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.