Hi all you JewishBoston readers!  My name is Gabriella Mervis and I am spending the next 10 months in Israel on Project Otzma, a volunteer program.  I am living now in Karmiel, a small city in the Galilee.  After three months I will be moving to Haifa and volunteering there.  Part 3 of the program has yet to be determined.  Anyway, starting today I will blog on here once a week and share with you all my experiences.  As I have the past 3 weeks to report upon, this post will be very long.  Bear with me and if you are interested, please check back for more posts to come!

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Before moving to Karmiel, I and the 20 other participants of the program, began our orientation.  We did more getting-to-know-you games than can be imagined.  We spent two mornings hiking around Ein Gedi, and while it was a challenge after my recent ankle surgery, it was a lot of fun.  Additionally, we attended a Hadag Nahash concert in Arod.  Hadag Nahash is a popular Israeli hip hop group that’s really unique with its use of wind instruments.  It was a blast!! Lastly, we went and visited Gilad Shalit’s family’s tent.  For those of you that don’t know, Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas militants on June 25, 2006.  He is still being held hostage and held for ransom of the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. At this point, Israel has not agreed.  Gilad Shalit’s family sits in a tent right outside of the Prime Minister’s office protesting for Gilad’s return.  It was really powerful to hear his cousin speak, especially because we were there on Gilad’s birthday.

 

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After that week, we got settled into Karmiel.  We are living in the mercaz klitah, absorption center.  We have ulpan, Hebrew classes, every day and beit midrash, Jewish text interpretation, once a week.  I am volunteering at Salachat Chama, a soup kitchen in the area.  I am working with my three favorite friends on the program, too, so I’m very happy.  We get there in the morning and help with organizing the food.  Then, we assist with preparing the food such as slicing vegetables or making soup.  At 11:30, the people in need come in for the meal.  The soup kitchen doesn’t ask questions.  Anyone is invited for a free hot meal.  It is hard to tell why most people are there, but there are definitely the regulars.  Sounds corny, but serving the food is my favorite part because it is such a warming feeling to see the smile on their faces and seeing them chow down. On our second week, one of the men showed up with four chocolate bars that he purchased for me and my friends as a thank you for volunteering.  He could have spent that money on food for himself.  We were all in shock.

Each of the program’s participants was assigned a host family in the Karmiel area.  Two weeks ago I went to my host family’s house for Shabbos, and went again last night.  My mom is from England and my father is from South Africa.  They each made aliyah in 1985.  They live on a very small kibbutz right outside Karmiel called Tuval.  They have a 17 year old daughter, Yael, who is finishing school and going to the army next year and a 14 year old son, Alon.  Having a host family has really helped with my adjustment.  When I explained that I did not have any family in Israel, my mother immediately exclaimed, “Good!  We’ll be your family.”  They even texted me after my first day of volunteering to see how it went and gave me a fan for my room.  I am very lucky to have them!

It is also a very exciting time for me to be in Israel.  Not only is it currently a transformative time for Israel politically, but for the first time in the history of the state, citizens are taking to the streets to try and persuade the government in social justice issues.  These protests concern anything from education to the high price of living in Tel Aviv and everything in between, putting all issues under the umbrella of “social justice.”  It is difficult to walk past any park in the whole country without seeing clusters of tents and colorful signs regarding the protests.  It is a beautiful problem to have in Israel right now.  Typically, the Israeli government and people have to be so concerned with its foreign affairs, specifically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is an amazing thing that Israel now has the opportunity to focus on issues within the country and the Israeli people, rather than issues of national security.

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Last week we were told that the biggest march in Israeli history was anticipated to take place in Tel Aviv. In our little nook here in Karmiel there was a march in support of the Million Man March taking place right across the street from our home in the absorption center. Looking out of my bedroom window, I saw hundreds of Israelis walking to gather in the park. The excitement was palpable and slowly every participant on the program, as if in a hypnotic trance, made their way across the street. I marched with the Israelis for about a half hour screaming mantras I didn’t understand.

 

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Every Tuesday OTZMA organizes an educational trip day. The theme of this past Tuesday was Minorities of the Galilee. We kicked off the trip with a brief lesson on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict at a nearby kibbutz, Shorashim. After the lesson we drove fifteen minutes to a neighboring Arab village, Sachnin, to meet with Arab students studying to be teachers. We broke into small groups with about 4 Americans and 1 or 2 Arabs and discussed topics such as religious holidays and compared experiences as minorities in America and minorities in Israel. It was fascinating to confront my own personal biases and to find common ground with these women.  I had an even more interesting experience because the Arab with whom my group met was not Muslim, but an Arab Christian.  In fact, she explained that she doesn’t even feel Arab because the word “arab” has such an association with Islam.  She explained that she is first and foremost a Christian.  One other thing I found so interesting was that when asked what our favorite thing about our country was, she responded “I just feel so safe here.”  We, as Americans, tend to just view the Middle East as a dangerous place with consistent violence and to hear her say that really struck me.  She explained that what she would change about her community’s customs was how much freedom she got.  She talked about how much she longed to travel or live outside of the home, but that those were simply not options.  Lastly, as we head-on discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she stated that she completely stays out of it because she is Christian and not Muslim, and therefore, it does not concern her.  She says she does not discuss it or even think about it often.  After the discussion we had a quick lunch and a long hike to the Druze village of Peki’in. We went for an hour long walking tour before heading to a DELICOUS traditional Druze restaurant.

Well, that sums up 3 weeks of crazy experiences. If you sat through all of this, I commend you.  Please please check back often as I will update much more frequently!  Have a grrrreat day.