Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Independence and Team Building

One of the most fulfilling aspects of the Yahel program has been its apparent adult quality. I have been on so many trips to Israel that are completely prearranged and do not allow much flexibility in the schedule. Contrary to this, my Yahel experience has completely broken many of my preconceived notions of an Israel program for young adults. This has been done primarily through granting the participants a largely independent routine and instilling many teamwork and confidence building measures.

Many of these beneficial components were found in my retreat to the North this past weekend. The two Yahel groups from Lod and Rishon L'Zion spent last Shabbat at Yarok Az, a moshav (farming community) in the Gilboa Region of Northern Israel. We began the retreat with a productive day of hiking down a mountain and through a river. The mountain hike was very challenging. It was over three hours long, and it was very rocky and steep. However, we got to look over a beautiful valley and learn about a region that is important in the Bible as a site of many famous battles.  The water hike was a lot more fun because we were up to our heads in water, so it was a great way to cool off on a hot day. There were also tunnels that we could go through very fast along with the current, which was a great thrill.

Taken by my friend Alex with a selfie stick

The bulk of the retreat took place at the moshav, where we were able to form most of the schedule without the staff. This was great because we really got to do exactly what we wanted and feel accomplished when things went according to plan. One of the things each group took charge of was planning the meals for the entire retreat. The Lod group in particular was responsible for cooking Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. It was challenging to cook big meals for 20 people, but our group was able to delegate tasks very well and everyone pitched in to make delicious meals. Additionally, both groups worked together to plan our Shabbat experience. Each person was able to contribute their preferences, and we had a very meaningful day with a variety of activities. From this component, I gained a lot of confidence in my creativity and ability to brainstorm effective programming.

Another essential component of the retreat was our many teambuilding exercises. The group spent half a day performing tasks such as creating a ground-based map of the world and a timed relay race that were designed to improve our ability to work well in a group. I greatly enjoyed these activities because they taught me about different roles I have when I am in a group and how to implement those roles to the best of my ability. For instance, during the relay race my team was far behind the others, and I needed to find a balance between taking charge of the situation and working with my team to come up with a productive solution. I also learned about the importance of communication in order to achieve a successful result. This was especially apparent during an activity in which we needed to carry people through different levels of a ropes course without touching the ropes.

This week has been short so far, but it has already been very eventful. I went to a host family for Sukkot dinner and lunch. The food was delicious and everyone was very kind. I look forward to seeing more of the hospitality this community has to offer.

Tomorrow is a big day with starting Ulpan and looking at potential volunteer placements, so I'm signing off for now. L'hitraot!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Valuing Heritage and History

The view from my apartment's balcony

Shalom everyone and Shana Tova!

I can't believe I am finally in Israel beginning my nine month Yahel experience. Though my work  does not officially begin for another month, I have already learned so much about the community I am living in. When I applied for the Yahel program, I knew that I would be entering a city drastically different from what I am accustomed to, which is why my work there would be so necessary. Indeed, Lod is a small city that is very different from the large population centers I have been to and lived in. There are limited stores and restaurants, no big entertainment venues, and very little that screams modern commercial culture.

Though it comforts me to be in close proximity to these services, the lack thereof reminds me about my purpose for being here. I am not living in Lod to go to movies, go shopping, or go out for expensive dinners. I can do those things and much more by going to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Instead, I am living in Lod to provide vital services to a community that greatly needs them. Furthermore, I am living here to discover a brand new aspect of life in Israel, and to engage with people I would not be exposed to if I were living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Every moment I have spent in Lod has reminded me of the importance of being open minded and looking closely at details that can easily go unnoticed. In my neighborhood alone, I can see Ultra Orthodox Jewish, Ethiopian, and Arab men, women, and children walking around going through their daily routines. I have also been able to hear the Muslim call to prayer from nearby mosques and go to services at nearby Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues. These are quite unique experiences, and they make me appreciate my diverse environment and the multiple chances I have on a given day to learn about different walks of life.

Another unique opportunity I had was touring Lod's Old City with an Israeli historical archaeologist. I was surprised to hear that Lod is about 8,000 years old and it has held significance throughout many periods of the land of Israel's history. When looking at the many fascinating sights pertaining to Lod's history including an excavated former inn for pilgrims, or khan, and a lavish Greek Orthodox church containing the tomb of St. George, it was apparent that not much effort has been put into preserving and revealing Lod's historic heritage. Our guide, Alon, told us that Lod's municipality has neglected this issue for years and major conservation projects have only started taking wind within the last 10 years. Alon explained that under excavating specific sites is a political move to undermine the non-Jewish history of Lod and preserve Lod's importance as a foundation for the Jewish homeland. This case clearly presented the consequences of hiding and manipulating history, and it shows that if you hide a group's history it is like it never existed. No individual should have their heritage and culture dismissed and invisible to the world, and I am determined to play a role in providing exposure to those in need during my time here.

The khan in Lod's Old City

Church of St. George

Of course, along with all of the new things I am learning, there is also the sheer amazingness of living in Israel, especially around the chaggim (Jewish holidays). Last week, I spent my first Yom Kippur in Israel, and it was truly remarkable to see the country transform for this sacred occasion. There were literally no cars on the streets within the Jewish neighborhoods of Lod, and there was a very small number on the highway adjacent to the city. It was an exciting feeling to walk on the streets sensing the joy of children playing freely and the quiet of no cars approaching. This sharp difference from a normal day on any busy street in Israel is truly what I call an "only in Israel" experience. Tonight starts the week-long holiday of Sukkot, and I'm sure it will bring me many more unique moments to share.

Lod city center on Yom Kippur

Highway on Yom Kippur

I also went on a retreat to the North during Shabbat with my Lod group and the parallel group in Rishon L'Zion, but I will save that for my next post. It was such an inspiring weekend of beautiful scenery, group bonding, and team building, and I want to reflect more about it before I share my thoughts. I can safely say that throughout my crazy schedule this past week, I have developed strong friendships with my groupmates and staff, and I have learned a lot about how to improve myself as a leader, collaborator, and friend.  I am so happy to be a part of the Yahel Social Change Program, and I am looking forward to many more inspiring experiences over the next nine months.