Discovering Haifa's Beauty, Diversity and Genuine Coexistence, by Billie Hirsch (OTZMA Volunteer)
Shalom from Haifa! My name is Billie Hirsch, and I am a participant of OTZMA, a ten-month leadership development and volunteer-oriented program sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America as well as CJP. Since late August of last year, I have been awarded the bragging rights of calling Israel my current home. Although I can never expunge or replace the memories of my past four years of living the student life in Boston, I am absolutely loving life here and taking full advantage of everything this country and this city have to offer.
While being in Israel, the experiences I devote myself to being exposed to on a daily basis and the skills and talents I work to continuously develop are ones that I eagerly anticipate bringing home with me to Boston proper in July, when my program concludes. It is a gross understatement to say I am simply excited to be volunteering and living here in Haifa, Israel; rather I feel beyond honored to have been afforded this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give back in Israel and to truly learn of this country’s culture, history and politics. I am overall flattered to be representing the Jewish and youth community of Boston. I wake every morning to the sight of the Carmel Mountain, blessed to be residing in such a gorgeous city. Of course, the 65-degree weather in early February doesn’t hurt.
OTZMA has been in Haifa for exactly one month now, and the past few weeks have given us some time to settle in and explore, growing comfortable with our apartment and learning lots about the Haifa-Boston Connection. Staff and volunteer of the Haifa-Boston Connection, as well as the Young Leadership Committee, a brilliant initiative of the HBC, have been more than generous and helpful in our getting acclimated. They have invited us to movie nights, seminars, had us all over their house for the most impressive Israeli breakfast I’ve ever been lucky enough to indulge upon, and been there for us when we had concerns or questions—or just wanted someone to chat with! Lots of my upcoming posts will most likely be about the HBC and the YLD, and all of the truly fabulous work they do to not only keep Haifa interesting, but to foster and strengthen the tie between the Jewish community in Haifa and in Boston.
There are five of us living in the downtown (“ir tachtit”) area, right by the Haifa Port, while the rest of us are sprinkled across the country, other participants’ homes dependent on their partnership cities. The cast of Haifa OTZMAnikim is truly a group needing some serious story telling, which is why I’m here. Perry and Jacob live across the hall in student dorming, while Gaby, Sarah and I share a similar looking flat. We live in a building with other people from all corners of the world, and many funky restaurants, bars, and open markets are barely a walk away. Everything about our living situation in Haifa is fantastic, and I couldn’t have asked to live with better girls.
We all work in various arenas, volunteering with local and immigrant populations. Between the five of us, our volunteer sites are as follows: Beit Sefer Chofit Elementary School, Wizo Arts High School, City of Haifa Sports Department, Haifa Young Adult’s Center, Rambam Hospital, Hillel, Haifa-Boston Connection, Beit HaGefen, Bosmat High School, a center for the elderly, and a women’s shelter.
I work in the mornings at Bosmat High School, teaching English to many of the Russian students who emigrated from Russia or Ukraine when they were younger, although some were as old as six or seven when their parents made the move to Israel. In the afternoons depending on the day of the week, I work either at a women’s shelter or an Arab Jewish coexistence center called Beit HaGefen, which translates to “house of the vine.” At the shelter, I sit, play, and roll on the ground with over twenty children, ages one year to eight years. It is more than humbling to hear of the women’s stories, as I try to make their lives as easy as possible by keeping their children out of their hair while they cook, clean, and relax. I learn from both the children and the women, amidst the commotion of intensified Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic spoken at all times.
At Beit HaGefen, I work with Arab high school students, tutoring English, preparing them for end-of-the-year examinations, and learning more than I could have imagined from them—quite possibly even more than they learn themselves on our Wednesday evenings together.
Amongst all of this, I blog for the Haifa-Boston Connection and will soon begin working at a soup kitchen, creating food packages for the homeless and needy community of Haifa.
Although we are already a month into living in Haifa, I am consistently in awe of this city and can’t imagine it ever growing monotonous. The one thing that especially impresses me the most about Haifa and one of the many reasons why I am so proud to have this city as my partnership is the ineffable diversity and level of genuine coexistence. The third largest city in the country, Haifa is an extremely mixed city involved in a multitude of coexistence programs. Where as other cities, such as Jerusalem, boast of their extreme diversity, the walls of the Old City heavily perspire rising tension and often-unacknowledged suspense. Although no city is perfect, here in Haifa coexistence is a theme pushed heavily in almost every organization, and different walks of life exist quite peacefully in venues from the shuk to the school.
The amount of languages spoken at any given time on any bus or in any market is at least four, and the amount of religions practiced is copious as well. It is the one of the only cities to have operating bus lines on Friday afternoon through Saturday sundown, when the rest of the country’s transportation system is closed for Shabbos. This is because of the abundant Arab population, who are predominantly of the Christian faith. Just when you thought the religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all practiced within a 24 sq mile zone was enough, Haifa is also home to the Baha’i World Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Baha’i Gardens are a must-see, and one I will be finding viable ways on my part to visit in the upcoming weeks. Expect pictures!
My fellow OTZMAnikim and I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring and getting lost—we do a whole lot of getting lost—in Haifa. The Haifa-Boston Connection has been more than generous to us; getting us unlimited monthly bus passes as well finding viable ways for us to receive Carmelit passes free of charge as well. The Carmelit, for those from the U.S., is a stunningly miniature subway system, the only subway in Israel. It has six stops, and runs up and down the Carmel Mountain. The subway looks as though it was taken straight from 1970’s France, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of Haifa’s little niches. Haifa is full of secrets, between it’s hidden shuks and tiny side streets that seem as though they are heading nowhere and suddenly side slap you in the face with the most gorgeous sight of the Haifa port, and across the Mediterranean to the towns of Akko and Nahariyya. Just last week, Sarah and I explored the city on a Friday and happened upon the Haifa cable cars, which took us from the bottom of the mountain by the sea, all the way up in the sky to Stella Maris, where we walked back down, taking pictures and ruthlessly reveling in the beauty that we were looking down at.
In predicting the future personality of this blog, I hope to fill these next posts with fun Haifa specifics, interviews of Haifa OTZMAnikim in their work sites, day trips, fun events sponsored by the Haifa-Boston Connection and their Young Leadership Committee, and descriptions of change-inspiring Boston-Haifa projects. I have been keeping a blog previous to this for those interested in my adventures pre-Haifa, the link as follows: http://www.jewishboston.com/billiehirsch. As for tonight, my roommates and I are venturing out to explore another new and exciting gem of Haifa many cities in Israel do not have—the movie theatre! Wish us luck in not getting lost on the way. Yalla!