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… 

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