"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.


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.


"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.  


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… 


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


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…


life on ahaliya st.

Wow, where do I even begin? Every time I try to sit down and finish this post, it seems that I am either at a loss for words because so much has happened these past two weeks or at a loss for words because I don’t know what I could even write that would do the program justice…either way I am going to try to put into words my experience so far…

Upon returning from our camping trip, it was time for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah! This holiday celebrates the end of the past year’s cycle of reading the Torah, and the subsequent beginning of the next.  It is an exciting celebration where men (and in some communities, women) dance around with the torah and sing until the sun comes up.  In order to fully experience the Simchat Torah celebration – Gedera style – two of my housemates and I synagogue-hopped, meaning we traveled from synagogue to synagogue to experience how the different communities celebrated the holiday.  A large majority of the synagogues in Israel are orthodox, where the women sit separate from the men, and as the men danced, we chatted with the women, played with all of the babies and kids, and learned about the community.  That morning we made friends with the Rabbi’s wife, young girls and many community members and as we walk around town now and see so many familiar faces, it’s nice to know that we are part of such a wonderful community. All in day’s work…
We ended last week with a historical tour of Gedera and a Yahel-family Shabbat dinner.  We learned all about the efforts and men behind the scenes who helped form Gedera into the town it is now.  In 1884, nine idealistic men from Russia came to Israel and recognized the potential of Gedera and built the village from the ground up.  As we walked around and realized the historical significance of structures that are built right in our front yard, I quickly recognized how amazing it is and how lucky I am to be living in Gedera for some time – a real Israeli town that I haven’t experienced before. 

The Yahel program sits on a few guiding principles: humbleness, collaboration, cross-cultural, empowerment and sustainability.

Although these might seem like they are just “buzz words” – this program is truly unique in the fact that we are making each one of these principles come to life throughout our work in Gedera.  This program isn’t a typical American-led volunteer program to Israel that I have been a part of before, it is a program where we actually act as an extension to FBN, are paired up with our Ethiopian counterparts, are going into the Ethiopian homes doing educational work on our own and are attempting to speak the language of community empowerment – a language that I have never been exposed to before, and a language that is sometimes very hard to grasp.  I have been taking some time to think about what each of these words mean to me and how I will apply them to my time and experience in Gedera.  So, I will write more about this as the weeks go by, because it truly is the groundwork for the mission of Yahel. 

There are three main programs we will be working on while in the community.  One is the Homework at Home program, where I will be working in the Ethiopian homes by myself with one, two or maybe even three kids on their English homework.  Although this might seem simple, the Ethiopian children struggle greatly with their education.  The parents are not involved now that they live in Israel because the parents can’t speak English, let alone Hebrew, in order to help or encourage the kids.  Additionally, the children have fallen so far behind the other Israeli kids in school, that they feel like “what’s the point?”  This is where we come in…we go into the homes to work with the kids to empower them, encourage them and help create an educational atmosphere where the parents and family are also involved.  It’s a very huge, long and sometimes daunting process, but I am ready to jump in feet first and see what it’s all about. 
The second program is working in the FBN Youth Center.  This multi-faceted program really helps to get kids off the street, teach them leadership, train them to be hiking guides and most importantly give them a safe and fun, social space.  Each of the Yahel participants will be working side by side with one of the Youth Center leaders – as we are now considered Youth Center leaders as well.  The third program is an initiative that is set up solely by us, the Yahel participants, in the community.  For the first couple of months we will be analyzing, recording and working to fully understand what the community needs and from there will design a program.  As time goes on and we are more fully grounded, I will let you all know the program we choose to create!

In between it all, we have also had quite a social calendar stacked up.  We’ve thrown a few gatherings at our house where at least 30 of the community members have come by to celebrate Avi’s birthday, celebrate our work together and just get to know each other on deeper levels than I could even imagine for only knowing one another for 2 weeks.  We’ve gone to BBQ’s around town, visitors have stopped by our house to give us welcome-to-Gedera gifts and we have been greeted with open-arms.

On that note, I’ll tell you a funny story that happened the other day…

In hopes of finding vanilla extract for our apple cake that we were bringing to one of the parties, my housemate Annie and I went on a neighborhood search.  Because we have been so busy lately and in and out of Gedera, we hadn’t of had the chance to meet our next-door neighbors yet.  Annie and I decided that would be the perfect place to start our search.  We knocked on the door and were automatically welcomed into their beautiful home with a glass of orange juice and chocolate wafers to nosh on.  As we exchanged stories and backgrounds, the 13 yr. old began telling Annie and I about his bar mitzvah.  Our neighbors don’t speak very much English, but we both tried very hard to communicate.  Our experience at their house was the epitome of the humor found in the language barrier that I mentioned in my last post.  After a 20 min conversation, Annie and I tried to ask in hebrew if his bar mitzvah was fun…but, it seemed our question ended up being translated into us asking to watch his bar mitzvah video. So as the family all gathered in the living room, we sat and watched his bar mitzvah video – which, by the way, was incredibly beautiful.  In addition to that, the boy told us that he was going to play the song that he sang to his mother at the party – he wants to be an Israeli rock star…Annie and I felt bad for asking for vanilla after this very nice, yet unexpected, visit, so we headed to our next neighbor until we successfully asked and acquired some from a man who was wearing nothing but his underwear. Typical. 

At this point in the trip, I’ll be honest with you all in the fact that although it has been a wonderful couple weeks so far in Israel, it has also been very overwhelming at times as well.  I have been on information overload.  Besides the obvious fact for me that it doesn’t feel like we’ve been here for only two weeks, each and every day has been fully packed with sessions, social events, Hebrew learning and more cultural experiences than one can count on two hands. 

I knew I was going to be challenged, and I knew I was going to need to step outside of my comfort zone – that is one big reason why I decided to go on this trip.  But, saying it and actually experiencing it are sometimes two very different things.  In addition to immersing ourselves in a brand new city and community, we are also processing a relatively new language, attempting to grasp the cultural atmosphere and learning the in’s and out’s of social justice, social change and community empowerment.  If you couldn’t tell already, I am so excited to be here, but there have been a few days where I have just felt so overwhelmed and emotionally insecure with my ability to do some of the things placed in front of me.  I think more than anything I am attempting to conquer a huge mountain– stepping outside of my comfort zone and being comfortable with being uncomfortable.  It has all tied back to that.

I want to end this post by telling you one of the positive influences that Yahel has had on the Gedera community so far.  Besides the fact that the word around town is that Americans are here and will be here for the next five months, something that is close to unheard of in this small town, our presence has brought out members of the Ethiopian community that FBN has been trying to reach for years.  These hard-to-reach youth that FBN has either never seen before, or have been trying to get involved in their programs, are so excited that we are here working and want to be a part of it all.  It’s quite amazing. That being said, for me this program isn’t only about the feel-good moments when we learned that we have had this positive impact, but rather it is about the relationships I have been building along the way.  It’s through these relationships that we will be able to make the biggest impact on this community.


this is the start of something good...

After having several bad dreams about my potential travel experience to Tel Aviv from Hagoshrim/Kiryat Shmona due to my past travel mishaps, I made it to Tel Aviv safely in order to meet my group this past Sunday afternoon.  We headed to Gedera and moved into our new house! None of us had any idea of what to expect, but we were all very pleasantly surprised.  Our new house is a furnished five bedroom, three-bathroom house with a nice sized kitchen, two outdoor porches and an herb garden sitting out front (pictures to come).  We are slowly working toward making this house our home as we are now all settled in. 

As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by our program facilitator, Rachel, and community liaison, Avi, as well as a beautifully displayed falafel lunch.  In addition to our lunch, Avi and his niece welcomed us to Gedera with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  The coffee ritual is used in order to welcome guests and to create a sense of hospitality and family.  We continued the day with an opening session at our house, a walking tour of Gedera and dinner at Rachel’s home around the corner. After our first day, it was quite apparent that this journey we were about to embark on was going to be one of the most unique experiences we have ever had.

Avi, our community liaison, is an Ethiopian Israeli who made Aliyah (moved to Israel) with his family in 1991.  The big waves of Jewish Ethiopian Israeli immigration to Israel began in the 1980s and continued until a few years ago.  There are over 100,000 Ethiopians in Israel today, with about 1,700 living in Gedera.  Avi works for Friends by Nature (FBN), which is the grassroots organization based in Gedera that I mentioned we would be collaborating with during our program.

Before truly understanding what our job is here as Yahel participants, it is probably best to understand the goals and mission of the FBN organization with whom we are working.  We have had a couple of sessions with the staff leaders as well as the founders of the organization who have both given us better insight into the organization.  Some of FBN’s goals are to develop societal social-educational responsibility, develop young leadership, strengthen participants’ self-identity and potential, strengthen the family unit, refer youth at risk to positive programming and strengthen participants’ connection to Israel.  Friends by Nature established itself in the Gedera community in order to create positive change and work toward community empowerment.  It is a wonderful, wonderful organization and I cannot wait to tell you even more about the inspiring things they (and we, now!) are accomplishing here. 

Now, onto the gist of my experience thus far…in order to give you all a proper run down of our past few days without attempting to write a short novel, I will write about just a few special highlights. 

To begin, we were thrown in head-first during our first few days in order to really get a taste of the Gedera community – all from the community dynamics to how the village functions to understanding the community needs and then finally to understanding where we fit into it all.   

Over the past three days, we have been introduced to and experienced so much Ethiopian culture – something that I know will only flourish and expand within the coming months. The next week or so of orientation is not only for us to learn about the program/our duties, to begin Hebrew ulpan (Hebrew language study) or to build relationships within our group, but also to get better acquainted with the FBN staff. 
Yesterday we set out to a farm where the FBN staff was having its staff week.  We spent a night and a day on a beautiful moshav very close to Gedera.  Although we were under the impression we were going to be camping, it was actually more like eating, sleeping and living like a moshavnik – meaning we had electricity, running water, fully functional kitchen and all of the goods inside of a little house, but we also slept outside very close to the cows, roosters, goats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, bunnies and geese.  During the last day I also helped to herd sheep.  Well, I didn’t really *help* so to say, I just followed the sheep around trying to pet their wool coats - one sheep and I really got along quite well actually…an interesting experience, I must say.

There were approximately 20 of us at this moshav, all with a common goal of learning about one another - everything from different culture to teaching style to childhood stories.  We cooked every meal together and ate around one huge table as a family – which is exactly what I came here to be a part of and find.  The Ethiopians danced, sang and told us old Ethiopian stories from their childhoods as we drank Arak and smoked hookah around a beautiful bonfire. 

In addition to delving into one another’s personal lives, we were also there together in order to prepare and practice for what it would be like to teach the Ethiopian children the English language in Gedera.  The Yahel participants were divided into two groups and we were charged with creating a game or lesson that we could do with the children to teach them English words having to do with nature.  We then presented our lesson to the FBN staff as though they were the children. I was a bit overwhelmed at first because I don’t have that much experience in creating a successful game that also acts as a cross-cultural teaching tool, but we ended up receiving great feedback and the process instilled in us a little more confidence.  It reminded us that although it will be hard at times, especially with the evident communication barrier, one of the main purposes of this program is to build relationships, and relationships go way deeper than just verbal communication. 

Even though I knew this beforehand, I’ve definitely come to realize that one of the greatest hurdles of this program will be the communication barrier.  Most of the FBN staff speak at least a little English, so we have been constantly teaching one another, but when it comes to the kids, I am unaware yet of how difficult it might be to work through that barrier.  Personally, I have needed to not be so self-conscious about using my Hebrew.  Now that I am living, working and playing in a community that is a bit “off the beaten path,” I have recognized the importance of setting that fear aside and knowing that making mistakes is okay and that is the only way I will learn.  Now that I am back in Israel, I am able to really speak and understand conversations more so than ever before, and although I still have a long way to go, I cannot wait to soak in as much of the language as possible during my stay. 

I really hope this note finds you all doing well – and hopefully enjoying some cooler weather than we have been experiencing here! I miss you all very much and can’t wait to update you again soon :)


It’s 5:15 am…know what that means?

It means I’m in Israel! And I can’t sleep. Perfect time to blog.  

The past week has been a whirlwind.  While in NY/NJ, I was able to spend some quality time with my cousins, for which I am so thankful.  Throughout the few days I was there, we went into the city and saw a Broadway show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, ate at an amazing Thai restaurant that we fell upon on the street, visited the Museum of Arts and Design and enjoyed beautiful walking weather in the city. 

My journey to Israel began at 4:45 am two days ago.  Flying British Airways was a good choice, except for the fact that the turbulence was so terrible during my first flight.  Enduring up and down, side to side bad turbulence for 45 min straight was not a great start to the journey, but I had high hopes it was going to look up from there…

After arriving in London for my two hour layover, I found that my flight was delayed for an hour.  Given that, I thought it was a perfect time to skype my mom!  After reminding her of her username and password, we video chatted for the very first time as middle-aged English men sitting behind me creepily looked on in amazement.  If I hadn’t of already recognized the power of technology, it was at that moment when I knew that keeping in touch will be a little easier than I previously thought.  Thank goodness for that. 

My second flight was much better than my first.  After going through passport control, I picked up my luggage, which, by the way, I thought I did very good for 6 months of traveling, but according to planet earth, I way over packed – surprise surprise… After attempting to push around a broken luggage cart for 10 minutes, all while walking backwards through crowds of people because the wheel wasn’t working, I decided it would be best to get another cart.   I realized that if I left my luggage sitting for less than one minute by itself, it most likely would have been blown up in fear it was a bomb and so that being said, I knew that probably wasn’t the best option so I kept on with my backwards walking, obtained a new cart and reached my destination. Mission accomplished. 

After encountering many Israeli stern stares, I made my way down to the Ben Gurion train station where I waited for the next train to Nahariya. After settling onto the train and shoving my luggage in random places under the seats, I finally was able to soak in the beautiful sights. As I looked outside the train window, I was home again. 

And just when I thought it was smooth sailing…

I arrived at the train station and was greeted with a broken elevator, which should have taken me to the exit.  After a nice man helped me take my luggage down the two flights of stairs, I finally reached the outside just to find that my Uncle was nowhere to be found.  After walking around for 15 minutes, unsuccessfully asking a foreign woman for help and practically passing out from heat exhaustion, I see a familiar smiling face coming toward me and I couldn’t have been more thrilled! We headed to the north where we were meeting the rest of my extended family at Hagoshrim – a beautiful kibbutz resort near Kiryat Shmona.  The ride up to the north was another journey in itself.  The hour ride turned into a two-hour ride up and down the winding hills sitting on the border of Lebanon.  If I wasn’t nauseous already from the 25 hours of traveling, this car ride sure didn’t help.  After spending my time counting down the kilometers until we reached our destination instead of thinking about being carsick, my uncle realized we were a little lost.  Oy. We turned around, headed back down and around the winding hills until we stopped at a gas station. 

If the journey couldn’t get any longer, I then got locked in a tiny, hot bathroom for about 7 minutes.  As I pounded, kicked and yelled for help, the lock finally opened and I was free! I couldn’t believe it…but, yet again, I could.  I was in Israel and this journey was a sign that not everything was going to run as smoothly as it probably should…

After stopping on the side of the road because I got pretty sick, we finally found our way. As we pulled into the parking lot, I see to my left the foreign woman who I asked for help from at the train station an hour (or 2) away! It was such a coincidence…I wonder if her journey up here was anywhere similar to mine.

After a total of a 29 hour journey, I took a shower, settled into my beautiful room and then passed out…for the rest of the afternoon.  It was Shabbat and the entire family, 24 of us, sat in the Kibbutz sukkah for a wonderful Shabbat dinner and as we caught up with our lives and relived some distant memories, so many of my worries vanished and I couldn’t be happier to be back. 

It is now 6 am and I hear the birds chirping outside my window...I think I'm ready to go back to sleep for a few hours.  I spend the rest of Shabbat here until Sunday when I head back to Tel Aviv to meet my program…until then, I hope you all enjoy your first beautiful weekend of Fall! :)