2.26.2011

every new beginning comes with some other beginning's end



hannukah overnight with the kids
I can’t believe it has been two months since my last post! It’s been way too long.  There have been countless moments where I’ve said “I need to put this in my blog…” Well, those moments added up,and I didn’t keep up like I should have. But, as I start a new adventure this coming week, I hope to be able to keep up a bit more.  Thank you for asking and wondering as to where this post has been – it means a lot and I’m grateful to have such loyal followers. On that note, I am going to flood this post with a few pictures from the past two months – I once heard that they sometimes speak louder than words...

Trip to Petra, Jordan

So much has happened since I last wrote that even if I try to put it down in words, it wouldn't do it justice. Given that, I have decided to use this blog post as a final recap of the first part of my Yahel journey.

When I decided to do this program about seven months ago, I really had no idea what community empowerment work was, what it looked like or how I was to fit into it all.  Five months ago at the start of the program, I could have never imagined being in the place that I am today.  


“What have you learned from this experience?” “What has made it so unique?” “What are you walking away with?”  When I am asked these questions, it seems I have a million answers to each. 


trip with "homework at home" families

The Yahel Social Change Program has challenged me, while also providing me with a strong and supportive platform to grow as a person. Immersing myself in an Ethiopian community has helped me gain insight into the many facets of veteran and immigrant Israeli life, as well as begin to understand all of its complexities. The best part of this experience has been living and learning social change. I have learned a great deal about what it is to create social change and what it is to work toward truly empowering a community – it has been humbling to learn and decipher the stark difference between merely giving and truly empowering. 
our first ethiopian wedding!

Before moving to Gedera, I was unaware how possible it was to truly affect change in a community in which I was unfamiliar with, uncomfortable in and disconnected to.  After being immersed in the Ethiopian community here, I've come to realize that deep understanding of a community comes with building strong relationships, building trust and accurately accessing the community's needs in order to create the greatest change.


These past five months have flown by before my eyes. Gedera has become my second home away from home in my life (thank you, OU).  So much so, that I decided not to leave anytime soon…
yahel family at mitzpe ramon crater 



That being said, I've decided to stay on with Yahel for a second part of the program.  Due to the strong interest of the first cohort of Yahelnikim to stay in Gedera and keep working with Yahel and FBN, the directors thought up a “Yahel Fellowship” part 2 to enable us to stay “home.” The five out six of us who are staying in Gedera (talk about a successful first cohort!) are taking on internships around the country, some in Ethiopian organizations and others in education and community work.  After completing the intensive and immersive first part of the program, it seems we all feel more comfortable and more equipped to make contributions outside of just the Gedera community. 


For the next step, I am dedicating my time to working with Yahel – building, creating and implementing a sustainable recruitment and marketing program.  Thinking of ways to translate my experience into a tangible product in order to entice and encourage people to join the program has proven to be a bit difficult.  Yahel is such an incredible and unique program – and if you can’t tell, I am its biggest fan! So I am grateful to spend my time working in this capacity. 

Empowerment.
Cross Cultural.
Collaboration.
Sustainability. 
Humility. 

These may seem like just “buzz” words – and truthfully, five months ago they were just “buzz” words for me.  But, these words, the words that the Yahel Social Change Program sits on, have become a part of my character over these past five months.
  


Our group has talked a lot about this process that we have all gone through – the process of recognizing how we don’t think of these words as foreign or intangible anymore, but rather as part of the fabric of our every day lives.  Cross cultural exchanges happen every single day.  Empowerment comes alive without even realizing it.  We collaborate with one another, with FBN and with the community on a daily basis.  The list goes on.

But what is so special about this process is that it not only has become a part of our every day lives here in Gedera, but that we have the ability to dig deeper to see how it will translate to our daily lives following the program.  I’ve been thinking about this process a lot and making a conscious effort to be sure the transition is successful.  It seems to me that weaving this fabric into our post-Yahel lives will be a sure product of the success of this program.

We are getting ready to welcome three new people to the Yahel house tomorrow.  These three people are going to be beginning the Yahel Social Change Program that we started five months ago.  The eight of us are all living in the house together – Real World: Gedera Style, cont.? I am really looking forward to meeting them tomorrow. 

Although the “Yahel Fellowship” will be much more independent than part one, the five of us from the first cohort are still keeping all of our volunteer work with FBN.  We are continuing with our Ulpan Hebrew studies, and have the ability to go to any and all speakers, events, trips that the new group will be doing. The Yahel family is expanding – and I don’t think I can think of anything better.


I want to thank Dana, Avi, Rachel, my five wonderful yahelnikim (Shoshana, Jacob, Drew, Matt and Annie), Friends by Nature and the Gedera/Shapira community for making these past five months unforgettable. Now, onto the next! 

12.27.2010

"ive got friends in 'high' places"

As I sat on a bench in Kibbutz Hannaton Shabbat morning of November 27, I spoke to my friend about the possibility of needing to return home within the next few weeks due my grandmother’s illness.  As soon as we ended our conversation, the phone rang…

Sure enough it was that dreaded, yet expected phone call.  My grandmother passed away.  While held in the arms of my "family" in Israel, I quickly shifted into auto pilot mode. 

I booked the first flight home.  Forcing me to make the three-hour trip home to Gedera immediately, pack my things and catch my 5:30 am flight.  Four airports visited and 26 hours later, I returned home.

I returned to a house full of covered mirrors, tables filled with food baskets and nicely placed shiva chairs in the living room. 

It was hard and sad coming home for such an occasion, and I recognized more than anyone that my next week was going to be a whirlwind.  But I was so happy to be home, knowing there was no other place I would rather be.  As the week went on, our house filled each day and each night with many familiar faces, friends and loved ones.  Eating all of my favorite foods and in particular my grandma's favorite chocolate cake was definitely a teeny tiny added-bonus... 

Coming home in the midst of such an intensive experience abroad was nothing short of strange.  Between all of the talk about my grandma, her life and my family, I was so honored at how many people were so genuinely interested in learning about my work and experience in Israel.  A couple months prior, I wasn’t able to tell them anything, really, about the journey I was about take, but now I could speak about it for hours on end.  It was a wonderful gift and I felt so lucky to have spent that week constantly surrounded by so many meaningful people in my life.

It is no secret that in between all of the excitement and new beginnings of the past few years, my family and I have experienced a great deal of loss.  There’s no doubt it’s been tough, but I know that we have all become much stronger, closer and grounded because of it. 
 
My family is unbreakable, and more than anything, we now have plenty of friends in very “high” places, watching over us with proud smiles… and more than likely getting a good kick out of all our jokes, critiquing our jewelry choices and shouting out the answers to jeopardy.  We’ve got it good.

11.21.2010

the kosher guinea pigs


There is something to be said for embracing an experience that forces all involved to push their limits and figure out ways to find normalcy in even the most abnormal situations.  More often than not I walk away from situations and say to myself “Did that really just happen?” But if this experience were predictable in the slightest bit, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting…right?

Like I have written before, Yahel is being built completely from the ground up – we are in what I like to call, “guinea pig mode.” 

This past week we had the opportunity to host the Masa Delegation in Gedera and tell them a bit about what Yahel is doing here.  The Delegation was made up of Jewish and non-Jewish directors, presidents and founders from some of the top direct service organizations in the world including City Year, Peace Corps, Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service and Teach for America.  Out of about 150 Masa programs, they chose Yahel as one of the five or six programs to come visit.  We were honored, excited and nervous all at the same time.  A few of us created a presentation that exemplified our experience so far and in what ways we’ve incorporated the words of empowerment, humility, initiative, cross-culture, sustainability and collaboration into our time here.  In times of contentment and/or confusion, I look to these words and figure out how or if they connect to the situation.  After our presentation, community members made the delegates a traditional Ethiopian meal.  During our meal together, we spoke to them about our lives, how we got to where we are and where we hope to be in the future.  The feedback that the program and we received was incredibly uplifting.

One of the sources of my frustration here has stemmed from my “Homework at Home” involvement.  Although the whole point of the program is to create a productive and sustainable learning environment in the students’ homes, it seems the process is very difficult for my two boys.  If one boy tries to concentrate on what I’m saying, it is only a matter of time until his friend distracts him by getting up and walking away.  Last week when I arrived to my kid’s home, he was sleeping and didn’t want to wake up for our session.  As I sat there attempting to communicate with his parents, his father turns their television on high, blasting Ethiopian music until his son jumps out of his slumber and goes to get his shoes on.  In the meantime, the other boy hadn’t of showed up yet and we needed to go find him in the neighborhood.  As we arrived at the boy’s balagan (craziness) of a house, he was nowhere to be found.  At that moment, all I could think was that I didn’t sign up for this…and after a half hour, we finally found him walking around Gedera.  I sat them down and reinforced the reason why I am there, and if they didn’t want to learn, then I didn’t have to come.

I realized it was a good day to try something new, so I took them on a walk around Gedera and pointed out stores and items along the way to test them on their English vocabulary.  I took them out to ice cream and we sat at a table and talked about our families, our favorite foods and our love for animals.  It was nice to see them open up a bit and it helped me recognize the importance of us building a relationship of mutual respect. 

The session after our ice cream day was the first time I saw a glimpse of motivation in their eyes.  But because the home environment is not as conducive to this type of learning as I would like, I had to juggle with asking the siblings to stop throwing things at us, making sure the baby doesn’t climb on the table and rip our papers and ask everyone to stop screaming so we can focus.  I felt like I was a babysitter, with the parents nowhere to be found.  It’s difficult.  But it’s simply the look on their faces when I tell them how smart they are or how they answered the question right that is a constant reminder to me as to why I cannot give up on these two boys.  It seems they may have experienced that one too many times, and I refuse to be a similar person in their lives. 

On a different note, within the past couple of weeks I started teaching my new “Homework at Home” group of two 10th grade girls.  Prior to meeting with these two girls, I was unaware as to how a successful tutoring session was supposed to run.  It was a 180-degree shift from my other group, especially when I walked in and the house was empty, the TV was off and the girls came prepared with their pencil bag and books in hand.  I hope that my work with the two boys can help them reach a point where their excitement for learning and their realization of their potential overrides their struggle to focus and their lack of self-esteem. 

In terms of my individual placement, I feel like I am becoming an integral part of the FBN home office, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  It’s a place where I am confident in my ability to lend a hand with skills that I know I possess. Last week I helped prepare Yuvi, one of the founders of the organization, for her trip to the US by creating a new English power point, completing the new brochures and working together on her English speaking.  They look to me for suggestions and help and my work in the office has provided me with a good balance with my work in the community.  Last week I finished an article that FBN submitted for publication to the bi-monthly Israeli Ethiopian newspaper – when it is published I will try to post a link to it for all of the strong Hebrew readers :)  

Last Sunday we went on a Yahel trip to some of 2,000-year-old caves in the Judean Hills…speaking of which, have I ever mentioned my struggle with claustrophobia?  When we learned that the caves that we were going to climb through might be smaller than the size of our bodies, I felt like passing out right then and there.  With the support of the group, I determined this would be a perfect opportunity to tackle this phobia of mine.  We descended into the caves where we sat in a big open area and learned about how these were the caves where Jews hid from the Romans during the time of the Bar Kochba revolt.  Some of the caves acted as hiding places, where others acted as markets where Jews sold things such as birds, food or clothing.  We continued through the caves, where we needed to push our bodies through small holes one quarter the size of us. Although there were points when I started to freak out, I got over that fear and just did it – the “Go Rachel!”s and the “Woooo”s from those around me helped more than I can say.  I can’t deny that there was a moment when I was unsure I was going to make it out alive…especially when my body was contorted in five different directions and I accidentally tripped and blew out my candle, my only source of light…whoops. 

This past week we had a meeting with the mayor of Gedera, someone who I have come to understand is not highly supported by the majority of the Ethiopian community.  Although he doesn’t speak a lick of English, we looked at this meeting as an opportunity to communicate the challenges we have seen and experienced in this community.  As we asked our tough questions, we attempted to gain a better sense of the relationship between the municipal council and the Ethiopian community.  We heard of the city’s plans to build new schools, new housing and new retail centers, all of which will be built far away from the Ethiopian community.  Our conversation begged questions relating to what the municipality is doing to help the Ethiopian kids in school, to help the parents acclimate better to Israeli society and to help raise the community’s socio-economic level. 

The strategy that the municipal council is taking in working with the Ethiopian community is to essentially “go around” the parents, and take the kids out of their home environments as much as possible.  This strategy, so to say, is a completely opposite approach to that of Friends by Nature’s.  It was discouraging and difficult to wrap my head around this because so much of our work with FBN is focused around enhancing family ties and empowering the family unit.  I’m planning on using the next few months to attempt to understand which strategy seems to work best in this community. 

Following a session of rather intense questions, the mayor shifted attention and invited us to go to lunch.  Twenty minutes later we found ourselves sitting at a restaurant eating shwarma with him and four of his staff members. Two minutes later, our table was covered with endless salads, breads and meats.  To top it off, we ended the meal with Shoshana sharing a bowl of ice cream with the mayor.  Only in Israel…seriously.

I am so lucky to have my family in Jerusalem and friends around the country, and have spent almost every weekend visiting them. A week or so ago, I was happy to finally be able to visit my friend Sarah, who is participating in Career Israel in Tel Aviv.  It was really nice to have that touch of home, something I miss greatly.   

My trip to Tel Aviv reinforced my appreciation for Yahel and my life in Gedera.  When I was in the process of figuring out what program is best for me to do this year, Career Israel was definitely an option – but it would have been the “safe” option for me.  I know I would have felt comfortable and would have loved living in Tel Aviv (who wouldn’t?), but at the same time, I knew this year wasn’t about that for me. As I have stated time and time again, I knew I needed to be challenged.  I found a new appreciation for my experience through times of exhilaration, times of frustration and times of happiness.  And although I have attempted to WebMD-diagnose myself with all of the symptoms that come along with riding this roller coaster of emotions, it is this raw balance of the up’s and down’s that I have grown to truly appreciate and love.
 

11.09.2010

"where everyone knows your name..."

After looking through my recent blog posts, I realized that I haven't written about one of the most important parts of this trip...just being in Israel.

When I was younger, all I wanted to do was come here.  When I am here, I never want to leave.  And when I leave, all I want to do is come back. This ongoing trend has brought me to this country five times now, each time for a different purpose, different program and a different experience.

While I'm here, it comes easily to find family in a group of strangers, find home in unfamiliar settings and find comfort in the fact that one of the greatest things about this country is that through all of her trials, tribulations and successes, it still stands strong.  And I love feeling like I am a part of it all. 

What I appreciate about this trip is that in between all of the organized programming and planned meetings, we are given a great deal of freedom to experience and navigate everything this country has to offer - everything that I have come to love.  In between it all, I find myself enjoying dinners with my host family up the street, planning dinner parties for the garin/FBN community, sitting at a cafĂ© with an ice-coffee in hand making plans to go to Shabbat dinner at our waiter’s house, juggling barbecues in a different city with wine making get-togethers in Gedera and visiting my family/friends around the country during the weekends. 

Even during the toughest of days, I look around and remind myself of where I am and why I am here. Many times, putting things back in perspective can help turn those tough days into beautiful ones.

Speaking of beautiful days and what Israel means to Jews around the world, last week the Yahelniks went to Jerusalem for the day to celebrate Sigd, the annual Ethiopian-Jewish festival commemorating the acceptance of the Torah and revelation of Mt. Sinai.  When Ethiopian-Jews celebrated this holiday in Ethiopia, it was a time for reflection on reaching the ultimate goal of living in Jerusalem.

Now that all of the Ethiopian Jews have made Aliyah (moved to Israel), this holiday has taken on a new meaning, especially after it became an official national holiday in 2008.  Some use the holiday for introspection and soul searching on what it is to be in Israel, while others may pray for the return of the Jerusalem of their dreams.

As thousands upon thousands of Ethiopian-Jews gather on a promenade overlooking Jerusalem, the Kesim (Ethiopian rabbis/spiritual leaders) lead them in Amharic prayers and blessings.  It has become a place where the large majority of the 120,000 Ethiopian Jews who live in Israel come together and stand as one.
As my friend Annie and I walked around and said our “Salaams” and our “Chag Sigd Sameachs,” I began talking to a woman, who between the triple language barrier, we spoke about how special this holiday is for her, her family and the Ethiopian community as a whole.   

Although Annie and I stuck out like sore thumbs through the masses of Ethiopian Jews, we could see the the strong appreciation and respect in this woman’s eyes when she recognized our sincere interest in her holiday.  I felt so connected. 

I love it here, really more than words can say.  From the northern mountains of the Golan Heights to the most southern tip of Eilat, I feel at home and that, my friend, is why Israel holds such a special place in my heart.  

11.03.2010

planting my feet

First and foremost, I apologize for not posting in a while.  There are so many days when I get home and tell myself “this is a perfect day to blog” – those days where my emotions are at a level that is perfect to just get down on paper.  But, as those days increase and my energy decreases, it’s been hard to find time to get it all down.

It’s hard for me to describe how much I have learned in the past week.  It’s as though every day I wake up and have the opportunity to identify a new piece to this very complicated puzzle.  Everything running through my mind became a bit easier for me to digest when I realized that I am actually just experiencing two very different sets of emotions.  The first set comes from the actual Yahel experience – the experience that entails settling into a house with 5 strangers who have become family, moving to a unknown community that has become my home, and participating in sessions that dig so deep into my feelings that it has become second nature for me to have feedback on each and every thing I am doing. 

The second set comes from my experience with Friends by Nature.  Through FBN, I run programs for youth who need to be given an equal chance to succeed, teach English in my students’ homes on a pull out covered with laundry and kid on each side of me, and work toward furthering FBN's success through stronger communication efforts. I find that these situations pull at a different set of heart strings.  Although I wasn’t in Gedera to see the transformation that Friends by Nature had on the community over the years, I can certainly see the effect that it has on the Shapira neighborhood now.  I find myself wanting to do more and more and more, but that’s where the language of empowerment comes in…I can’t do more, I need to help empower more instead.  I’m slowly catching on...

I am also slowly learning how to tap into my inner teacher skills, which I was having a very tough time finding in the beginning.  Being a “Homework at Home” teacher has taught me the importance of having structure in a child’s life.  I was very nervous to go into my student’s home who has never had outside tutoring before, and try to help him catch up on years of English that he never actually learned.  I felt like I needed to know Hebrew in order to teach English, but in reality, even though my Hebrew is greatly improving, I need to feel comfortable enough with finding ways to teach him English in other ways – something he hasn’t had access to before. But there isn’t any form of a learning environment in his home, let alone a home structure in order for him to succeed in school.  One thing I am very grateful for is that it seems he is surrounded by a very loving family who is welcoming the help and who wants to be a part of it all – and there is no better start than that. 

Some personal experiences that happened these past few weeks, that I will hopefully expand on at a later date, include meeting and having dinner with my wonderful host family, completing the new design for Friends by Nature’s English brochure, helping to execute a meeting with the Joint Distribution Committee, experiencing (and loving) Gedera’s 40 Shekel bottomless beer night, attending Ashkelon’s Jewish Film Festival to view 3 Ethiopian-focused films, connecting with my Homework at Home students through Shakira and Sean Kingston and finally absorbing new Hebrew words in my every day conversation.

Last week we had the opportunity to meet with the only Ethiopian member of the Knesset (Israeli government), Shlomo Mulla.  As we sat in Friends by Nature’s meeting space, Mulla spoke to us about what he is doing in order to affect positive change for the Ethiopian-Israeli community, the hardships facing the Ethiopian people in Israel and the importance of supporting all Ethiopian-Jews who wish to make Aliyah (move to Israel).  This was Mulla’s first time in the Shapira neighborhood of Gedera and this visit meant a lot to the community.  It seemed he left with a good impression of the work being done here; giving the community hope that Mulla is the first, of hopefully many, future government representatives to push this agenda. 

This past weekend, the Yahelnikim and a few members of the Community Garin and Friends by Nature traveled to Jerusalem for a study tour. The themes of the weekend were to reflect on the centrality of Jerusalem in Judaism, explore different narratives of the Ethiopian dream of coming to Jerusalem through the eyes of Ethiopian Jews and to engage in the tension between dreams and reality.  Even though I can’t count on my hands the number of times I have been to Jerusalem, each time I leave feeling a little different and I knew this trip wasn’t an exception.

We began the weekend with a walking tour of the old city, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Ethiopian churches and lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant. The churches were beautiful, laced with plaques in Amharic and pictures of Chassidic Jews hanging next to each other – helping me recognize how deep the connection is between the Ethiopian Christian narrative and Judaism and Israel.

We concluded Friday with a Kabbalat Shabbat session at a beautiful Jerusalem overlook where we created a human barometer that tackled some personal questions on how each of us felt regarding Israel and the dream of coming to Jerusalem.  Surrounded by 12 Ethiopians, Israelis and North Americans, it was at this session where I realized why this weekend was going to be so special.  I’ve learned, studied and questioned the Ethiopian dream of coming to Jerusalem, but never had I been in such an emotional, unguarded setting where I could truly learn about how each person felt about coming to Jerusalem. Ethiopian-Jews dreamt of a Jerusalem of gold, an Israel with the Second Temple still in tact and a land of milk and honey. Imagine coming here to realize that none of those dreams are the reality.

After a wonderful night out on the town in Jerusalem, we went to the newly renovated Israel Museum on Saturday.  I was in charge of leading this session and I had asked each person to bring a passage/quote about their perception of Israel or Jerusalem and go off on their own in the museum and find a piece of artwork to connect to their passage.  I then led a session in the art garden on the importance of the passages, the personal connections and the connections to a specific piece of art.  The conversations we had were extremely thought provoking. At this session, without him even knowing, one of the Yahelnikim said something that brought tears to my eyes…

“Ethiopian-Jews came to Israel to find something they only dreamt of, and when they came and didn’t find, they didn’t leave, but rather they stayed because this is where they belong, this is their home and they stay here with the strength and hope that one day they will find it.”

That right there is how I have come to understand the resilience and strength of the Ethiopian people, and that, for me, is what this experience is all about.

To conclude the weekend, I participated in something very close to my heart.  My Uncle dedicated a Sefer Torah in memory of father for the Oketz Army Base in Modiin.  With my cousins by my side, I went to Modiin for the dedication ceremony.  A week or so earlier, my Uncle had asked if I wanted read something at the ceremony and I took him up on the offer not truly realizing how hard, but also incredibly special, this would be for me.  After arriving to the base, the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army, Rafi Peretz, came up to my cousins and me and thanked us and mentioned how he is a friend of my Uncle’s and couldn’t miss this ceremony.  Peretz took the Torah with my father’s name sewed on the cover and danced with it, amongst over a hundred Oketz soldiers, over to the synagogue.
Days of practicing my Hebrew speech came down to this moment when the commander of the base introduced me.  As I stood in front of the soldiers, commanders and rabbis, I read my speech about how important Israel was for my family and how I know my father is looking down and smiling the way he always did when he thought of this country.  I was so honored to be there.  As I looked out to a crowd of brave Israeli soldiers who risk their lives every day to protect the state of Israel, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with emotion.  In addition to the dedication of the Torah, it was also the dedication and opening of the first-ever synagogue on Oketz base.  After the ceremony, soldiers came up to us and thanked us.  Little did they know that all I really wanted to do was thank them...

After a month or so of being here, I’m finally feeling a bit more grounded.  I mentioned in one of my earlier posts about how this trip is the epitome of becoming comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, and even more than that, it is the epitome of finding emotional balance.  Although that’s difficult to find in any experience, I’m slowly, but surely, finding my way… 

10.22.2010

operation moses

It is with a bit of a struggle that I have tried to put this post together, but I wanted to try to write it sooner than later.  Throughout my blog, I have mentioned time and time again how the families that we are working with have endured a very long, difficult road in order to get where they are today. 

Most of these personal stories are untold, and I think that has made it hard for the outside community to truly understand what the Ethiopian-Israelis have gone through.  We have had the opportunity to listen to bits and pieces of peoples’ stories of their travels to Israel. I hope through this post it will become a little clearer as to why the Ethiopian Jewish community is so special, as well as shed light on why their stories don’t necessarily define who they are, but rather reinforce their strength and courage as a people. 

While we were in Rishon Le’zion this past weekend, we heard Samuel’s (name changed for privacy purposes) personal story.  Samuel lived a fine and happy life as a young kid growing up in Ethiopia.  Like many Jewish families in Ethiopia, his family lived in a remote village with no electricity or running water.  His whole life he was told of a wonderful place the Jews in Ethiopia had only dreamed of – the dream of one day living in Jerusalem. 

In order to make this dream a reality, during the year of 1984, Samuel and 52 of his family members began a 10-month journey to Israel. This journey, deemed Operation Moses, was the long trek from Ethiopia, through to Sudan and then secretly airlifted by the Israeli government and Mossad up through Europe and back down to Israel.  

These operations and journeys are not what most would consider a “typical” immigration. Hundreds of Ethiopian Jewish families picked up what they could, grabbed their horse and stock and walked, and walked and walked thousands of miles through the desert for days and nights on end.

As they traveled through the desert, the days became longer and the heat became hotter. Due to the danger of the treks, the families were extremely vulnerable to robbery and kept much of their walking for the night.  Samuel’s family sewed their money to the inside of the children’s clothing so when they encountered bandits, their money would be safe.  

There was a tremendous amount of disease and morbidity during these treks and it took the lives of many people – some due to heat exhaustion or malnourishment, some due to getting lost and never returning to camp or others who lost the strength to go any further.  By the time Samuel’s group reached Israel, they had lost three family members along the way, bringing their group down to 49 people.  It is commanded in Jewish law to give Jews a proper burial, but during the treks it reached a point where so many people were dying that their family members had to bury their bodies anywhere they could find.
 
Due to this, many Ethiopians are still mourning to this day. They may not know what happened to their family, they may not know how they died or where or if they are even buried. At the time, all they knew is that they needed to keep going to make it to Israel.

Samuel's family arrived to Israel approximately 10 months after beginning their journey.  They built their lives and Samuel went on to graduate high school, and then join the Israeli Defense Force as a paratrooper.  In 1991, he was asked to be part of Operation Solomon and helped to airlift thousands more Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Israel.  Since the late 1970’s, these treks and various national operations have brought approximately 100,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.  Samuel's story is just one of many, and he is an incredible example of the strength and courage of the Ethiopian people. 

As you can imagine, this community is having a very hard time immersing into the many facets of Israeli society.  I’ve come to realize though that it is the roots of this community that hold them together, and without knowing and accepting those roots, it seems it will be very hard to move forward.  These stories need to be told and this community needs to be heard.  I know it will take time, but I also know that in order for us to understand more, we need to hear more.

When I was accepted to the Yahel Social Change Program I had some sort of idea of the kind of work I was going to be doing or people I would be meeting, but as I stated in one of my previous posts, this trip has become much more than that.  Over the past few weeks, I have been attempting to find the place where my expectations of the program meet my actual experience here in Gedera.  Throughout my time here, I am trying to see the world through the eyes of our Ethiopian counterparts - the special people with whom we our connected to this community.  Besides the volunteering that I am doing and the relationships that I am building, I feel I am responsible for much more.  So I will be using this blog to not only document my experiences, but also to shed light on the history, issues and feats within this community.  As time goes on, I hope to share some more personal stories as well as the issues that we are learning about along the way.  If you ever have any questions or comments about anything I write, please, please ask me.  I want this blog to act as an on-going conversation…

taken from my first experience at mercaz klitah merchaviya (an ethiopian absorption center in merchaviya, israel) in 2007

10.16.2010

it takes a village to raise a child.

Since I last wrote, the Yahelnikim (the Hebrew word describing us as Yahel program participants) started what we were brought here to do…volunteer! As our orientation period concluded, we all looked forward to getting our hands a bit dirtier and actually beginning our work in the community.


To begin, my normal week from now on will look like a little something like this:

Sundays: usually set aside for group block activity, volunteer work or study tours around Israel
Monday-Thursday afternoons: I will either be working with the Homework at Home program, at the Youth Center or with my specific individual group of kids
Monday and Thursday mornings: I will be working in my individual placement in the FBN home office
Tuesday morning: Yahelnikim go to Ulpan for Hebrew language study
Wednesday morning: We have a Beit Midrash session and/or speakers regarding our topic for the month – this month’s is “roots”
Friday and Saturday: I usually tour around and visit friends and family around the country…every weekend is free except for the last weekend of every month

FBN headquarters
As I just quickly mentioned, each Yahel participant has an individual placement around the community in addition to our other volunteer work.  I am working in the FBN home office with the communications and development team of two people.  I was so eager to begin my work with them this week because this project taps right into my exact background and skills.  My past training and exposure in journalism, graphic design, public relations and grant writing will really help me give all I can give to FBN during my time here in Gedera.  This week I conducted research on the link between youth envisioning their future as a factor in staying out of trouble and the connection between at-risk youth succeeding in poverty and the presence of a community role model in their lives.  These findings will be used as support in the grant proposals that FBN submits.  My individual project will entail creating a photo-bank on the organization’s server, creating and designing a newsletter/one-pager, re-designing the brochure and website, creating a social media presence for FBN and helping to write better English materials. I appreciate the opportunity that Yahel and FBN are giving me to work on these materials – it’s really right up my ally. 


This week we had the pleasure of hearing from Professor Hagai Erlich from Tel Aviv University on Ethiopian roots.  He has studied the Ethiopian connection to Israel for about 40 years, so we were all very interested in hearing everything he had to say.  One of the things we talked about was how Judaism was alive in the Ethiopian countryside for many, many years, but when Jews left the countryside and came to the cities, they quickly converted to Christianity.  In order to stay a Jew in Ethiopia, you needed to stay in remote areas.  After talking about where Jews stood throughout Ethiopian history, we had a very interesting conversation about what it is to live in Israel and to be Ethiopian.  Many Ethiopian youth in Israel are ashamed of their roots, mostly because they don’t know about them.  One of FBN’s main missions is to connect youth to their Ethiopian roots so that they can better succeed in Israeli society.  For my readers who can relate, this conversation begged the question…what does it feel like to be a Jew in America?  Would you refer to yourself as a Jewish-American or an American-Jew?

preparing for the "happening"
Our main task while in Gedera is working with the FBN staff on creating and implementing programs around the community.  We have participated in numerous staff meetings where we prepared skits to introduce the youth of the community everything that will be happening this upcoming year.  Because it is the beginning of the school year, the Yahelnikim arrived just in time to be a part of it all. This past week was the big “happening” as they like to call it, which was a start-of-the-new-year opening event at the youth center (a small trailer in the middle of the community).  



We performed skits introducing all of the programs that the kids could sign up for such as: Homework at Home, hiking guide and leadership training, international summer camp preparation and all of the youth center activities available to the community.  In addition, the musical styling's of the FBN youth music program, Anshe Aish Kolot, performed a few songs.  It was a great chance to see the energy and potential of the Gedera community – also a great chance to see all of the hard work that FBN has been doing over the past few years.



anshe aish kolot performing


The Garin in Gedera also held a country-wide staff training this week where youth leaders in other communities came here for a few hours to learn various leadership strategies, bounce ideas off one another and participate in bonding or group activities that they can then bring back to their respective communities.  It was something special to meet the youth leaders and staff from communities around the country.  These leaders implement community-wide youth programs in their Ethiopian communities much like we do here in Gedera.

This past Thursday, I did my first ever Homework at Home session.  I was pretty nervous about it because I was unaware as to how much English the kids would know or even how much Hebrew the parents would know.  This first experience was quite the culture shock... 

As I walked with Ziva, the head of the Homework at Home program, into my first apartment, we both stopped in our tracks as we walked through the door.  I had never seen anything like it.  We couldn’t see the floor, the couch, the table or the chairs because things, clothing, food, dishes and trash were piled up so high.  The kids weren’t wearing any clothes besides for their undergarments and the TV was blasting in the small room.  I had no idea how I was going to conduct an English session, let alone a conversation, in this setting.  Ziva looked at me as though she was shocked as well. Because of the nature of this program, Ziva does not know many of these families, nor is she familiar with their apartments prior to the first day of tutoring.  I was supposed to have two kids that day, so we took the young boy out of his apartment and took him with us to his friend’s apartment instead.  We went to the next apartment building and it was there that we played games, practiced some English and Hebrew words and where the second boy showed me his and his brothers’ unbelievable artwork.  What was most special about this first visit was that as soon as I walked in, the mother turned off the television and we all went into a back storage room and sat on a makeshift bed tucked in the corner.  We began by playing a game where I asked the boys questions in English and they responded in Hebrew and then vice versa. 

Ziva has tried to prepare us for anything.  She told us that we might have to have the children do their homework on the floor because of the absence of a table, or we might have to bring our child a pencil because he/she didn’t know to have one or that we might go there and none of our kids show up – she tried to prepare us for anything and everything.  But, this part of my volunteer work is something that I feel that I cannot exactly be prepared for, but rather will just have to experience.  I am sure that as time goes on I will write more about my weekly sessions and experience with my two groups in much more detail.  For now I think it is this program that will challenge me the most – but it is also this program that I feel will be one of the most rewarding for the kids and for me.

the shapira neighborhood
It might be clear to you now that the Shapira neighborhood, which is the small street where mostly all of the Ethiopian families of Gedera reside, is facing many socio-economic difficulties.  This community is home to some of the most welcoming and warm people, but the hardship they face is very apparent.  It is a community that endured a great amount of tragedy prior to building their lives in Gedera, but also a community that has a lot of potential – it is an extremely humbling experience to be volunteering here and with FBN to help the community slowly work toward reaching that potential.  And as the title of my post states, the Shapira neighborhood is a wonderful example of how it takes village to raise a child…