Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Window Into My Life

Jodi Becker is a 10-month Social Action track participant from Sydney, Australia. During her time on Tikkun Olam, she will be volunteering at Kav L'Oved, Kadima, and BINA. Here she gives a personal account of her first two months on the program. 

Two months ago I arrived in Israel as part of the Tikkun Olam volunteer and internship program in Tel Aviv – Jaffa. The first month here was devoted to orientation, where we had an opportunity to get to know each other, do intensive Ulpan and go on placement visits in order to start thinking about where it is that we would like to volunteer/intern. I was really grateful for this initial period, as I felt it was a time which helped me get my bearings in terms of getting a feel for how to navigate myself around the city, being able to make myself understood in basic Hebrew, building friendships with the other participants and Israeli locals and to start thinking about where it was that I wanted to volunteer.

Living within the city of Tel Aviv has also brought me a continuous stream of multifaceted enjoyment. This is a city with its own irrepressible soul - and I can say from experience that there's nowhere else like it. From the buzzing, upbeat and youthful liveliness, which is encapsulated by the hustle and bustle of going to buy fruit and vegetables at the shuk, where you can hone your bartering skills; to spending my Shabbats basking in the sun at Jaffa beach, whilst countless dogs create mini sand storms as they zip past you, and where you can be rocked by the ocean’s waves, soundtracked by the happy pings of 10,000 games of matkot and the muezzin — or Muslim calls to prayer; to dancing the night away in the countless clubs and bars all over the city, where Tel Aviv nights become Tel Aviv mornings before you know it, as "last call" only comes when the final patron has finished their drink and stumbled out the door; to the countless fresh juice stands dotted all over the city, which sell giant cups of life-giving fruit juices that taste like they were squeezed from the vine of Eden; to the relentless diversity, which is evidenced by the insane mix of ethnicities and religions, which today stir through the city; Tel Aviv is a city where you never need to be bored; it is a place where there is always something on offer, for absolutely everyone, as it is filled with countless opportunities to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

Something I’ve also enjoyed, from the very beginning, is the experience of living communally with people from all over the world. Living in an international share house, with eight housemates, is an incredibly enjoyable experience. In my house we have two Americans, from New York and California (one of whom has previously lived in Peru and speaks fluent Spanish), a Chilean, an Argentine, a Brit, three Israelis and me. It’s a truly amazing experience getting to live in such a diverse environment, with a constant stream of Hebrew, Spanish and English ringing out in the background of my daily life. It’s incredibly interesting to be exposed to such a wide variety of differing cultural perspectives on a daily basis. I feel that this experience is widening my eyes and opening my mind, simply by being constantly surrounded by such a variety of people, with differing perspectives, experiences and beliefs.

A tradition, which I have been partaking in with the other Tel Aviv participants on a regular basis, and which I enjoy a lot, is our weekly potluck Shabbat. Every Friday night we all get together and each bring a dish, or something to contribute, to my friend’s apartment. It’s really nice to have this time together, at the end of the week, to unwind and enjoy each other’s company over delicious homemade food. During this time we also go around and tell each other what the highlight of our week has been. It’s a good way to check in with each other and see what it is that is being valued most by other people who are sharing the same experience, on a weekly basis.

Ulpan has by far been one of the best on-going experiences I’ve had here in Israel. The classes are great in themselves and our teacher, Yael, is incredible. These classes make me feel so motivated to improve my Hebrew, which is reinforced by the way Israeli’s treat me when I make the effort to speak with them in it. I’ve also recently signed up for an Ulpan alternative, called This Is Not An Ulpan. This is a non-profit class devoted to food, where we meet once a week with people from all over the world to talk about food in Hebrew, as well as to cook and eat together. It’s a really unique and innovative way of learning Hebrew and becoming more comfortable speaking in it in a relaxed, fun and open environment. I’m feeling incredibly motivated to improve my Hebrew and I can’t believe how far I’ve come with it in only two months. I also find that my daily interactions with Israeli’s have become far more interesting and I feel as though they respect and accept me more, with every effort I make to converse with them in their own language.

The thing which has struck me most, and which has been the best part of my experience here so far, is the experience that I am having with Israelis. From the very beginning I have felt as though I have been welcomed into this country with open arms and have been given the feeling that I have a place here in Israel, my second home. One of my favourite things to do here is to spend time alone, exploring the city. As every time I do I am overwhelmed by the incredible experiences I have with the locals. Whether it’s an artist I met at the artist’s market, who told me of his recent trip to India over a cup of Chai; to a new friend I made sitting on a public bench, who I hardly go a day now without speaking to; to the local store owners who get excited when I make the smallest effort to speak with them in Hebrew; my amazing madricha, who has been there for me one hundred percent, whether I’ve had a fall and needed stitches, or needed advice on where to volunteer; to the countless Israelis who have offered to help me find my way whenever I’ve appeared lost; and the multiplex of other incredible experiences I have here on a daily basis. There’s without a doubt something incredibly special and unique about Israelis. They are extremely un-superficial, have a sense of care and feeling for each other (even amongst strangers), which I have not yet witnessed before, have very unique and beautiful outlooks, and ways of perceiving their surroundings, and have a way of making me feel so accepted and cared for.  I feel so comfortable here, knowing that even though Israelis can often come off as rude and abrasive on the outside, as they can be rough, pushy and brimming with chutzpah, if you push back, drop the foreign formalities, and approach them with an open mind and open heart, the people of Tel Aviv will take you in as one of their own, as when it comes to anything important they will be there completely, as on the inside they know what really matters.

My experiences with the people here have also led me to question my Jewish identity, as this is something which I had felt estranged from, for a long time in my past, and which I have been thinking about a lot during my time here. A long time ago I stopped believing in religion and started to develop my own form of spirituality to live by. Yet I had still retained a sense of cultural identity as a Jew, however this is something I hadn’t really started to explore until I came here. For the first time in my life I now really feel as though I’ve found my people, who I feel extremely connected to in ways I can’t yet explain... I feel as though the people here are tied to each other in some underlying way, as though this is a country made up of a big family, with roots going back thousands of years. Although there is simultaneously a deep divide between the religious and secular Jews, which I am aware of everyday, and which made me uncomfortable in the beginning, I am coming to understand, and come to terms with, as the way things are more and more every day. I have started to appreciate their way of life from a detached, outsider perspective and have started to really enjoy having it in the background of my life. For example, whenever there is a chag, I really enjoy sitting on my roof and listening to the festivities going on around me. As I live in Kiriyat Shalom, a religious neighborhood in South Tel Aviv, it’s easy to be a silent witness to the goings on of the religious way of life here, without having to actually partake in it at all. It’s really nice to hear people coming together, to sing, dance and eat, all united by traditions, which date back for centuries.

Volunteering has also been an amazing part of my experience here in Israel so far, although I’ve only just started and have still yet to start my most important one. After going to nearly 20 placement visits, and getting a sense of the multitude of differing placement options on offer, I have decided to volunteer my time at Kav L’Oved (which I’ve yet to start), an organization which provides help for  disadvantaged people, including refugees, migrant workers and Arab Israelis, by helping them find resilience in overcoming difficulties they face at work,  assisting them to navigate their way through legal limitations which are imposed on them, and making sure Israeli labour law is being enforced. I have just started volunteering at Kadima Youth Centre, which is a daycare centre for children aged 7-12 of African descent, where I spend my time helping kids with their homework, teaching them English and playing with them. I’m enjoying volunteering here a lot, as they soak up any information I give them like little sponges, whilst helping me to improve my Hebrew. Finally, I’m volunteering my time at Bina Secular Yeshiva, which is the only non-orthodox institute of its kind in Israel today. I really believe in this organisation, as it provides an opportunity for secular Jews to come together to learn Hebrew, Israeli history and discuss what it means to consider oneself as culturally Jewish. It’s an amazing organisation and I think it’s very important to have such an institution in Israeli life, which enables secular Jews to engage with Judaism in a way which is meaningful for them.

Looking back and thinking over my time and experiences here it’s hard to believe I’ve only been here two months. So much has happened, my thinking has been challenged in so many ways and I’m growing to love this place more and more everyday. It’s only been two months and I’m already thinking very seriously about making Aliyah, as the only recurring thought I’ve had since I’ve been here, which has really troubled me personally, is that ultimately this experience will come to an end. I love it here in Israel and everyday it starts to feel more and more like the best home I’ve ever known.  Maybe one day it really will be…

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Yom Haatzmaut at the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center

Leah Thomas is a current 5-month participant on the Coexistence Track. She spends her time interning at the Lone Soldier Center and volunteering in Jaffa. On Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, Leah and other participants of Tikkun Olam organized a Friday night dinner at the Lone Soldier Center. 

My name is Leah Thomas and I am a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. This time last year I was brainstorming what I would do after undergrad and I almost immediately realized that I wanted to travel and volunteer (more specifically I wanted to do some type of “Jewish volunteering”). After checking out my options and stumbling upon the Masa programs browser, I found Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa- a Jewish social justice program that combines seminar classes and hands on opportunities to volunteer and intern with in-need populations and non-profit organizations in South Tel Aviv for 5 or 10 months.

And here I am!...writing about one of the most wonderful experiences I have had yet, which was helping organize a Yom Ha’atzmaut Shabbat Dinner that included reading and re-interpreting Israel’s Declaration of Independence, at my main internship site, the Lone Soldier Center in Tel Aviv. But before I go in depth about this event and it’s significance, I will first explain what the Lone Soldier Center is.

Lone Soldier Center is a non-profit organization with four physical locations (in Beer Sheva, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Kibbutz Gesher in the North) that runs solely to support lone soldiers in the IDF from Israel and from abroad. The center does everything from hosting Shabbat dinners and offering a warm family environment for soldiers to assisting soldiers with literally every logistical problem they may and will encounter.

Now returning back to the topic of the Yom Ha’atzmaut Shabbat dinner... Every Shabbat dinner I have attended through Lone Soldier Center has been wonderful but the Yom Ha’atzmaut Shabbat stood out in particular. What it made it so special was, firstly, being able to celebrate Israeli independence day with the brave men and women, who left their home abroad or left their home in Israel through adverse circumstances to serve this wonderful, small and balagan country; the Jewish state. Secondly, taking the time to read over and analyze the Israeli Declaration of Independence gave this holiday extra meaning and further solidified the moral grounds that Israel was founded upon and still strives to uphold in the present. Lastly, two German members of parliament attended this event- MP Roderich Keiswetter and MP Dr. Thomas Feist. Their presence was greatly appreciated and was a unique opportunity for both the Israelis and Anglos who were there.

Not surprisingly, this event was a great success for the lone solider community, for the Daniel Centers and BINA (Tikkun Olam's parent organizations), who arranged a range of projects surrounding the Declaration of Independence around the country, and for my other outstanding friends from Tikkun Olam. My time at the Lone Soldier Center has exposed me to people and narratives that I would never have had the opportunity of being in contact with or knowing of normally. Also, a huge moment of thanks and recognition should be  given to the staff and volunteers who make the Lone Soldier Center run and for the lone soldiers themselves, who are human symbols of what it means to be a hero and a leader. Every day they do their service for Israel out of their own will, compassion and ambition and for that, all I can say is “Kol Hakavod and Toda Raba!”    

Tikkun Olam participants at the dinner

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tel Aviv - The Complex City

Aviva Kraus is a current 5-month participant from Los Angeles. As a participant on the Social Action Track, she is volunteering at LATET, the HaTikvah Elderly Center, the Lone Soldier Center, Bat Yam Urban Farm, and the SPCA.  Here she gives her take on life in Tel Aviv. 

Kiryat Shalom is an intriguing mix of Bukharan Jews, from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and asylum-seekers and migrant workers from Eritrea, Sudan, and the Philippines. Our next-door neighbors have a big family with lots of kids and a grumpy cat. I am almost always aware of their presence, due to amazing smells coming from their kitchen, a bickering husband and wife, crying children, or a meowing cat. Our downstairs neighbors have big Shabbat dinners every Friday night, which they spend the whole day preparing for. My favorite neighbor is a very friendly little old man with a powder blue motorcycle and sidecar who rides around all day and waves to us when he sees us walking around town. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but we often “Ha Kol B’seder?” each other when we pass in the hall. The apartment is definitely not glamorous, but I’ve been pretty happy here. I love my room. I put up a couple posters and have a big bed. My roommates love my room, too, which makes me happy. We often hang out on my bed and congregate in there to make plans or get ready to go out in the evenings.  There’s a window right over my bed that I open as soon as I wake up every morning, giving me a chance to hear the weird call of our resident owl and let the sunshine in. I also have a beautiful view of the sunset through some palm trees if I happen to be in my room around 6pm.

Israel is so complex. Seriously, nothing is simple here. There are all the big international political issues, but there are also just a whole host of internal social, political and economic problems, much like any country has. But I think some of them are unique to Israel in that it is one of the most welcoming/modern/accessible countries in the Middle East. Israel, much like America, is a country mostly made up of immigrants. In multiple waves, people have come here from different places and developed different perceptions of what Israel is or should be. Sometimes Israel feels like a huge mess of wires or necklace chains that are crissed crossed looped and twisted around each other, completely intertwined yet never really seeming to connect fully in any places from beginning to end. Does that make any sense? That being said, I have never really felt that out of place in Tel Aviv, because there isn’t really an in place here.
Yesterday I was walking to Shuk HaCarmel with two of my roommates and we came upon a man who was lying on his side, seemingly choking and flailing around. With a panicked look in his eyes, he attempted to claw at his face. No one was helping, though one woman was calling an ambulance and a couple others were standing in shock. Then, the arab shopkeeper in front of whose shop this seizing man was laying bent down and lifted the man’s head so it was propped on a mound of plastic bags. An ashkenazi woman knelt down to communicate with the man, and helped the first man maneuver a bottle cap into the man’s mouth so he didn’t bite his tongue or lip. She handed me the leash to her dog, who kept trying to jump on her owner’s thigh with panicked squeals. A black woman hovered over them both, muttering suggestions every so often. Other than holding back the barking spitfire, I tried to help - especially since I had come upon a man in Los Angeles a few months ago who was also mid-seizure. I was able to help a little bit back then, but because I don’t yet speak good enough Hebrew, there was not much I could do yesterday. I looked the man in the eyes a few times and told him, using my limited Hebrew, that it would be okay and that someone was coming. I did the same in English, and I asked around to make sure someone had called and would stay with him before I walked away. But because I couldn’t verbally communicate, I was pretty unhelpful. Maybe I’m reading too much into the situation, but I realized that despite the fact that all three of these altruistic individuals probably had vastly different backgrounds and potentially held different political and/or religious beliefs, they were all still connected, and able to work together to help save this epileptic man who was lying, helpless on the ground.
Anyway, I think it’s impossible not to read complexity into theoretically simple moments when you’re living in Tel Aviv- impossible not to think about things like race, religion, politics, gender, health care, culture clash, immigration, or poverty. Unless one is purposefully staying eyes closed ears covered, and even then it’s difficult. From the homeless Russian immigrants without medical insurance who pick at their bleeding, swollen legs while begging for change outside the central bus station, to the thousands of black asylum seekers who can’t gain employment because they are not yet technically “refugees” and whose backstories I can only imagine, to the Jewish Israelis like Sarit, who works at the grocery store by my house and whose older son just joined the IDF last week, there is so much. It’s overwhelming and intriguing. But, like Sarit told me when I asked her whether she was afraid for her son, “That’s just part of life here.”
(I took this picture down the street from my apartment. The graffiti says “whoever doesn’t reuse or recycle is crazy…”)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My amazing 5 months in Tel Aviv

Samantha Beers has just returned home to Boston after her 5 months on the Social Action track. She will be returning to her job as a Special Education teacher. As she settles back into life in the US, she is already adding touches of her deeper connection to Judaism and Israel to her life and home. She recently hung a beautiful Israeli mezuzah to the door of her new apartment.
Here she describes her experiences on Tikkun Olam, and the effect it had on her. 

Five months ago, I started on what became an incredible adventure. When I signed up for Tikkun Olam, I kept getting asked, "What will you be doing in Israel?", "Why do you want to go there?", "Why can’t  you just work with kids in another state?", "What do you want from this experience?" All the questions were so overwhelming. I had left a great teaching job to take this opportunity and taken a big risk, but let me tell you it was the best decision of my life.

My time is this program was well spent. Every Sunday, I took classes on issues that Israel is facing, participated in a course that dug deeper into the Torah, and took a 3 hour course to learn Hebrew. Our Sundays, were full of group discussions and questions typically leading to everyone forming their own questions that we were all hoping to find answers to. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, I was volunteering with 5 different programs. The best part of volunteering was that it was so individualized. My focus was on teaching and working with children but there were opportunities to work with refugees, elderly, and honestly anything you were interested in. The program coordinators either had connections to places or would help you find something that fit your interest.

 Mondays were split between Beit Holland and Lilach. Beit Holland is a kindergarten program for students with multiple disabilities. The staff was incredible and you just couldn’t help but fall in love with all the children ! Lilach was an afterschool program for at-risk and low-income families. I always looked forward to sitting around the table eating with all the kids, playing soccer, coloring, playing games, and especially going all out for their birthdays. On Tuesdays, I spent my mornings at Mikveh Israel. I really enjoyed teaching English to 11th and 12th graders with behavioral issues. It was a great challenge and in the process I learned so much from the staff and students. At night, I was making a quick outfit change to help out at Etgarim. This is an incredible bicycle program working with children and adults with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. Every week, I met another amazing individual who touched my life. I loved riding on a tandem bike or riding along with someone through the paths to the beach. It was a great way to get to know one another and a way to build trust. On Thursdays, I volunteered at Beit Holland and spent my afternoons at Sexual Assault Center. For 4 months, I was tagging, organizing, and putting together clothes for a huge Bazaar with around 500 designers. This event was huge and was going to help raise money for the center. In the end it was so successful! 

Sam at the MLK event she helped organize
On Wednesdays, we took classes that discussed Jewish identity, Zionism, and Jewish Cinema. I always looked forward to Wednesdays because we also got the chance to do presentations on places we were volunteering at and could present on things that we were interested in.

My weekends were spent traveling around the country with or without the program. I went to Eilat, the Golan Heights, the Negev, the Judean Desert and many other great places! We even traveled with the group during the week to explore parts of Israel that we were learning about in our classes.
Overall, 5 months flew by but this program made it possible to accomplish so much in so little time. I was able to help children, really focus on my own Jewish identity and learn about all the conflicts and amazing things that are all taking place in this small country that we love so much! Tikkun Olam is a great program and while after all my experiences, I am now heading back to Boston to a teaching position in a 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade special education class. Tikkun Olam will always have a special place in my heart <3

Sunday, January 19, 2014

March For Freedom: We are Refugees

Social Action Track participants on Tikkun Olam are based in the South Tel Aviv area, neighborhoods with a diverse and multi-cultural population. One group of people living there are the African refugees, whose plight has recently been the center of much debate in Israeli politics and media.

Two of our participants give their take on the situation, and talk about their experiences with this community.

Leah Rosenberg is a 10-month Social Action track participant from Alberquerque, New Mexico, who is volunteering in a number of different organizations aiding the refugee population.

On December 15th over 150 African refugees from Sudan and Eritrea marched from a detention facility in Israel’s Negev to the Knesset in Jerusalem to fight for their lives. More than 50,000 Africans have come to Israel in the past decade, fleeing civil war, oppressive regimes, and ethnic cleansing. Many were smuggled to the Israeli border by Bedouin kidnappers who subjected them to physical and psychological torture. Upon arriving in Israel, over four hundred such asylum seekers have been imprisoned for their “illegal infiltration” into the state. 
Asylum Seeker protest in Israel
I’ve heard stories like this before. We read articles about the plight of refugees and immigrants fleeing from unimaginable horrors; we hear the excuses and political rhetoric that emerge in host states; we know about the complex legal battles these individuals face, the criminalization of immigration, and the extreme racism and xenophobia that greets them when they finally arrive in new supposedly free lands. In certain ways I thought I had become numb to such stories. It seemed distant, far removed from my own life and experience. It was horrible, no doubt, but not something tangible or personal in any way. But last month, my perspective changed.
After living in Israel for four months I have become part of a complex, frustrating, and deeply troubling situation unfolding in South Tel Aviv. Through my participation in a social action program called Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa I have worked with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that serve African asylum seekers, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea. I work in their neighborhood, babysit their kids at a daycare center, accompany new mothers and their children to doctors’ appointments, and teach them English. Through these volunteer placements, organized by the Tikkun Olam program, I have seen a population that works hard in the face of complete uncertainty, a people that supports each other, creating networks and organizations to meet the needs of the community. But I have also seen the racism they face, the obstacles to freedom and economic security, and their struggle towards an uncertain future. The articles published about their plight are no longer just words on a page or troubling accounts of something far away. It is the story of people I have met, the parents of children I babysit, the peaceniks and advocates I have the pleasure of meeting and working with every day. 
On December 15th I marched with them. When I arrived at the Knesset I anticipated something far different than what greeted me on that snowy day in Jerusalem. I knew that 48 hours earlier over 150 asylum seekers left the detention center they were being held at in the desert, walked six hours to the closest city, and proceeded north towards Jerusalem, helped along the way by human rights activists and a hospitable kibbutz. When I heard their story I presumed the marchers would be angry, possibly hostile. I know I would have been given their situation. After all, the one democracy in the region, the one place within “walking distance” that was supposedly a friendly host for those fleeing persecution, was keeping them locked up. But that was not what I saw on that afternoon. Huddled together, probably in part for warmth, these 150 detained refugees, alongside their friends living in Israel and the advocates working alongside them, quietly chanted: “We are refugees. We are not criminals.” Chanting this phrase over and over, in both English and Hebrew, they remained calm and collected. I was in awe of their patience and their determination. After fleeing the detention center they could have run for their lives and attempted to find work illegally in Israel or hide out in a friend’s home somewhere in Tel Aviv. But they didn’t. They chose to protest publicly and raise their voices in pursuit of justice. They held signs citing the Torah, reminding Jews to “welcome the stranger.” They quoted activists like Nelson Mandela, and proclaimed that they too, were entitled to basic human rights. With resolution and a spirit, a ruach, unlike anything I have ever seen, they demanded freedom.
What unfolded after was nothing short of a tragedy. Immigration police officers, armed and ready, stormed into the protest and began to break up what was possibly one of the tamest political protests in Israel’s history. I was standing right there as these officers pursued what I can only describe as a racist strategy. If you were black, they grabbed you by the collar or the shoulders and dragged you from the march onto a bus just a few meters away. If you were white you were asked to step aside. Most protestors simply sat down on the wet pavement and waited. The officers would gang up, often three or more to a single person and violently remove them from the scene; they put these young men and women in headlocks, pushed and prodded them, until, after 20 or so minutes, the black faces that had comprised the majority of the march were gone and all that remained were articles of clothing, wet, torn and abandoned signs asking for freedom, and fifteen white Israeli activists screaming “we are refugees.” I stood helpless on the side of the street, in total and complete shock. Where was the law in this? How can such actions be considered moral or humane? What happened to the Jewish values that supposedly drive and define this state? It was the Africans, the Christians, and Muslims in the crowd that reminded us of what it means to be Jewish. 
Just two hours later, I had the opportunity to meet with Ruth Calderon, a member of the Yesh Atid party and a strong voice for civil rights in Israel. I visited the Knesset that afternoon with 200 young Jews from around the world as part of the Masa Leadership Summit. When I asked her about the anti-infiltration law that allowed for the detention of the men and women I had just marched with, she told our group that as difficult as the situation is, she supports the detention policy. She explained that Israel cannot be held responsible for all those in Africa who are subjected to economic or political distress; Israel does not have the capacity to house all the world’s suffering. She said that if we let these thousand refugees stay freely in Israel, then another thousand and another thousand will come. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was to announce that the refugees had two options: stay in detention or return to the lands that had persecuted them. In other words, stay jailed or risk death. Political responses to this situation have continued to shock me. They harken back 65 years to the Jewish pleas heard from Eastern Europe. As Jewish refugees fled for their lives, desperately seeking refuge, most western nations offered similar arguments: we can’t house them, it’s not our responsibility, we sympathize but who are we to get involved?

Israel has to be better than this. We know. We were there. Israel is a state built by refugees, a homeland whose vision is grounded in social justice and freedom. It is time to do more. It is time to stop accepting detention as the best solution. It is time to speak up for the 55,000 refugees currently residing in the State of Israel. It is time to stop making excuses. Israel does not have to take responsibility for all those who suffer, but we must care for those who are already here. Because as those 15 Israelis proclaimed after all the African marchers were detained, WE are refugees. We know the struggle they are facing. And we have to act. Now. 

Zoe Baker is a 10-month Social Action track participant from Denver, Colarado. She is spending her time here volunteering at a Mesila (a refugee daycare), Hagar & Miriam (a non-profit aiding pregnant refugees), and the African Refugee Development Center. 

Five months ago I came to Israel as part of Tikkun Olam to work with the refugee population. I was generally well informed regarding refugees on an international basis but knew nothing of the status of refugees in Israel. Until I spoke with the program coordinator before applying to the program, I was unaware there were refugees fleeing from Africa to Israel. With the focus on other issues facing Israel, little attention is paid to the plight of refugees who have few rights in Israel.

With my program I volunteer with an organization, Mesila, that helps children of asylum seekers and migrant workers find a day care for their children. Most people from this population cannot afford private day care and don't qualify for state-sponsored ones. I also work with Hagar and Miriam which assists pregnant refugees with the medical process in Israel. In addition, Tikkun Olam helped me obtain an internship with the relocation team at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in south Tel Aviv, which is my primary opportunity to interact with the refugee population. The ARDC is an NGO that works with refugees on education, visas and relocation/family reunification. Since then, I've fully learned to appreciate the objectivity of studying the topic in college opposed to being immersed in it, all day.

My first day at ARDC, my project coordinator told me that the most important aspect of my job was keeping my client's expectations realistic. Little did I know an equal challenge would be monitoring my own expectations. Rarely we are able to offer refugees a glimmer of hope by informing them there is something we can do to help them relocate to another country- this must be tempered by advising them that there is a two to seven-year waiting period.

Monitoring my own expectations has been equally as hard. There have been many "firsts" since I arrived in Israel: I'd never told a person in need that there was nothing I could do to help them; never seen a deportation letter or seven-day notice; never watched refugees loaded onto a bus like criminals; met victims of torture and observed firsthand the after affects of their trauma; never visited a detention facility for refugees; never had someone ask me how to report the murder of a friend who had been with them when they were kidnapped. I no longer have unrealistic ideas about helping refugees get settled in Israel. Instead I help this vulnerable population with the harsh reality that there are no options for them here and the majority of my week consists of helping refugees leave the country.

The best part of my day involves appreciating the little things-the rare times that theres something I can do to help someone. This may include helping refugees fill out a Sponsorship Agreement Holder application with Canada, one of the few countries with sponsorship programs, and the only country that still allows refugees from Israel to apply (refugees in Israel are not granted refugee status); or helping a man register for computer technician classes who had had all his fingers on one hand removed in a torture camp in the Sinai yet still had a positive outlook on life.

However, the majority of my day is spent handling the fallout of refugees crushed dreams for a better life. One tragic story after another: the man released from the Israeli detention facility for 30 days to try and get his pregnant wife out of the Sinai but he doesnt have the $300,00 ransom and doesnt know what happened to her; the woman telling me about the dead bodies left next to her at night when she was locked in a basement while being trafficked by Bedouins and how they would electrocute her and burn her with cigarettes. And the steady line of people on the verge of tears asking me in broken English or Hebrew how I can help them only to be told theres nothing I can do. 

During the Masa Leadership Summit in Jerusalem, I went to the refugee protest at the Knesset. The refugees had marched from the newly opened detention facility, built to house the refugee population, to Jerusalem to protest their treatment as criminals in Israel and their lack of rights. The event resulted in the refugees being dragged on to busses by immigration police to be bussed back to Holot with me left crying in the snow while the media took pictures. On a positive note the protest inspired the March for Freedom in which I have taken an active role. But it also culminated in my working the front desk when panicked refugees came in with their “invitations” from the Ministry of Interior to report to the detainment facility and my feeling helpless once again when I tell them I don't know how, or if, ARDC can help. Refugees now seek advice whether they should renew their conditional release visas every three months as required,when the likely result is that they will be given orders to report to the detention facility, or even be outright denied a new visa.

My time in Israel has made me question where are the Jewish ideals I grew up with. Here I am, living in a country that accepts me because Im Jewish, that is supposed to be governed by Jewish values. Every time I hear an Israeli use the n-word Im reminded these werent people who were involved in the American Civil Rights movement for the equality of African Americans. Every time I hear government officials and news outlets provide false information about refugees being infiltrators or migrant workers and the need for their deportation I am furious. The irony is, this is all taking place in a country founded by refugees that is now violating refugeesrights and locking them in detention facilities. Somewhere along the way Israel forgot what it was like when they were strangers and when their rights were being violated. 

As Elie Wiesel said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Hopefully pressure from the international community can help remind them.