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 :)