Thursday, December 4, 2014
Sarah Sheafer is a current Tikkun Olam volunteer from Indianapolis. As a participant on the Coexistence Track, she spends her time interning at the Windows – Channels for Communication and volunteering with children in Jaffa.
Silence consumed the room as I stared into the eyes of three teenage girls. It wasn’t until one of them blinked did I clear my throat and continue with the next activity. Being a 22-year-old Jewish American, I feel somewhat out of place. I teach English once a week at an all Arab high school in Jaffa as a participant on the volunteer program Tikkun Olam. I don’t feel out of place because of the Arabic written all over the white board or because I don’t wear a headscarf like my students. Nor do I necessarily feel out of place because I “look” different. I feel out of place because they know I’m Jewish.
As I now reflect on that day, I remember the anxious feeling that spread throughout my body when one of my students asked me in the middle of our lesson, “Are you Christian?” I had paused for a second before answering “no.” She then asked me, “Are you Jewish?” For some reason, I experienced a mixture of reluctance and guilt when I told them “yes.” I was shocked she would ask me this the first day of class, but I also expected it coming from a girl who cannot escape the religious tension surrounding her life.
Later that day, I went on a run along the coast. Usually when I run alone, I tune out the world around me by listening to music. But this time, I decided to open myself up to the many sounds of Jaffa. As I ran farther south, I began to hear more Arabic and less Hebrew. The tidbits of conversations I heard were both foreign and familiar. When I listened to people speaking in Arabic, sometimes I would recognize a word or two. After having studied a little of both Arabic and Hebrew, I knew they were similar languages, but the words I recognized weren’t just “similar” words; they were Hebrew words spoken by Palestinians to other Palestinians. For the first time, I intensely observed the people around me as I tried to remember all that I had witnessed since coming here. Experiences that had just been “experiences,” suddenly became much more than a mere moment of happiness, sadness or bewilderment. They became living and breathing insights into life in Israel and the conflict that plagues this region.
|Sarah's view on her run in Jaffa|
Hearing Palestinians use Hebrew words in their daily speech should have made me feel happy, and maybe at the very least, indifferent. In Jaffa, Jews, Christians and Muslims coexist, and it’s not uncommon for Palestinians here to speak fluently in Hebrew. But something felt wrong. I began to reflect on everything I had observed since being here. At the same time, I analyzed the meaning of the word “coexistence.” In Jaffa, I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable being Jewish because it is known as a place of coexistence, but I can’t help but feel like I am intruding. The degree to which tension fills even a city like Jaffa makes me wonder the authenticity of this “coexistence.” Beneath the exterior of this forced relationship - Jews, Muslims and Christians - there are many narratives unable to penetrate the surface. While Jaffa may appear relatively peaceful, I found myself asking: “How can there be true peace when there is no justice?”
I ask myself this question every day during my time interning at the non-profit organization Windows – Channels for Communication. When I first visited its office, I remember glancing upon a white board with words connected to the organization’s name. One of the words stood out: anti-normalization. The process of normalization occurs when certain ideas and actions become “natural” in everyday life, regardless if they are just or unjust. Critics against normalization sometimes call it the “colonization of the mind,” referring to the process by which an oppressed subject comes to believe their situation is “normal” reality and accepts the status quo. Windows is a unique peace organization because it recognizes the danger of a creeping normalcy. Instead, it realizes the need to promote not only coexistence, but also justice.
The organization empowers Palestinian and Israeli youth to openly speak about their
beliefs regarding discrimination and the violation of human rights. The participants engage in discussions and workshops, exploring various narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of the program, the youth produce a magazine in Arabic and Hebrew. Because of my experience with design and journalism, I am the intern in charge of the magazine’s layout. Last week, I transcribed an interview in order to write an article about one of Windows’ graduates.
The interviewee’s story left an impression on me. The young Jewish Israeli talked about the moment when she realized her life was built on the missed opportunities of others. When she was 10 years old, her mother took her to Atarim Square in Tel Aviv, pointing to the bustling place and told her, “This used to be a Muslim cemetery.” From that moment on, she struggled to cope with the reality around her. It is her desire to change this reality by addressing the Israeli education system and tackling the language barrier. While Jewish Israelis study Arabic in school, they do not study it to the extent they focus on English. Some school graduates are barely able to muster words like shukran (thank you). For those who remember the language, many never speak it to their Palestinian neighbors. There are two official languages in Israel, but one is pushed to the side.
In addition to interning at Windows and volunteering at an Arab high school, I teach English at a mixed middle school in Jaffa. During our orientation, the volunteer coordinator told us that some of the Palestinian children have better Hebrew than Arabic because all of their classes are taught in the former. Some of their parents intentionally placed them in this school because they realized a strong grasp of Hebrew is necessary to succeed in Israel. If both Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, one shouldn’t be considered secondary.
I’ve also noticed language serve as a barrier when I volunteer at Shahaf, a center where kindergarteners from all over Jaffa come and learn about the environment. Many of the kindergarteners speak only Arabic, and I find myself struggling to communicate with them. I’ve made an effort to learn a few words in Arabic, but I can’t help notice that some of the Hebrew-speaking staff members refrain from even trying to communicate and only speak in Hebrew to the confused children. If Israelis work with the Arabic-speaking community, why don’t they make more of an effort to learn the language?
I’ve only lived in Jaffa for two months, but I’ve already observed the intricacies of the issues present in Israel. I decided to volunteer on Tikkun Olam’s Coexistence Track because I thought “coexistence” meant peace. As I learn that there’s more to peace than just an absence of people shooting at one another, I’m starting to notice the need for more open dialogue and the promotion of justice. My participation in Tikkun Olam has opened my eyes to a necessary shift in social perceptions and attitudes about the conflict. We should not only be focusing on coexistence; we should be struggling for a just peace.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
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
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
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…”)