Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trying to Kiss the Shore

Tori Maidenberg, originally from Houston, Texas, is one of Tikkun Olam's 10-month Social Action Track participants. Tori shares with us what her first month in Israel has been like, and what this Yom Kippur means to her. 

As Yom Kippur descends upon us tonight, I’m forced to look inward to reflect on the past year. Why did I come to Israel? What does Israel mean to me? Can I both love and criticize her at the same time? What does being Jewish mean to me? What do I want to get out of Yom Kippur this year?

The whole country will become silent on Yom Kippur. Cars, buses, and taxis will all disappear, stores and restaurants will be closed, and what I’m most looking forward to this Yom Kippur is answering all those above questions. This year, my Yom Kippur is a quest to find meaning and what better way to do it than to give back to a country I hold dear to my heart through volunteering? I wrote the below poem in an in-class exercise with Tikkun Olam. It represents my hopes and anxieties for answering these questions within the next 10 months:

Lost at sea, I am reflected in the sparkling, cold waters.
Still, silent—I am here lost at sea.
In the distance, a relentless wave never stops trying to kiss the shore.
I think to myself.
It is sweet to kiss the shore,
But even sweeter when you arrive just to be sent back.

I chose to join this program because every time I inched closer to a fuller picture of Israel, I was sent back once again—just like the wave trying to kiss the shore. Since we arrived here 3 weeks ago, we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly (and we only just begun). We run into paradoxes every day, some more comical than others: like the Tel Aviv Mayor making illegal the Kapparot tradition of swinging a chicken around one’s head in order to cast sins away, whilst no resolution has been found for the thousands of stray cats that roam Israel’s streets (but, hey, at least some chickens won’t die this year on Yom Kippur). And other paradoxes are a bit harder to grapple with such as the dialectic between a religious and secular state. Between safety & security on the one hand and racism & exclusivity on the other, and the survival of one people’s identity but in consequence of the uncertainty of another.

If anything, what I have taken away from our seminars and discussions in the Tikkun Olam program is that sometimes there are no solutions. Oftentimes, the world will give us dichotomies and it is up to us to go beneath the surface in order to find various shades of gray. Within these dichotomies we may stumble upon complicated paradoxes and instead of acting upon an immediate yearning to solve them, maybe it’s best that we sit back and first listen. Once we do, we can inch closer toward the shore—and maybe this time we won’t be sent back.

On a more lighthearted note… I love living in South Tel Aviv. Sure the Central Bus Station could use a good cleaning and might be rough around the edges but to me its ruggedness is precisely its charm. At night I return home to our apartment in Kiryat Shalom, a religious Jewish neighborhood, and between the Tallit and Yarmulke I feel both safe and uneasy. On the one hand, these are my people but, on the other, I feel so different to them. Something a Tikkun Olam staff member said in one of our seminars reminds me though that it’s not necessarily about reconciling these conflicted feelings so much as it is necessary to understand them.

Every day I’m getting the hang of what it means to be a Tel-Avivian more and more. With my shiny new (well used, but new to me J) bike, I feel a sense of freedom like never before, and I’m most excited to explore this city on wheels.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yom Ha'atzmaut in the Classroom

Sage Paquette-Cohen, originally from Boston, MA  is a 10-month Internship Track participant. Throughout her time on Tikkun Olam Sage has been interning at the Holland House, a therapeutic rehabilitation center for children with special needs,  and volunteering at the Women's Court, an open space for girls at-risk in Jaffa, as well as Save a Child's Heart (SACH), an organization which provides heart surgeries for children from developing countries.

Just after returning to my normal work schedule following Pesach break, I noticed Israeli flags lining the either side of the street whilst waiting at a bus stop in Jaffa. I had been so busy with volunteering and classes that I had almost forgotten about the approaching holidays: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

In the weeks following, we would discuss the meaning behind and the importance of each holiday as a group. As an American, I was interested in learning how much U.S. Memorial Day (a holiday that is often overlooked or rendered insignificant by furniture sales and backyard barbeques) differs from Yom Hazikaron. The latter is, undoubtedly, a day that is observed and honored by much of Israeli society. Unfortunately, because of Israel’s mandatory military service, many people have been directly affected by the loss of a loved one caused by acts of war and violence since the country’s inception. To pay respect to those fallen soldiers, people attend memorial ceremonies, wear white clothing, and observe a 2-minute siren that sounds nationwide on the evening before and morning of Yom Hazikaron. Naturally, the day is very somber and I didn’t feel completely comfortable partaking in many of the day’s activities as a bystander who has trouble comprehending the kind of pain that comes with losing a loved one to war.

Aside from my discomfort at the prospect of attending the day’s events as a “tourist”, I was also taken aback  by the rift that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut create in Israeli society. This became startlingly clear to me during work on Memorial Day. I intern at the Holland Center, a daycare and rehabilitation center for disabled toddlers in Jaffa. The Center employs both Jewish and Arab teachers; this is usually not an issue, as all of the staff members take their jobs very seriously and adore the children they care for. The contrast between the two groups, however, becomes more obvious when religion enters the classroom. Because the Holland Center is funded by the Tel Aviv Municipality and is, for all intents and purposes, a preschool, Jewish education is a part of the classroom “curriculum”. The children learn about approaching Jewish holidays by way of arts and crafts and song, and Yom Ha’atzmaut was no different. On the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut (which happens to be Yom Hazikaron), the Holland Center threw a party complete with Israeli songs honoring the country’s independence, tiny Israeli flags that were passed out to each child, and even an Israel-themed cake. It was clear that this level of Zionism, both its presence in the classroom and the fact that it was being introduced to a group of two-year olds from a myriad of different backgrounds, made the teachers uneasy. In the midst of this celebration, the Memorial siren sounded. One by one, the teachers stood -- all but two women, both wearing hijabs, and both looking exceedingly uncomfortable with the situation. 

I’ve thought a lot about that two-minute siren since that day. After pondering it for a long time and working through a number of emotions, I can honestly say that this is just one more example of how utterly confusing and conflicting my life in Israel has been. Although, as a Jew, I naturally feel more a part of the Jewish-Israeli part of society here, living in a primarily Arab community through holidays that celebrate the independence and religious nature of this country has challenged me in ways that I still haven’t processed fully. It will take a long time, I think, to understand my stance on the issues that afflict society here; but I am grateful for the opportunity to ponder these questions in a critical and tough way. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Tikkun Olam Experience

Becca Schwartz, originally from San Francisco, California, is a Tikkun Olam Spring 2015 participant. Becca volunteers at Terem Refugee Clinic, as well as ARDC - African Refugee Development Center. Becca shares with us her experience thus far on Tikkun Olam! 

  I first heard about Tikkun Olam through my birthright trip and I knew immediately I wanted to be part of the program. I fell in love with Tel Aviv and my interests lie in psychosocial work with disadvantaged populations, so this program was exactly what I was looking for post graduation. I applied for the internship track and once I arrived here I chose to do my internship at Terem, the refugee hospital clinic at the Central Bus Station. I spend most of my time at this clinic every week and for a few hours on Wednesday nights I volunteer at ARDC (African Refugee Development Center).
The asylum seeker situation in Israel is complicated and you cannot truly understand it until you get here and experience it first hand. It is mostly one big “balagan” which is Hebrew for fiasco or chaos. That being said, there are many organizations trying to assist by promoting advocacy, awareness, and policy change.  Both my internship and volunteer hours are spent at two of these organizations. At Terem I work in reception and take on special projects for the clinic. At ARDC I help applicants fill out Refugee Status Determination forms. Both places I work not only allow me to provide aid to this population (which primarily comes from Eritrea), but work along side them. My co-workers and clients are wonderful. They have taught me what true strength, compassion, and determination looks like. It is through these experiences, I have kept a positive and hopeful out look on the complicated asylum seeker situation. It is my hope that the Israeli government will adapt a better system to determine refugee status and no longer keep this population in a legal status limbo. 

            When I first got here adjusting to Israeli culture was a bit tough. The cultural norms are pretty different from California where I was born and raised. But after living here for two and half months I understand why the word “sabra” is used to describe Israelis. The word refers to a cactus that is prickly on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. This is a perfect description of my interactions here. It might be little intimidating at first but know that the kindness you will encounter here will be like unlike any you have experienced before. Israelis truly are the most genuine people I have ever met.
            Everyday I am here I discover more and more about this beautiful city. There is always a new food to try, a new street to explore, and a new face eager to talk to you. I am excited to see what the next two and half months hold.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Standing up to the South Tel Aviv Stigma

Natalie Astor, from Potomac, MD, is a 5-month Internship Track participant. She is interning at the Terem Refugee Health Clinic, and volunteering at Kadima Wolfson, a community after-school program for children in South Tel Aviv. 

After studying abroad and interning in Tel Aviv for almost 8 months last year, I thought that I left with a deep connection to the city and a sense of understanding and belonging. However, in all my time living, learning, and experiencing life in Tel Aviv, I never once ventured into South Tel Aviv. Not only was this a place that I did not feel the need to go, but a place I purposefully tried to avoid. Being a naïve newcomer to Israel as a whole, I pretty much started on a clean slate and developed my outlook over time based off the information I gleaned from others. My first exposure to the notion of division in the city was when my friend and I were planning a trip to Jerusalem and our ulpan teacher told us not to go to the central bus station (located in South Tel Aviv), but to go to one in the center of the city. When we asked why, she simply said that it was a bad area of town that we should avoid and we would not be safe there. Another time, I wanted to buy a bike located in South Tel Aviv, but when I spoke to my friends about going to look at it, they said I should only go to look if it is during the day and I am not alone.

A year later when I told my friends and colleagues that I was going back to the city I loved and that brought me so much happiness, I was confronted with mixed reactions. Nearly everyone I encountered was supportive of the service work I would be doing, but those who were familiar with Tel Aviv advised me not to go to South Tel Aviv (or live there) and to be careful. They said it was “another world” and that it was too dangerous for me. Even people I spoke to in Israel tried to instil a sense of fear within me by telling me that South Tel Aviv, and the bus station in particular where I would be working, is not only the worst part of Tel Aviv, but the worst part of the country.

This whole time, I was basing my judgments off of the opinions of others, not any experiences or interactions I personally had. Living and interning in South Tel Aviv for nearly three months now has truly opened my eyes to another world, both positively to diverse and vibrant cultures, and negatively to the radical polarization and exclusivity exhibited by many in Israeli society. I’m currently interning at the Terem Refugee Health Clinic at the Central Bus Station, which offers an array of subsidized medical services to asylum seekers that are not covered by the national health insurance law, which provides universal health care to all Israeli citizens. It is a bit ironic to me that the national insurance law, affirming access to health care as a fundamental and collective right, would in reality not be universal and exclude a significant portion of the population.

The failure of the Israeli health system to include the asylum seeker population under the national health insurance law demonstrates the larger problem of the government’s unwillingness to grant this population refugee status. Though the terms are often used synonymously, asylum seekers and refugees are quite different in that asylum seekers are not entitled to the same civil rights and social benefits as refugees. While thousands of asylum seekers have fled persecution and sought refuge in Israel, only a small percentage have been granted refugee status. Not only is this distinction damaging in terms of access to rights, but the failure to grant refugee status downplays and disregards the terror, hardship, and violence these people endured before they arrived here. It pains me that after all the asylum seekers overcame to get here, they are still denied the basic opportunity to better themselves and have limits placed on their aspirations. Interning at the clinic has allowed me to interact with the asylum seeker community in a variety of capacities. I get to work with many Eritrean staff members, work in reception at the clinic, complete patient histories, and conduct research in order to develop a chronic disease workshop for the clinic. Whether I am sitting in reception trying to communicate with a mother about her baby being sick, or asking a patient about their symptoms to produce their medical record, I am exposed to the humanity and humility of individuals that want the best for themselves and their families.

 It is easy to get swept up into all that Tel Aviv has to offer (the nightlife, coffee shops, beaches, etc.) and to live in a bubble, blind to the struggles and challenges faced by those living right next door. As difficult as it is, more people need to take a step and face the harsh reality, in which the same place that is welcoming and allows so many thrive and enjoy life, can also be exclusive and stifling to others. The division of South Tel Aviv from the rest of Tel Aviv is indicative, to me, of the treatment of asylum seekers and migrant workers by the greater society; as outsiders, infiltrators, and those that are not welcome. The purposeful attempt to restrict asylum seekers acts to separate them from the rest of Israeli society and make them want to leave. Many people in Israeli society readily assign blame and hatred to the asylum seeker community, without even knowing them or giving them a chance. Characterizing South Tel Aviv negatively not only perpetuates a cycle of fear and hopelessness, but exacerbates the consequences of categorizing people as others and forgetting that they are human too. We need to stop simply putting a label on South Tel Aviv as different and integrate it into Tel Aviv and Israel as a whole. We need to put off finding a solution and recognize that the asylum seekers deserve better.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rachel Allen, from California via Colorado, is a participant on our Joint MA track with the Hebrew University. She is spending her year interning at Mesila as well as completing an MA in Non-Profit Management.
Oy, have I been busy! With school, my internship, my program and trying to maintain a life on top of it, I feel like the only reason I come back to the apartment is to sleep.

I love my grad program and find the classes to be very interesting and stimulating. Here is my class list:
Internship Workshop
Leadership and Social Responsibility
The Third Sector and Civil Society
Project Workshop
Organizational Theory for Non-Profits
Philanthropy and Civil Society
Researching Nonprofits
NGO Finances
It’s eight classes in two days. On Monday we start at 12:30 pm and are done at 6:00 pm and on Wednesdays we start at 10:30 am and finish at 8:00 pm with only 30 minutes breaks between each classes. Cap on either end of that over a two hour commute one way and it makes for some long, exhausting days. Each class assigns a lot of weekly reading and small papers as well. It’s proving a challenge to stay on top of it all.
On Sunday and Tuesday, I am at my internship. I intern at Mesila which is an NGO located in South Tel Aviv, where most of the refugee and asylum seeker community has settled. Most of the community fled from Sudan and Eritrea, walked through the Sinai Desert seeking safety in Israel. Mesila seeks to aid the children of this community. The parents work long, hard hours away from home. Because they are considered illegal, they are often exploited and paid very, low wages. They need a place to keep their children, so the community response to this has been the creation of around 70 illegal “babysitters”. What these places look like, generally, is an unventilated, small apartment that is filled with cribs. There are up to 30 children with one caregiver who only has time to look after their basic needs. There are no enrichment or development activities given to the children. All they do is eat and sleep for up to 12 hours a day. Some children get so bored, they start digging holes in the wall. They are starved of human affection and touch. It’s really heartbreaking.
Mesila seeks to address the phenomena on three levels; the individual level, the community level and the policy level. They put social workers and therapists into the babysitters to try to improve the settings for the children and also to identify the at-risk children and get them into a better environment. For instance, one social worker saw a three year old child who was not walking, only crawling. She got her to a doctor immediately and as it turns out, the child’s leg had been broken for several days and no one noticed or thought to take her in.  At the community level, Mesila tries to partner with community leaders and parents through various programs and sessions, to give them them the tools and knowledge so they may advocate for a better environment for their children. Lastly, at the policy level, Mesila is trying to spread awareness of the issue and pressure the government to take notice of the phenomena and create some reforms.
The babysitters is just the main issue that Mesila is trying to change. They offer such a broad range of services to help combat other risks that a child from this community may be exposed to, such as violence and sexual abuse.
If you would like to read more about the organization, the issue as well as see some pictures, check out this website:  http://friendsofmesila.weebly.com/
My internship is working with the fundraising department. I just helped complete a grant application to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which was a lot of work but was rewarding.
Something a little lighter
My Tuesdays look like this: I go to my internship from the morning to the late afternoon, then a cafe to read and study and finally to an Ulpan class (where I learn conversational Hebrew). I don’t get home till around ten in the evening.
One Tuesday evening, my roommate and I had just finished our readings and we were gathering our stuff to walk to Ulpan when we realized we were a little early. We decided to walk to the beach to bury our feet in the sand for a few minutes to kill some time.
I have a tendency to focus on how I’m feeling right in the moment, like how tired I am or how overwhelmed I am feeling at the amount of things I am committed to in my life, that it’s sometimes hard to stop and pull myself out of it to look at the bigger picture and also notice nice moments in life.
The few minutes on the beach, I was suddenly able to do just that. I realized that I spent my morning writing a grant to the United Nations to bring in the much needed funds that would directly improve the life of a child, then I studied in an artsy cafe in the heart of Tel Aviv, and suddenly found myself on the beach looking at the beautifully lit, old city of Jaffa against the dark night sky and listening to the crashing of the waves on the quiet beach before I was about to head to Ulpan where I would discuss interesting subjects in Hebrew with people from all over the world. That was probably the longest run on sentence I have ever written but my point is, although I often get bogged down by normal life things (like I’m sure we all do), I’m really happy with what I am doing on a day to day basis and I’m writing it down here so that tomorrow when I forget, you guys can remind me! :)