka-die, worthwhile, (seriously, I just asked a classmate what the difference was) I’ve been spending a lot of free time at the beach. The weather though, is finally starting to cool down. This past Friday it rained for the 1st time in months! It was glorious and a little less humid afterwards. The rain was strong and didn’t last long, but it was great. Someone in the Jaffa apartments mentioned that he even heard some people yelling in the streets “Baruch Hashem!” “Thank God!” when the droplets fell. So refreshing. Since Friday, rain has hit the streets of TLV a few more times, but nothing to write home about.

Sunday marked the 1st week of volunteering. Finally, what I came here to do. After having visited all of the places where I could volunteer, I met with my volunteering coordinator to discuss my options. Although I came to work solely with African asylum seekers and refugees, I was informed that I needed some variety. It was already difficult enough to narrow my choices down to 3 or 4 places within the African community, and then to be told to choose a place outside of it was even tougher. However, I succeeded. Ultimately, I chose to work at Ironi Hey, a high school in North Tel Aviv tutoring English, Mesila, a day care center for refugee children in South Tel Aviv, and the ARDC (of course) in South Tel Aviv. Each place, I know, will be a challenge, but I’m confident I made the right decision.

Last week another volunteer and I paid a visit to Ironi Hey, the high school in the North, in order to meet with some of the English teachers with whom we will be working. A fence surrounded the school and since we had never been there before, the security guard sitting on the top of the stairs made his way down to the gate. Since my Hebrew is a bit better than the other girl I went with, I decided to take the reins. There were misconceptions and errors all over the place, but in the end we understood each other and we made our way to the teacher’s lounge. Looking around the halls of the building, I was almost surprised at how nice it all appeared questioning what I was doing there. But then I remembered why the students needed extra help in English. The majority of refugees and new immigrants to TLV live in the South of the city and with the influx of people, the schools have reached capacity. Therefore, some of the students that should be going to schools in the South have to take the bus up to schools in the North. As in many other aspects when comparing the North to the South of TLV, the school system is much better in many ways, including teachers, lessons, supplies, etc. Thus, by the time the students from the South find themselves in the northern schools, they are often behind their classmates, including in English. That’s where we come in. I’ll be working one-on-one or possibly two-on-one with high schoolers in English. My 1st day is this Thursday. Hopefully all goes well.

Sunday was my 1st day at Mesila, the daycare center for underprivileged children. There are 2 groups found within the center, babies and toddlers. The babies are roughly between a few months and 2 yrs old while the toddlers are 3 to 4 or 5. The kids are absolutely adorable and just so obviously want to be loved. Mesila is an organization run by the Israeli government that gives aid for migrant workers. I’m not sure what the regulations for running a daycare center are, but I am positive the condition of these centers is unacceptable. During our tour of each of the volunteer places in Sept., we stopped by the specific daycare center where I’m working (there are approx. 40 different ones throughout TLV), and as our guide entered the building, we figured we had made a wrong turn somewhere. The tall complex was only a few minutes walk from the secular yeshiva, our home base for the program, and looked like it belonged in the Projects. We climbed the stairs to the 3rd floor and as soon as we entered the room, every single child ran towards us, smiling, laughing, tugging at our clothes, wanting to be picked up and played with. I know I’ve never studied psychology, but I knew that behavior wasn’t typical for a child; strangers coming into their safe place. It was obvious they needed attention. From that moment, I knew I needed to work there.

I worked out a schedule with another volunteer, Julie, since we have to work in pairs in Mesila because of how stressful the work is. Also, 3 hours is the maximum you are allowed to work there per week. I decided on 2. When we arrived for our 1st 2-hour segment of baby volunteering, the kids reacted in the same exact way they had on the day of our visit. Except this time, it was only Julie and me. We were practically mauled down by rambunctious toddlers. We tried getting them to stop, but it was no use, they had to calm down. After probably 5 minutes of kids jumping on our backs, trying to climb up our legs, and literally pulling our shirts off of us, Julie and I practically ran and hid in the baby room. Two rooms are lined with cribs with babies sleeping, bottles in mouths, diapers changed only when 1 of the 3 women who work there have a free minute. The baby room is even more heartbreaking than facing the fact that the toddlers need someone to give them attention. When we walked into one of the baby rooms, 1 little girl was crying on the floor so I made my way over and rocked her until she stopped. I decided to sit down on the floor with her still in my lap while some other precious babies made their way over to see who this big stranger was. One little boy came over, rested his head on my shoulder, and literally fell asleep standing up. I noticed he was asleep when he started slipping down my arm. It was so cute, but it was such a harsh reality realizing he just wanted some kind of affection in order to fall asleep for his nap. After he was placed back in his crib, it was feeding time. Each baby is sent to the center with his/her own lunch, which became apparent to me when the 1st meal I fed to a baby girl was heated mashed potatoes. Another boy’s lunch consisted of pasta. These are babies who need well-balanced meals and last time I checked rice and hard-boiled eggs do not qualify. The rooms are also filthy with barely any toys or supplies; I’m seriously questioning when the Israeli gov’t last checked this place out.

Some of the other volunteers are working at a Multipurpose Daycare Center, filled with mostly Israeli children (if not all Israeli, I’m not sure), and they come home telling me how well the kids are fed. They read books with them, play games, watch TV, normal daycare activities. The reason why they are working there is because these children have difficult home lives so they work with social workers considering some of them are only one step away from foster care. Of course I support and admire the program available to these children, but where are these services for the babies in Mesila? I know this is only the beginning of the truth yet to be fully discovered, but my anger has already started to build.

Next, I was off to the ARDC. I became a part of the Humanitarian and the Education Teams. I am currently co-teaching an intermediate level English class to 3 men from Sudan and 1 man from Colombia. They are all so nice and eager to learn. At the end of each class they shake both the other teacher’s hand and mine and thank us profusely for teaching them. It’s really a lot of fun, but I must say, props to all you teachers out there, it is tough.

As a member of the Humanitarian Team, I will be working hands-on with refugees both in and outside of the office. When I arrived to the ARDC office on Sunday afternoon, I met another volunteer, Dani, from a different MASA program that I will be working with. After a few minutes of conversation I asked if she was from England. She informed me that she lives in Sydney, Australia. Really? I couldn’t tell the difference? A little embarrassing. But I digress. Upon arrival to the center, there were a few people in the waiting area, and I was quickly informed that Dani and I needed to register 1 of the women who was visiting the ARDC for the first time. So, 1 woman from America, 1 from Australia, and 1 from Africa met in a small room in South Tel Aviv. Dani and I immediately learned that this woman spoke no English or Hebrew (or French or Spanish or Mandarin) and therefore we had no way to communicate with her except through miming and drawing some pictures. It’s funny how this happens, but you can’t help it: Whenever it’s impossible to communicate with someone in your own language, instead of just not talking, you end up talking extremely slowly like that’s going to help. Totally did that and no, it didn’t really work. But we were able to fill out some information on this woman’s folder. Although she said that she was from Sudan, “Eritrea” was written on her visa. Also, she was definitely reading information in Tigrinya (the most commonly spoken language in Eritrea) and not Arabic (that spoken in Sudan). We were able to understand that she was 6 months pregnant, though, and completely alone in Israel. She couldn’t have been older than 30 years old. There was no way to communicate why she was here and with that, we started to collect the necessary items everyone receives when they first register at the ARDC. Some clothes, a pair of worn-out shoes, a toothbrush, a sheet, a blanket, soap, etc. Everything given out to the refugees is either a public or private donation.

Then, it was off to the shelter. Talk about jumping right into things on my 1st day. The ARDC owns 2 small apartments in the neighborhood of Shapira, located next door to my neighborhood, Kiryat Shalom. I have actually been walking a few streets from their location for the past month on my way to the central bus station as well as the secular yeshiva completely unaware of their existence. First impressions of the apartments: smaller than what I had expected and in worse condition. I can’t remember the number of people living in the larger of the 2 shelters, but I do know that it is far too many for such a small place. The living conditions are horrific, feeling as though I had stepped into a third world country in the middle of the most vibrant city in all of Israel. What was going on here? When we walked in the door, we were met with another woman who has not yet been registered at the office. I'm not sure who brought her to the shelter, but she had been living and sleeping in the park next to the bus station for the past few days. Also alone. Also 6 months pregnant. With the arrival of the new woman we had just registered, there were no more empty beds. Our boss, Nick, left promising to figure something out. But what? Around the corner we entered the smaller of the 2 shelters to check in on some of the 11 residents who currently share 1 room. One woman was asleep on one of the many bunk beds, one toddler was taking a nap on the floor, while another pregnant woman was watching 2 women’s babies who were out at the moment. When asked how everything was going, the only complaint that she mentioned was that she didn’t think it was a good idea for her to continue to sleep on the top bunk anymore considering she is 8 months into her pregnancy; something she shouldn’t have even had to say. We left the shelter in shock and feeling determined to help as much as we can this upcoming year.

Back at the office at around 4pm, somewhere between 10 to 15 women showed up for their weekly food distribution. Since the ARDC can only give as much as it receives, when the rice rations ran out, all we had to offer was flour. Diapers ran out as well leaving the young women questioning us what they were supposed to do without work. We also had to take away clothes they persistently tried to pull from the storage room. Writing this now is bringing back some of the helpless feelings that I have already experienced working at the ARDC.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the living room of my apartment with some of my roommates talking about our volunteer placements and why it is we are all here. After remaining relatively quiet for most of the conversation, Oren, our only Israeli roommate, broke his silence with a puzzled look on his face: “Who would have thought that an American woman and an African man would come to meet in Israel?” 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Jerusalem: The Other D.C.

Hoping to experience holidays in Israel, I definitely arrived at the right time. Since it is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, there are several holidays all in a row, one per week. Some holidays that are coming up I have heard of, but never celebrated; however, being in Israel, I suppose I’ll deal with the surprise time off.

This past weekend was Yom Kippur, The Day of Repentance, the holiest day of the year for Jews. Once again, everything was closed for the holiday, which just so happened to fall on Shabbat anyway, so not that big of a difference. Well, actually, my Yom Kippur was very unique this year. Not only because I was in Israel, but also thanks to a very special trip to a place I like to call the best city in the country: Jerusalem.

Two summers ago I fell in love with the city of Jerusalem and literally cried my eyes out when it came time to leave—Mom, you can back me up on this one. Although I ultimately chose to come back to Israel and spend my year in Tel Aviv (mostly because the majority of refugees live in TLV and also because it’s a secular city), Jerusalem is truly a place unlike any other. I had noticed a couple of weeks ago that a trip to the capital was scheduled for the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, or I guess just 2 days before the holiday; a little less confusing that way. As usual, the leaders of the program didn’t inform us participants of any of the details and so when it came time to get on the bus in the Central Bus Station in TLV, we still had no idea where the heck we were headed. Nevertheless, we literally elbowed people out of the way to keep our spots on the line and even then, some of us had to stand on the 45-minute bus ride cross-country. Here’s a funny thing about Israeli culture: LINES DO NOT EXIST. And even if they do, no one stands in them. I had a pretty annoying experience with the tor, line, back in 2008 when a few friends and I had planned a day trip to the Dead Sea from Jeru (Jerusalem—we have lots of nicknames; you’ll get used to it). I didn’t know that people simply disregarded the proper way to wait for entry into a store, for his/her turn at the doctor’s office (the “But, I just have one question!” bit doesn’t always work to cut your way to the front, lady!), or in this case, for boarding a bus. Since I was so naïve to think that people actually wait their turn, I ended up being one of the last people on the bus and therefore had to stand the entire way from the city to the lowest, saltiest place on earth. Why would there even be a possibility to stand, you may ask? Well, turns out ticket salespeople seem to care less how many tickets are sold in relation to how many available seats there are on the bus. In other words, if customers want to buy tickets, they’re going to sell them.

But, this time I knew better! As I sat comfortably in my bus seat, we exited the busy streets of TLV, drove due-west towards Jeru, and arrived in under an hour. Once we got to the bus station, we filed into cabs and ended up getting out at Moshe Montefiore’s little city-thing right outside the walls of the Old City (if you’ve ever been to Jerusalem you know what I’m talking about. It’s the place with the big windmill). We met a tour guide there and we wound our way through the cobblestone streets of the ancient neighborhood. The tour guide—whose name is slipping my mind now—told us really old stories from people who lived in Jeru including the famous King David, whose life actually seemed like a ridiculous soap opera. No offense. However, David is where Jerusalem gets its nickname—at least according to our tour guide—The Other D.C.: David’s Capital.

After explaining to us that the only brave people to venture outside the walls of the Old City and resettle in Montefiore’s small town were the sole survivors during a horrible plague, we found ourselves entering through one of the gates. As we passed under one of the six open gates, we stopped in awe of the many bullet holes all around the entrance, engraved into the wall forever during Israel’s War for Independence in 1948.
One of the gates into the Old City
Bullet holes around the entrance

Our tour guide had told us that the Western Wall, inside of the Old City, would be extra crowded on this night before Yom Kippur because it was tradition for Jews to gather and pray together. I have been to HaKotel, the Western Wall, maybe 4 times already and never in my life would I have expected to see that many people on that special night. We approached the wall form above, admiring the awesome view of the gold roof of The Dome of the Rock, and my jaw literally dropped from the amount of people in front of the destroyed temple wall. I have never seen anything like it before (as I’m sure you can tell, this trip has already been a lot of firsts for me). Massive amounts of Jewish people were praying, crying, swaying, singing, and enjoying being in front of the holiest place for them. I somehow managed to squeeze my way to the front of the crowd overlooking the wall—we couldn’t get anywhere near it because not only the line for security to get in would have taken forever, but there was almost no room to move down there—and snap some of these pictures.
The Crowd

At the stroke of midnight, we all sang Yom Huledet Sameach, Happy Birthday, to one of the girls on the trip, Lisa, who got to celebrate her birthday in Jerusalem! Then our tour guide bid us farewell and we were free to exit the Old City and cross over into the New. Speaking of “new,” I had no idea an outdoor mall was constructed since the last time I was here 2 years and literally attached to the walls of the Old City. I walked through the new shopping center shocked to see the Gap on my right and sale signs in the window of Quiksilver to my right. Really Israel? Really? The Australian guy in my group said it had to have been an American’s idea. He’s probably right.

Some of my friends and I decided to stay in Jeru for the rest of the night and party with the locals for Lisa’s birthday. It was really a great time and although so many people were praying at the wall, there were still plenty of people celebrating the eve of the holiday in a different way. Only in Jerusalem can you visit the Wall and then party in a floor-length skirt. Here’s a picture of Julie and me excited to be on the streets of Jerusalem!
So happy to be there

The following day back in TLV, everything literally shut down for the 24 hours of Yom Kippur. Literally everything. Not even cars drove on the roads, highways, sidewalks—they park there sometimes. Everyone was walking or biking everywhere and since it is tradition to wear white on Yom Kippur, there wasn’t a person on the street who wasn’t in the crisp color. It was so cool. I kept looking around and thinking, “Wow, everyone is Jewish.” It’s still such a weird feeling for me. Some of the other participants and me followed my Israeli roommate, Oren, and his friends to the roof of a building to sing songs with other Israelis. We participated in a reformed service, but it was kindof secular too, which probably seems strange because we were celebrating a religious holiday, but there wasn’t even much mention of god. It was definitely an interesting experience not hearing any cars below us, only the sound of Hebrew songs, but it was quite difficult to follow along. Not only was everything in Hebrew, but by the time I was able to figure out what the next word was, they would already be on the next paragraph singing in a tune I had never heard before. Oh well, I’m glad I went. Afterwards, we walked through the streets of the city and made our way to the beach passing through circles of people seated in intersections singing together and taking advantage of the empty roads. There were so many kids out on bikes, rollerblades, and scooters, too. We ultimately made our way to the beach and hung out there for a while.

The next day was the fast. Pretty easy considering I woke up at 12:30 and thanks to Day Light Savings only had to fast until the sunset at 6:30. The other participants who had decided to stay in the apartments for the holiday instead of joining family or friends elsewhere all cooked a nice meal to break the fast together. Unfortunately it wasn’t the traditional American bagels and lox, but French toast and fruit salad did the trick. We all gathered on the roof terrace of the other TLV apartment and ate really quickly.

Back to reality, AKA volunteer visits and Hebrew class, this week was very emotionally difficult for me. I had opted to look at several sites this week and finally coming face-to-face with actual locations of the tough situations of the refugees and asylum seekers, I ended up crying in more than one place. Not only are living conditions horrible, their personal stories leave you heartbroken and furious with authorities abroad and domestic. My volunteering coordinator did help the situation reminding me that although not so great right now, all of the different sites are working to help these people a part of a very new phenomenon. But when you find out that a young Eritrean boy was denied the right to leave the detention center because the judge declared him to be 13 when he had promised to be aged 19, how can you not feel sorry that he has to wait another 5 years to get a job and send money home to his family in Africa?

Not to leave on a sour note, back in Israeli life, today is the holiday of Sukkot. Which pretty much means to me another day off to go to the beach. We did build a sukkah, kindof like a hut, the other night with our ulpan, Hebrew classes, which is tradition for those celebrating the holiday. Last night as I walked to meet up with my friends to go downtown, I heard extra chatter coming from the sukkahs at almost every house in my neighborhood. Since I live in a rather religious neighborhood the small structures were everywhere. I had never celebrated the holiday before so it was pretty cool to see everyone having dinner inside of the sukkah in celebration of the new harvest (I think that’s the purpose, I’m not sure).

Although I’m starting to miss Fall, I’ll be thinking of you all at the Med Sea today in the 90-degree weather! J