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…