Aaron Mandel, Assistant Director of Teen Programs for Camp Tawonga, wrote a trip update on the first few days of the Teen Service Learning trip with Yahel in Israel.
The group has now been in Israel for over three full days and things are off to a great start! Upon arrival in the late afternoon, the group met Inbal, the Israeli staff from Yahel Israel who will be with the group throughout the trip and went to a promenade that overlooks Jerusalem for the first full group meeting and discussion in Israel. Dinner at their hotel that night overlooked the old city of Jerusalem. The group did a geography activity and got to bed early after the long day of travel.
The next day the group toured through Jerusalem including the Jewish quarter of the old city and a visit to the Western Wall which was very special for the teens. The group also toured the City of David and got a lot of rooftop views of the city. Their guide taught them a lot about the significance of Jerusalem for many different peoples. For lunch this day the teens were all given their own allotment of shekels and allowed to choose from a few different restaurants to sample the local cuisines. After wrapping up in Jerusalem the group headed to their home base for the next two weeks outside of Yavne and settled in. After dinner they had a session on “culture as an iceberg” to prep for their meetings with the community the following day.
Yesterday the group spent the whole day getting to know the community, teens and key players in Yavne, the site of our service project. They visited a resource center for Ethiopian Israeli families and met many people from government agencies and the Friends by Nature NGO we are working with. The group also spent the afternoon and early evening getting to know the group of Ethiopian teens who will be with them throughout the time in Yavne. Group get-to-know-you games and a BBQ dinner closed out the day and the staff all report that it was really inspiring and special to see the connections starting to be formed.
The work project begins today and over the weekend the group goes on a weekend Shabbat retreat to an ecological educational farm. Everyone is soaking in all the new sights and sounds and having a great time!
Last night, a few of the current Yahelnikim and Yahel alumni joined some of our friends from Gedera at a protest in the city of Kiryat Malachi. The protest was in reaction to a news segment aired in Israel that showed members of the Kiryat Malachi community coming together to sign housing agreements that barred any renting of apartments to Israelis of Ethiopian descent. If this wasn’t bad enough, some Israeli students went undercover to try to rent an
apartment in this area, and the man renting them assured them there would be “no roaches” there – he was referring to Ethiopian Israelis. One resident came on camera saying that the “only good Ethiopian was one in the grave.” I watched this segment with the Yahelnikim and one of our friends from the neighborhood who is of Ethiopian descent. I tried not to cry, and failed. He walked away for a few minutes, and we all had our own reactions. He said he knew this type of racism existed, but to see it and hear it was jarring, although he wasn’t sure why. For me, I know why I was emotional. I was embarrassed. Mortified, really. Mortified for every Jewish person who believes that all Jews are one people and we have a responsibility to protect one another. We have failed one another and, I believe, our ancestors and our generation have the responsibility to fix this.
Jews have been discriminated against for thousands of years. My grandmother and grandfather were in labor camps and survived the Shoah. They saw their families murdered for being Jewish. Never should Jews be spewing this kind of hatred against anyone- especially our own brothers and sisters. Israel is the home for all Jews- there should be no conditions. This has been a lesson for me in how to channel my own anger into something positive and productive to make a difference. To do my part to ensure that this is the last generation of any immigrants to feel unwelcome in their home, in all of our home, Israel.
The first step was to participate in the protests here in Israel. What will come next, I am still figuring that out but I am thankful to Yahel and all of its supporters, my fellow Yahelnikim and my friends in Gedera, for being on this journey with me to create and spark social change, and for allowing me to be on theirs.
T-Shirts say "The value of a man is not the same as the value of an apartment"
"I'm a woman, I'm Jewish, I'm Ethiopian... deal with it!"
"Our blood is good only for wars?"
"You should love your neighbor as yourself, even if he doesn't look like you"
We have been in Gedera for almost four months now, working in different areas and on different projects. We have become acclimated with our everyday schedules and have a greater understanding of our new home. This week, however, marked a new chapter for us as we embarked on our very own project here in Gedera. After months of observations and meetings with community members and the like, we decided that contributing to the already existing community garden would be most beneficial. Our idea was to set up weekly activities in the garden that would provide the youth with structured activities and also encourage integration.
We decided that there would be no better way to kickoff our weekly event then throwing a Hanukah party in the garden on the first night of Hanukah. We had two arts and crafts projects, a seedling seminar, fresh pita cooking, Hannukah sing-a-long, homemade menorah for candle lighting, and Sufganyot (Hanukah Doughnuts). Everything was set up for a great evening; the only thing left to worry about was the turnout.
Garden party: Justin lighting the menorah for the first night of Hannukah
We had spent so much time preparing this event and coincidentally another Masa program, Eco Israel, just so happened to be joining us on that day to see what Yahel was all about. We spent the morning talking to them and showing them around our neighborhood; Eating Ethiopian food and sharing laughs. We tried to make them feel as comfortable as possible but lingering in the back of all of our minds, we knew we had to have a successful afternoon. Read the rest of this entry »
In the last 10 months I have had the good fortune of doing community gardening work in several different contexts. I have worked in community gardens in a predominantly Ethiopian Israeli immigrant neighborhood, another one that is open to everybody in the town of Gedera, and one at an Ethiopian new-immigrant absorption center in Beer Sheva.
Each of the gardens are beautiful in their own way. In addition to producing food, the gardens serve as places for talking, laughing and learning. In the buildings in the Shapira neighborhood, the immigrants came from different regions of Ethiopia at different times, and some speak different languages from one another. The majority of the adults speak Amharic as their mother language, but some only know Tigrinya (a language spoken in northeastern Ethiopia). In addition, about 5% of the neighborhood is made up of non-Ethiopian Israelis from the former USSR, Morocco, Yemen and other places. Most of the Ethiopian immigrants in the neighborhood lived in villages in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, lacking running water and electricity. Some villages were only Jewish, while others were comprised Christians and/or Muslims as well. However, the people lived separately based on their religions. The villagers grew their own food, made their own clothing and homes, and the lifestyle moved at a slow pace.
Now in Gedera (and towns and cities all over Israel), the Ethiopian Israelis are living in buildings in an industrialized, fast moving country. The community gardens under the buildings provide adults an opportunity to grow their own food as well as flowers and plants for aesthetic purposes. In addition, they provide adults with opportunities to work together with their neighbors (Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian) and form relationships and teach their kids about gardening, connecting them with their heritage. The gardens also serve as a source of empowerment. Many adults in the neighborhood are unemployed or work low income jobs and the community garden provides them with the opportunity to work and bring food to their families. Read the rest of this entry »
This morning I woke up early for the Hanukkah tiyul (camping trip) training session. Lisa and I got dressed and then headed for the local bakery around 7:45 am. It’s less than a three minute walk from our house, and whenever you pass by, the most enticingly delicious smell hits your nose. It’s almost impossible to resist going in when walking by, and I hardly ever attempt to resist. Lisa and I go in to find the place packed with people. It’s Friday morning and everyone wants to get the tastiest burekas (essentially flakey pastries filled with a variety of either savory or sweet goodness) in town before Shabbat. Lisa and I joke about buying two of each bureka because they are all fresh out of the oven and still steaming. We load sweet and savory treats into our bag while we attempt to keep our place in line, because the line is practically out of the door. I pay no more than a dollar for my five burekas: two potato, two mushroom & onion, and one chocolate croissant. After Lisa pays for her food, handling the line and Hebrew like a veteran Israeli, we head over to the meeting place for our tiyul. Read the rest of this entry »
Justin and the Yahelnikim doing group activities with other Friends by Nature staff members
Teach: to impart knowledge or skill in.
When I began teaching here in Gedera, I thought I would be helping my students learn English. The major mistake in that assumption is that “Teach” and “Learn” are totally different. Knowledge imparted is not congruous with knowledge received.
We have a program called “Shabab” which essentially means, “Homework at Home”, where I have been going into a seventh-grade boy’s home and helping him with his English for almost two months now. I can remember the first time I walked into his apartment and sat down in an environment that had me confused as to how to spell “cat” and “dog”. We sat on the couch with the TV on playing music videos. The father was sitting next to us with a screaming baby in his arms. We crouched over to work on a knee high Coffee table. Making it even more difficult was the fact that my student knew almost no English. How was I going to teach English in this environment? Read the rest of this entry »
At the time I really wanted to volunteer, immerse myself in a different culture and spend time living abroad. I had hopes and desires, but I had no idea what my experience would be like. Would I be able to make an impact in the neighborhood? How much of a difference can I make without knowing Hebrew and with my limited Amharic (the language spoken by most of the Ethiopian Jewish immigrants)? Would I make great friends? Questions flowed through my mind like a river slowly carving a canyon. But, I answered “yes” to each of these questions.
During the first two weeks of my time here, we were very busy learning. We had sessions about empowerment, Ethiopian Jewish culture and sustainability. I was eager to start mingling and meeting people in the neighborhood and volunteering, but I was grateful to be introduced to these important issues and not just thrown into my volunteering immediately. On my first day off I walked through the neighborhood alone. I brought a hacky sack and asked kids and teenagers if they wanted to play with me. I played with some kids and I also talked with some older folks who were sitting on benches. I greeted people with my limited Amharic. I had a nice talk with an older man and I told him I love injera (Ethiopian flatbread) in Amharic. After telling him this he invited me into his home. I was really surprised, and honored, at the invitation. I had never been invited into anybody’s home or fed right after being acquainted. He asked his wife to bring me some food and we ate together. I wasn’t able to communicate very well, but fortunately I knew how to say two of the most important things; thank you and the food is delicious. Read the rest of this entry »
Every Yom Kippur since I was born has been spent standing next to my Dad in synagogue. Whatever was happening in our lives and wherever we were during the year, on this, the holiest of holy days, we found each other. But this year was different.
This year, I found myself standing next to 200 young Jews on a rooftop in Tel Aviv with a group called BINA, the only secular Yeshiva of its kind in Israel. I was one of no more than a handful of English speakers. Other than a few prayers, it was all foreign. There were no familiar faces, words or tunes. No Dad standing next to me. And for some reason, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be and felt totally enveloped in love and comfort.
Before moving to Gedera and participating in Yahel, I was what you would call an “involved” Jew. I worked at The Jewish Federation, I had been on Birthright and I even did JDate…. Doesn’t get much more Jewish than that trifecta!
Several weeks ago, I walked leisurely down Shapira Street, taking in the neighborhood that I had spent a year volunteering with—the neighborhood that in three weeks I would leave. I was a participant on the Yahel Social Change Program, a program that works in collaboration with a grassroots NGO that does community empowerment with the Ethiopian Israeli community in Gedera, Israel. The majority of our initiatives centered in Shapira, one long street containing 22 housing projects and approximately 1300 Ethiopian Israelis.
As I walked home, I stopped at the big parking lot where the neighborhood kids always played. I put down my things and started kicking a ball with the kids. I realized I knew all of their names. Then a crowd of older boys came and took over the game. All of them were youth center regulars who sat down to talk and say hi. Half an hour later, the woman to whom I taught English drove by in her car, honking her horn. Noya, her four-year-old-toddler, rolled down the window and squealed my name at the top of her lungs.
My work with Yahel demanded that I think hard about the process of social change. Social change, I learned, is fraught with moral ambiguities. I wrestled often over whether our presence was sustainable or whether our work was truly empowering.
Yahel’s logo is “Build Community. Create Change.” The truth is, as I’ve now returned home to Seattle, Washington and think back on that moment—playing with the kids, seeing the people I teach, waving at the people I work with—I realize I achieved exactly that. Ultimately, I learned that social change is about weighing the benefits of your work and accepting its limitations.
Yahel’s influence ripples throughout Shapira. On Monday nights, the day Yahel offers “Open Space” in Shapira’s youth center, teens crowd the room to play ping- pong rather than smoke on the street. Walk down the road and kids who would never have the opportunity to speak anything but Hebrew or Amharic call out in English. Women who couldn’t recognize an English letter now read; their children read faster. Our collaboration with a local grassroots NGO sparked movement and infused energy in their staff. As the old Ethiopian men who sit at the lotto kiosk on the corner shake hands with the first American they’ve ever met, our presences catalyzes something in Israel that has atrophied: social integration. Yes, one by one, the Yahel volunteers will leave. But our impact, I believe, will stay.
I came to Gedera because I believed in social change. I made social change. I came because I sought community. I helped build community. And as I sit here under Starbuck’s placid walls trying to process this inchoate feeling of emptiness, I realize above all, I found love. Three days ago, I left Gedera to come back home to Seattle. Sitting here in Seattle, I miss Gedera. I miss home.
Back in September, the Yahel Social Change Program participants were asked to take on a group project. The objective was to learn about the needs of the community, think creatively and collaborate with community members to create a project that was helpful and sustainable. Nine months later and almost towards the end of the program, we are so proud to share with you this video that was put together by program participants. It tells the story of one of the projects they have been involved with – a glimpse into some of the amazing things that have been happening in Gedera.