Day one and two
We arrived in Jerusalem full of anticipation, settled in with some ice-breaker sessions and got to know one another a little better. We also received a warm welcome from Charles Ribakoff, chair of the JDC-Israel Committee who told us how happy he is to have us there and that the week ahead was sure to be amazing. Afterwards, still full of adrenalin and energy, a few of us decided to take a walk through the old city to see the Western wall. I could hardly wait to see it for the first time, and as we made our way down the cobblestone streets, through old archways and past historic ruins my excitement grew. Being at the wall is a very moving and powerful experience. It was midnight and there were still large groups of people taking a moment to pray, to make a wish, to simply feel the energy of this ancient symbol of fortitude. I slipped a note in the wall with one simple wish, and as we left I felt emotional, but I also had an indescribable feeling of belonging. I fell asleep with an instinct that the journey ahead was going to be life-changing.
We squeezed a lot into our first day of the trip. After an amazing Israeli style breakfast and enjoying the view from Mount Zion Hotel, we were ready to head to our fist site visit. We arrived at the JDC's offices where we were given a briefing and overview on Israel's key social challenges of today. JDC's TEVET Partnership with the government was created to raise the level of marketable skills among Israel's most vulnerable communities, such as the ultra-Orthodox and the disabled. We learned that JDC in Israel is like an incubator for social issues. Some of the focuses are the high percentages of at-risk youth and the disabled and elderly who are looking to have a quality of life that is supportive and empowering. Our first day focused on learning all about the Haredi Jews in Jerusalem and the challenges that they face.
We were taken on a walking tour of neighborhoods Me'a Shearim and Geula, by Aharon, a specialist on Haredi issues. I had known very little about Haredi Jews before today, about their values and challenges, and the intricacies of their everyday lives. I may have had my preconceptions, but I wanted to go into the experience with an open mind. We heard from two Haredi Jews themselves and I got the impression that they really wanted us to believe that their lives are very similar to ours and that their families are loving and very happy.
We learned that there is a very low employment rate amongst the Haredim, especially the males. For the men, their sole purpose in life is Torah study and they devote most of their time to it. They have large families with eight children on average and the wives have most of the responsibility of raising the children. The women often get part-time work that helps them to support their families and this has it's own set of challenges. They seek jobs that are flexible, close to home and that respect their values and traditions. They live somewhat insular lives and often don't have televisions, radios or computers in their homes. Real estate is especially expensive for these large families, and young couples have had to move further away from home and establish new communities. There is concern about how the existing communities they settle in will respond to them. We were informed of a JDC program which offers information and guidance to help Haredi Jews with training and finding jobs. We visited a call center where several women had been trained and are currently working.
One might think they live a somewhat sheltered life and that their children grow up with a more narrowed experience than other children living in Israel. I personally believe that being exposed to all the good and the bad in society and choosing to do the right thing builds a strong character and identity. From the perspective of the Haredi Jews, they are not sheltering their children, but rather not unnecessarily exposing them to temptations that are not beneficial for spiritual growth. The experience was definitely eye-opening. I believe that they lead happy lives but at the same time I wonder if there may be resentment or hardship beneath the surface.
At dinner that night we had the opportunity to discuss and share our thoughts from the day. We openly discussed what bothered us, what inspired us, and what was unexpected. Some said they were surprised by how welcoming and open the Haredi men were that spoke to us, thinking that we might be treated more as outsiders. One thing that stuck with me was how much the women have on their plates, with raising so many children and creating a supportive environment for the whole family, as well as being in the workforce. I couldn't help but raise the question of why roles in the family can't be more balanced. Would it not be less taxing and more meaningful to share the raising of children more equally as parents, to share the experience of studying torah together as well as apart? And would it not be empowering to each be working to support the family? I think that due to financial hardships this is a question they are having to face more and more. As of 2013, 27,000 Haredim men and women have participated in JDC-TEVET employment programs; 14,436 have been placed in jobs, and 2,500 are currently enrolled in training programs and hopefully the numbers will continue to rise. I think that with understanding and respect a great deal is and can be done to help the Haredi Jews build skills, find their niches in the workforce and collaborate with one another.
Today we shifted gears to learn about the Ethiopian immigrants of Israel and the programs that are in place to help them with finding work, keeping their sense of identity and culture, and raising children in Israel. We visited an after-school activity center in Kiryat Gat where the program Parents and Children together (PACT) was being implemented for children at early development stage and heard from a local coordinator who is an Ethiopian immigrant himself. He explained that integrating the Ethiopian children with Israeli children is very important and what PACT is all about. The program brings psychologists into the classrooms to identify special needs, plan and implement interventions, track the children’s development, aid the teachers professionally, and provide the parents with counseling. There are subsidies and a lot of support available to families through this program.
There are a large number of single parents in the community and they are grateful to have extra support. In Ethiopia mothers often carry their children wrapped around their backs and the children don't always make direct eye contact with an adult when they are speaking as a sign of respect. These are things that in the western culture we are not accustomed to, so when the Ethiopian families first came over to Israel this program did a great deal to help them to not only adjust, but to thrive. PACT has integrated classes with various activities that promote positive social, emotional, and behavioral development among the children. One of the activities we joined in on had the kids building paper huts that look like the houses made from straw and clay in Ethiopia. In many ways the Ethiopians are still keeping their cultural traditions and identity alive, as this is very important to them. 18 kindergartens benefit from this program in Kiryat Gat, and altogether 14 000 Ethiopian children are benefiting from this program throughout Israel. We had a chance to sit with the children and observe their activities, watching them sing hebrew songs. They seemed very excited to have us there. As we were listening to a talk earlier in another classroom the children were playing outside and kept smiling and waving at us through the window. I waved back and smiled at one of the kids and later as we walked out, he found me, waited for me to put away my notes in my bag and then gave me a big hug. It was a really special moment and I could have spent all day there.
The local coordinator of PACT told us the story of how his family came to be in Israel, fleeing the Civil war and a great drought in Ethiopia. It was a really tough journey and he was only 2 years old at the time so he shares the story his parents told him. He said that his family always believed they would come to Israel one day and it was only a matter of when. They set off on foot for Sudan, and along the way were stopped and warned that if they went on they would likely not make it. If friends or family members passed away along the journey, they had to bury them and then move on, trying to have faith that there was something better that lay ahead for their families. Israel was not just a safer place to settle for them but a chance at a better life for their children and families, a chance at an education and a successful future. And this story is not unique. There are millions of Ethiopians who made this same brutal journey, not knowing if they would make it.
We then headed over to a clubhouse next to a small forest where programs are held for youth-at-risk. These youth have often had really tough family lives and experienced hardships and neglect. They end up leaving school and resorting to drugs and violence. We learned about the Nirim in Community Program from founder, Shlomi. He told us that the program provides critical support and life skills to these youths through community service, tutoring and retreats in the desert and wilderness. These children usually start out being resistant to the activities and abrasive with everyone, but through the program they learn to trust one another, they bond with their leaders, and realize that they can learn some valuable life skills there. We were led through some of the exercises they do, like pulling yourself across a rope bridge on your stomach and being blindfolded and led by voiced instructions through the forest. The exercises were fun, challenging and definitely took us out of our comfort zones.
From there we went to a center where the program Better Together is put into practice. They focus on early childhood development and have many enrichment activities for children from disadvantaged communities. The program also aims to engage parents, teachers, and community leaders in strengthening communities. We were led to a classroom where they had volunteers teaching free art classes to children in the community and you could see how much fun the children and volunteers were having getting creative together. This is something I do in my own community and I'm so happy to see the power of creativity and how it brings people of all ages together.
We then headed to a boutique brewery in the Negev for a tour and taste of some local beer. Everyone was really impressed by the delicious amber ales and stouts that they had to sample. It was great to relax after an intense day with a cold beer in the peace of the desert. After dinner and reflections on the day, we spent the night at Kibbutz Kramim Chalets where we roasted s'mores around the bonfire and bonded over music, stories and our shared experiences. It was a very meaningful day and heart-warming to see all that is being done to support children and parents and to build stronger communities of diverse cultures.
We started out the day visiting the Eshel Senior Day Center and learned of the programs in place to combat loneliness amongst the elderly, such as bringing in high school students as volunteers to read to the seniors and join in on creative activities with them. While we were there they were molding clay ceramics and we were told that it is not only very therapeutic, but also soothing to their rheumatoid arthritis in their hands and fingers. There are programs in place that deliver hot meals and medicine to the elderly that are homebound, and this is especially critical during the times of conflict, when it is too dangerous for them to leave home. Many of the elderly there are survivors of the Holocaust and it means a lot to them to be able to talk and relate to one another in a unique way.
We met up with Avivit from The Inter-Agency task force on Arab-Israeli issues. Members of the Task Force believe in social and political equality for all inhabitants of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike. The Task Force aims to generate awareness among the North American Jewish and Israeli public to advance civic equality in Israel, where Israeli Jews and Arabs can contribute, participate and benefit as full citizens.
We then visited a Bedouin community in the Negev where we had a chance to learn what life is like for bedouins and the very complicated issues they face when it comes to identity and ownership of land. Some of them said they identify as Bedouins but they are first and foremost Arabs and Palestinians. We spoke to two 23 year old girls and they were very open with sharing with us what their lives are like and what their traditions are. They were both studying and had a lot of ambition. The one girl said that she volunteers at a school with Palestinian and Jewish children and that everything is very integrated between the two cultures. They are taught both Jewish and Palestinian songs and she said it warms your heart and gives you hope for the future to witness it. We learned that, during the conflict when the rockets were falling, the Iron dome system always tries to protect recognized Bedouin communities. However, the unrecognized communities aren't even on the map and are therefore more at risk. These communtities often don't even have electricity or running water.
We then made our way to Jaffa and ended off a busy day with an amazing and very unique dining experience at Na Laga'at "Dinner in the Dark." The waiters are either completely blind or have limited sight and we dine in a pitch black room. At first as we walked into the room in a train with hands on the shoulders of each person in front. I felt a little anxious about the idea of eating and drinking in the dark and being the klutz that I am, was quite certain I was going to break something. Soon after being seated I really started to enjoy it as it became peaceful and all my other senses were heightened. We managed to pour wine and make a toast in the dark and pass things to one another surprisingly well. I felt as though everyone was really listening a little more than usual. The meal was delicious and dessert was a surprise that we had to guess at. Our waitress shared her story, what she was studying at university and what her experiences have been working there. It was a special, unique experience and I would definitely recommend it.
Israel is full of social entrepreneurs and successful start-ups and on day five we visited two guys who told us all about their projects. One project aims to raise awareness of smartphone addiction by getting people to participate in a phone-face-down challenge while out with friends, while another was a resource for graphic designers who are navigating the freelance world and need help finding work, quoting and juggling clients and creating the best resume they can. They also spoke of how they were a part of the unplug for Shabbat effort that has been making it's way around the world and that we joined recently in San Diego.
We then visited a center for young adults with disabilities and learned about the challenges faced when it comes to finding a good job. Here we met with Jewish service corps fellows who will be working in this field in Israel for a year. We discussed what it means to have a disability and what people's perceptions might be, how as a society we may underestimate the disabled. Often they are just as capable as we are, though their abilities may be different.
We took a break for lunch in Shuk HaCarmel where we enjoyed hummus and pita and had some interesting debates. We discussed disabilities and the fact that there are sometimes options available to improve someone's life who has a disability. If you are a parent with a deaf child, and you have the opportunity to get them cochlear implant surgery with the ability for them to hear, would you take it? Or do you feel that there is nothing missing from their life and they are happy and successful just as they are. If you are a deaf parent with a deaf child, do you worry that they will leave you behind and enter a different world that you are not privy to? We also discussed hidden disabilities versus physically apparent disabilities. It can be really difficult to have a physical disability that causes others to form snap judgements about you, and it can also be challenging to have a hidden disability where people think you look just fine but have no idea of the pain or discomfort you might be experiencing daily. This experience was a reminder to me that as a society we could be doing more to make sure the disabled don't feel isolated, unconsidered and underestimated.
Afterwards we headed to Lod's Center for young adults which offers immigrant and disadvantaged young adults the skills and information needed to lead successful lives. Community-building and leadership opportunities are always available through the center. We then spent some time weeding in a beautiful community garden with some bubbly ladies from the community. They sent us off feeling rejuvenated and healthy after some fruit from the garden. We ended off the day with an incredible meal, hosted by Charles, at restaurant Herbert Samuel where we were joined by some more Jewish Service Corps. fellows working in various programs, and the room was alive with interesting conversation. We then headed off to Sorona Beer Garden in the hub of Tel Aviv where we had a great time and unwound from a busy day.
Day six and seven
Today we learned that there is a lot of support for refugees, asylum seekers, and their children. We visited a school for children of refugees who often have extremely challenging backgrounds and have needs far beyond basic education. The staff work hard to care for the children's unique needs and emotional well-being. As we walked around and observed the children playing and engaged in different activities, I noticed that they were very respectful and supportive of one another. Three girls were sitting together while one of them read from a book to the others and there were other kids helping their friend walk who had fallen and hurt herself. It seemed like a very caring environment, where the children could have fun, and feel safe and secure at the same time. As we stood in a group with children running around us in all directions, in a room with flags from many different countries and symbols of peace painted on the walls, I felt inspired and hopeful. It also reminded me how much I love being around children.
We then went on a tour of Tel Aviv through areas where there are a large number of african refugees and an ethnic neighborhood where we visited Levinsky market for lunch. We spent some more time in the market looking for some wine and baklava for Shabbat. That night we all headed down to the beach for a candlelight Shabbat service and to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful night and we sang prayers and each shared our reflections on an exciting, stimulating week and our intentions for Shabbat.
Over six days we had learned of so many critical issues and significant challenges in Israel and the most amazing part was seeing how many caring, selfless and dynamic people were putting in their time, energy, hearts and souls, and embracing those with different cultures and lifestyles to their own. I can only speak for myself, but I think that In the process we all learned a lot about ourselves, what pulls at our hearts, and makes us lean forward. As each of us return to the routine of our daily lives, some experiences will resonate more, some memories will linger longer than others, and whatever we choose to do with that, I think we are all different people from it. We all take something away from the experience, and the beauty is, that we all have the ability to create change, to spread the word, and to share our experiences within our communities. As I sat in a circle of of new, wonderful friends from all over the United States and the world, I felt at home. And as I stood with my feet in the Mediterranean and thought over the past week I felt both restless with energy and ideas and at the same time grounded and at peace. I realized that what grounds me is surrounding myself with good people who I connect with, it's using my creativity for a greater purpose, it's leading and mentoring and working with children. I hope that each and every person I shared this experience with walks away feeling inspired.
As we spent our last day of the trip simply enjoying each others company and a walking graffiti tour through the neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, I realized how much I had bonded with these great people and how much we had learned about one another in such a short time. I left Israel feeling a deeper connection with my roots, a greater understanding of the Jewish homeland and yes, I'm an eternal optimist, but I do have hope that in spite of the terrible things that have been happening between Palestinians and Israelis, and although the issues are complicated, there is progress being made and people working together for the greater good. And with all my heart, I hope and pray for peace.