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?”