As March approaches and the blushing red anemones struggle for space among wild Israeli tulips, spring has begun to blossom without my knowing as I realize that I have “endured” my first Israeli winter. It is difficult to keep track of time here, as the changing seasons are not as rigidly or meticulously defined as the all too familiar heat waves and snowfalls in New England.
My stay in Israel is more than half way over. I am keeping busy, and upon looking at the calendar have frantically realized our time in Haifa is more than half way over, as well—and I haven’t yet shared my volunteer sites. It took some time to settle in and create a schedule, fully due to the fact that there are too many things I want to get involved in and not nearly enough days in the week.
Because Haifa is a much bigger city than the other partnerships OTZMA is involved with this year, it is unlikely I walk to any of my volunteer sites—except for one or two, which I will share first. Other than those two, I generally hope for the many busses that are seemingly nonexistent, the ones I always get lost riding, and the ones who kindly switch routes without bothering to inform the English speaking passengers. I can, however, always rely on the Carmelit—one of the best additions to my life thus far. The Carmelit is the only subway system in the country of Israel, and has all of six stops. With Haifa situated atop of a mountain, the Carmelit works to convenience commuters’ lives by climbing up and down the summit every eight minutes. Looking like it stepped out of 1970’s Paris, the vermillion rail coordinates perfectly with vintage wall tiles, fading graffiti and fluorescent lights. It only takes one conductor to operate, always the same old man who trudges through the first cart to the rearmost and vice versa when reaching the last stop on the line to change switchboards.
A couple mornings a week, I climb the mountain to Bosmat High School on Masada Street, whose boutique cafes and tucked away thrift stores have easily made it my favorite street in Haifa. Bosmat is and has been described by many as a very special school—its percentage of children who have immigrated to Israel with their families is considerably higher than most schools in Haifa, and every student I meet has a different back-story. Many of the students at Bosmat emigrated from Russia or the Ukraine, and usually speak three plus languages—they are always in disbelief when I humbly inform them that most American students who were born in the United States know only one, sometimes two, languages. After the incessant questions pass—“how was your prom?” “have you ever had a food fight in your cafeteria?” and my favorite, “is America really like in the movies?”—we usually settle down to business, exchanging stories and practicing conversational English. Many of the students I work with already have a good handle on their English, but don’t ever get to practice—like a high school student learning Spanish in the United States, these students only get to speak English three times a week and for only an hour each time. Every year, students take a “bagrut” exam, comparable to a final exam but taken a bit more seriously. The English section of their bagrut is what I often help them with, aiding in reading comprehension, vocabulary and spelling, as well as informal dialogue. That the students enthusiastically vie for library time with the English tutor and come to chat with me or practice their grammar during each one of their six breaks warms my heart and demonstrates to me that one lone English speaker can foster the genuine excitement of students to want to learn.
Every Wednesday night, I trek through the German Colony and through Wadi (pronounced “vadi” and Arabic for “valley”) Nisnas, where smells of warm pita and fragrant hommus beg me to enter Arab restaurants and embarrass myself as the token English speaker. I almost always do. Within Wadi Nisnas is a very special place called Beit HaGefen, (Hebrew for “house of the vines”), which is an Arab Jewish Coexistence Center where OTZMAnikim Jacob and I run an after school program for Arab students.
Since it is an after school program, we try to exude a very relaxing atmosphere where the students can come to hang out and practice their English at the same time. An afternoon of unwinding for both them and us, we play games, quiz them on vocabulary, and help them with their English homework. And on Friday nights before Shabbat dinner, Jacob and I sometimes attend the Arab Scouts meetings at a shelter near our home, and play games with the Scouts members. Living in the Jewish state, I look forward to getting outside of my comfort zone by devoting some time to do very non-Jewish activities. To my knowledge, all of the Arab students we work with are Christians, so we always get to apolitical conversations about how they spend Christmas or Easter decorating and giving gifts. It baffles me sometimes, how politically charged and incredibly complicated and complex this country is, and how much all of the students I meet are concerned with the same things I was concerned with as a kid—homework, friends, and weekends. What strikes me the most, however, is the unmistakable difference in Bosmat students and Beit Hagefen children.
Although Haifa is thought to be one of, if not the most, coexistent and diverse cities in Israel, I find myself having two drastically different conversations with the students at Bosmat and the ones at Beit HaGefen, who although are the same ages and most likely live down the street from one another, live multitudinously separate lives. Where most Israeli 17-year olds are wrapped up in getting ready for their army years, the closest thing that Israeli-Arabs have to the army is the Scouts, where they are trained and treated like soldiers.
Although I try not to play favorites, there is one place that warms me in a way that is wildly ineffable. A few afternoons a week, I spend time at a crises women’s shelter in Haifa, where I give hugs and love to the many children who range from about two years to nine. Now, for anyone that knows me well, those words have never come out of my mouth before now since I have averted contact with children my entire life. “No kids, no thanks” has been my mantra since I can remember. And to be honest, concentrating in women’s studies in college and having extensive experience in women’s work brought me to this shelter. I never imagined I would have hopelessly fallen for the children of these mothers, reaching into my heart to give more love than I thought I ever had.
At any given point in time at the shelter, you may hear Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, and if you listen closely, even more languages. I spend many afternoons playing with children who don’t speak English, and some who don’t speak a language at all. For many of these children who have fled with their mothers from dangerous or unfit homes, their parents either spoke to them in multiple languages, or they never were afforded the opportunity to learn in school. At this shelter, they attend school and learn together with the aid of many social workers and volunteers.
Lately, I have also been developing friendships with the women who live at the shelter, which has been tremendously and invaluably transforming for me. Not only is it difficult enough I am trying to relate and give love to battered women who don’t necessarily want help or love, or more commonly, are considerably bitter coming to grips with the fact that they are unable to care for their kids and themselves; the language barrier on top of that makes it seem nearly impossible at times. However, after two months of showing up on time and never asking questions, I feel that I have proven myself, much like I have been admitted to a closed society or been accepted into a private world. Neglecting the cliché, I would be lying if I said the hugs I receive from both the children and mothers don’t get me up every morning.
In preparation for the weekend, on Thursday evenings I join an organization called “Likrat Shabbat”, which translates to “towards Saturday.” This group of mothers, high school students, soldiers and retirees gather to create packages for needy families for Shabbat dinner and the rest of the week. With monetary donations, Likrat Shabbat purchases vegetables and fruits, dairy, meat, bread and prepared food items and creates boxes for up to 200 families per week. Then, volunteers come at the end of the night in their cars to take a few boxes each and deliver them to assigned addresses. Like Beit HaGefen, this is an evening activity where again, Jacob and I get to meet new people, share our story, and practice our Hebrew while helping others.
The last addition to my volunteering in Haifa brings with it a bit of a story. Ten-month long OTZMA encompasses three parts, of which Haifa is the second leg. The third part of my program includes a professional internship in either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. With my background and interests in the world of women’s non-profit work, an organization called Shatil caught my attention while doing research. I interviewed with them and realized at once that Shatil, the action arm of a larger philanthropic foundation called the New Israel Fund, would be a perfect fit for me. I’ll begin working with Shatil in April in Jerusalem, but in the meantime, offered to help out in their Haifa office so I could start right away. Upon returning home, my roommates were curious about my interview, as we all had similar days that week. When I shared the name of the organization, Jacob sat up quickly and through excited gulps informed me that his host mom worked in the Haifa office, and that I would probably be seeing a lot of her.
When we first met our host families in November before moving to Haifa, I met Elana and we immediately connected—vegetarians and feminists, the conversation we shared barely saw any silence. And although we didn’t promptly foster that connection when I moved to Haifa because of how busy we all were, I had a feeling the poles would align somehow—and, very conveniently, they did. Elana called me five minutes after my conversation with Jacob, and informed me that not only did she hear I would be starting to work in the Shatil office, but that I would be working alongside her. On Mondays I work in the office, and the occasional Wednesdays are spent traveling to Kfar Qara, an Arab village in the “Triangle” of Israel. There, I spend time with a woman named Amna who I will soon blog more about, who started a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and empowering Arab girls and women. Upon meeting this woman, I was immediately taken aback by her special story and her utmost courageousness to question the traditional roles of women in Arab society, and work against all odds to create a safe space where women can engage in diverse and open dialogue. I work with Amna now to help her find funds for her projects, doing some grantwriting and research on the side.
Free time has been difficult to pinpoint during the past two months, and after a relaxing stint in Karmi’el during the first leg of OTZMA, I couldn’t be more pleased. Along with volunteering, the Haifa-Boston Connection has a meeting or event almost every week, and OTZMA continues with its monthly tiyuls (trips) around the country, each devoted to a specific theme. Last weekend, we spent two days hiking in and learning about the Negev, which takes up 60% of Israel’s landmass and shares only 8% of it’s population. This weekend, we will be joining our Israeli peers for a Shabbat Mifgash (meeting) where we will be having more formal interactions with Israelis in their early 20’s and encountering different elements of the Israel-Diaspora relations.
Until next time, when I’ll be covering the CJP steering committee events in Israel…lehitra’ot!