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.


  1. "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."

    Kol HaKavod!

    Uncle Mark