Saturday, October 24, 2015

Journeying Across Barriers

Watching a group of Arab children perform at a community center. They were dancing to Let it Go, and my heart was melting.

A photo my friend Jodie caught of me leading a game in class at Elrazi school to teach English.

This has been a very important week for me because it was my first week of working at Elrazi, an Arab elementary school located in a poor neighborhood adjacent to Lod's Old City. It is also notorious for being one of the most troublesome schools in Lod due to its disruptive students, underdeveloped discipline system, and poor academic results.

I am working in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades along with another Yahel volunteer every Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. My position at Elrazi encompasses a large chunk of my weekly schedule, and I have found it to be a difficult commitment. Not only have I been placed into a vastly different cultural environment where I do not know the language and customs, but I have the responsibility to overcome the barriers put before me and deliver favorable results out of a school known for its unsuccessful reputation. As I go through my long days at school, it can definitely feel like I have the world on my shoulders and I am being provided with tasks that are impossible to complete. However, I knew there would be challenges when deciding to volunteer there, and I am hopeful that as time goes on the fulfilling aspects of this job will outweigh the hardships. Just within the past week, I have learned much about getting across language barriers, engaging children in ways that allow them to simultaneously learn and have fun, and the broader situation in Israel between Jews and Arabs. I know I will continue to learn and use these methods to ensure beneficial outcomes for both my kids and myself.

A main thing I have discovered from this week is teaching English to non-native speakers is hard, especially when English is their fourth language. Especially in the fourth grade, where the students are still learning English letters and do not even have the ability to communicate in Hebrew, any attempt of mine to communicate in English seems futile. In these cases, I am forced to use creative methods. Whether it involves performing an action (like writing words in English) and having them copy it or using hand motions and body language to convey what I want them to do, I am realizing that I can slowly but surely overcome a language barrier and help my students learn English. It also helps that I have immense support from Elrazi's English teacher, Adel, who is always available to translate my words to Arabic and discipline kids who have behavioral issues.

I have also found that an effective way to help these kids learn English is to engage them through games. I discovered this one day last week, when Adel provided me the task of running fun activities for each class that could reinforce what each grade was learning. This was my first big task of the year, and along with my fellow volunteer Jodie, I enthusiastically accepted this assignment. Jodie and I decided to create a relay race competition with two teams that involved writing down as many English words as possible corresponding to specific categories within a set amount of time. There were some categories we used for all the grades, like colors and foods, and there were some we included to reinforce what the classes were learning at the time, like letters, numbers and the present progressive (verb + ing). Ultimately, we were able to create an activity that was both fun and able to teach and reinforce essential English knowledge for each grade level. It also gave us the opportunity to plan and run a lesson for each class. For me, it was rewarding to experience planning a class activity, because I was having some difficulty thinking of one and now I know that it can be a simple idea that is easy to implement. This was a great experience for me, and I am grateful for the confidence that it  granted me and the kids going forward.

Another thing I have appreciated is getting a unique perspective about Israeli society that many people, including Israelis, never get to understand. For the short time I have worked with Arab kids, I have seen that Arab society is very different than what Americans and Israelis generally expect it to be. When speaking to Israelis, including those in mixed cities like Lod, I seem to get one common response about Arabs: they are trained from a young age to hate Jews, and therefore there is no way to reason with them. I saw example of this when talking to someone who was working at an activities fair in Lod at a community center that is predominantly inhabited by Arabs. Even though this man interacts with many Israeli Arabs, he was adamant that Arab citizens of Israel want to see Jews get killed and the eradication of the State of Israel.

While I tend to shy away from political discussions in order to be polite and "politically correct," even though there is no such thing in Israel, all of the encounters I have had with Arabs have explicitly countered the popular "us vs. them" narrative. All of the Arab educators and activists my group has met know that we are Jewish and here to help the State of Israel, and they have still welcomed us with open arms. They see that there does not need to be a rivalry between Jews and Arabs, and that we can work together to promote causes that benefit both groups. This has also been apparent in the school I'm working in. Though I don't discuss politics with the kids and teachers I work with, they all know I'm an American Jew who is there because of my strong connection to Israel. The kids I interact with know I am Jewish and speak Hebrew, and instead of judging me they continue to engage me and feel comfortable in my presence.

I have also learned that contrary to the opinion of the man I met at the community center, there is nothing in the Arab curriculum about hating Jews or the State of Israel. These kids start their day with an assembly in which they learn values from the Qur'an, and then they spend the rest of their day learning the standard subjects of Israeli Arab schools such as Arabic, Hebrew, English, math, and science. These kids follow the same basic routine as any other elementary school-aged kids, and yet Israeli Jews who pass by them daily are convinced their routine consists of a gigantic propaganda bubble. I hope that through my interactions with the Arab population of Lod, both Jews and Arabs will be able to dispel the myths about the other and realize the common values and potential that can be brought out when working together for a common goal.

I am confident that through my continued encounters with the Arab population of Lod, I will be able to build trust between myself and my Arab students and colleagues and establish strong friendships and partnerships. I look forward to learning more about my Arab neighbors, specifically the kids I'm working with, and listening to their feelings about issues that concern them. After I connect to these people more and learn more about their perspectives, I feel I will be much more well-rounded and educated about the issues I care about regarding Israel. I will have ample opportunities to meet and learn from fellow Lodians this coming week, as I start my afternoon volunteer placements at a local library, a community garden, and the Lod Young Adults Center.

Shavua tov (good week) to all! I hope to post more updates soon!

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Interfaith City Vs. A Mixed City

Over the past week, I gained more insight into the different components that define a mixed city with Jews and Arabs in Israel. Living in Lod has started to get me thinking of what it truly means to live in a mixed city. There is definitely a lot of material to absorb here, with Jews and Arabs working together on community projects and even being neighbors in some cases. However, going to the breathtaking city of Haifa last week made me think about an entirely different meaning for living in a mixed city. After visiting Haifa, which appeared to include many more efforts for interfaith cooperation than Lod, I began to think about what the ideal situation is for a mixed city in Israel, and how this compares to my experience with and understanding of interfaith relations.

From my observations, Lod falls rather low on the mixed city scale, and cannot be truly considered an interfaith city. True, there are many Jews and Arabs who live and work together in Lod and those residents get along very well. My host family, for instance, has Arab neighbors and is very friendly to them when they see them around. However, it is not the same feeling of community that I experienced through my interfaith work in college. On the American University campus, I felt that I was in a completely welcoming environment whenever I stepped foot into a religious service or meeting, regardless of the group that was conducting it. Even though I'm Jewish, I had no problem attending events that predominantly contained people from other faiths, and I found it so easy and fulfilling to engage someone from a different faith in an educational conversation about their customs. On the contrary, in Lod I feel that most areas are classified as either Jewish or Arab, and one cannot feel comfortable enough to spend significant time in neighborhoods concentrated by the opposite group.

After my visit to Haifa, I decided this city much greatly fit my criteria of being both a mixed and interfaith city. One reason for this was the activities that are organized to encourage friendly Jewish-Arab relations, which are predominantly coordinated by the organization Beit Hagefen. Beit Hagefen is a nonprofit that strives to create a safe space for all Haifa residents to gain equal ground and express their cultures in an effort to promote intercultural understanding. My group met with two representatives from this organization who told us a bit about its background and the events it does to involve all of Haifa's cultural and religious groups. One event that impressed me in particular was the Holiday of Holidays Festival, which takes place in the steets of Haifa around the November/December holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid-al-Fitr) and showcases different cultural and religious symbols and performances. To my surprise, Beit Hagefen and other interfaith centers in Israel do not conduct much discussion between the religious groups, and instead focus on collaborative events between them. This was not what I expected out of an organization that promotes interfaith unity, since most of the interfaith work I'm experienced with greatly utilizes discussion about religious topics that can bring different religious groups together. I was definitely shocked, but I was glad to see the success of this method in bringing together Haifa's multicultural residents.

Another aspect of Haifa's interfaith identity that greatly impressed me was its emphasis on the Baha'i religion. When I went to Haifa, I had the opportunity to tour the beautiful Baha'i Gardens and learn about the fascinating Baha'i faith. This site is one of the holiest Baha'i sites in the world because it is the burial site of the Bab, the predecessor to the main Baha'i prophet Baha'ullah. I had toured the Baha'i Gardens once before, but this time around I was able to get much more out of learning abut the religion's unique practices.  One aspect that really interested me was the openness to other religions, to the extent that Baha'is are encouraged to look into other faiths and do not need to commit to a religion until their early teenage years. I also found it interesting that Bahai's traditionally worship at home, and "houses of worship" are generally used for community gatherings and not for prayer services. In this sense, the religion has a large individual component, and followers are allowed to form their own unique relationship with God. Another interesting fact is though Akko and Haifa are the two holiest cities for the Baha'is, no Baha'is actually live in Israel permanently, because they do not wish to add to the religious conflicts present in this land. This is such a fascinating religion to me, and I hope I will get to learn more about it.

Both of these experiences made me think about how Haifa residents noticeably integrate different religious and cultural traditions into their society. The Baha'i Gardens are located on the slope of Mount Carmel, and are very easily noticed when passing through the city. Similarly, many Arab neighborhoods of Haifa are located in the center of the city, and it is easy to see Arabs and Jews walking on the same streets and even interacting. Lod closely resembles my idea of an interfaith city, but it does not meet the criteria in the same way as Haifa. While Lod allows separation between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, Haifa discourages it. While Lod is prone to occasional riots and narratives of misunderstanding, Haifa contains pockets of cooperation and tolerance. Both are wonderful cities with great examples of coexistence, but from my experience with interfaith work I believe Haifa is on the better path toward Jewish-Arab coexistence and lasting friendship.

This week is my first week of working at the Elrazi school, and I'll surely have many interesting stories to post soon. Until then, l'hitraot!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Surprises and Expectations

Meeting with Shalom Azran, the head of Lod's Education Department
At the Elrazi Arab primary school

At the Levi Eshkol Jewish primary school

At the Ayalim Student Village in Lod

Every day I spend in Lod, I get a new surprise about what life is like in this fascinating city. One that has mainly been on my mind connects to the relations between Jews and Arabs in Lod. Before I arrived in Lod, I had learned about multiple efforts for Jewish-Arab coexistence in the city, and had positive thoughts about the state of Jewish-Arab relations. My optimism was reinforced after speaking to the head of the Young Adults Center here, who explained that though there are strictly Jewish and Arab neighborhoods here, Lod is truly a mixed city and the diverse groups here have been able to live peacefully without any violent demonstrations.

This notion was challenged this week after some of Lod's Arab population held a violent demonstration against police officers last Wednesday. This demonstration follows the massive trend of terror attacks against Israeli civilians that has escalated recently. There were dozens of attacks this week alone, and they occurred throughout the country in places such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Petach Tikva in the center and Kiryat Gat toward the south. As someone who is living in Israel now and has needed to take precautions due to the escalation of terrorism (Our group needed to postpone an upcoming day trip to Jerusalem, and we got kicked out of a taxi this week when we said we wanted to go to Jaffa), I have been naturally curious as to why there are so many attacks happening now, and even more curious as to why tensions are compounding in Lod. Everyone I talk to seems to be confused as to why exactly Palestinians are acting up so drastically at this moment. When I asked my program's local coordinators what sparked the demonstration in Lod, for example, they could not give me a clear answer and assumed it just had to do with the racial tensions that have been an ongoing issue here. As time progresses, I hope to better understand what is provoking this surge of violence, and specifically how it relates to the community I'm working in.

The divided nature of Lod, despite its reputation as a mixed city, also came across during a conversation I had with my new host family during Shabbat dinner. When I told my host family I am planning on working in an Arab school, they all were very confused and had very concerned expressions. They said that even though Jews and Arabs live close to one another in many parts of Lod, it is very unlikely for them to interact in any case and even more unlikely for a Jew to volunteer to work with Arabs. They were so confused that one of them asked me if I was Arab, even though I was wearing a kippah. This reaction came as a great surprise to me, not just because of what I've heard about Lod's reputation as a mixed city, but also because of how similar this family seems to the ones from my home synagogue. This family goes to an Orthodox shul and follow many Jewish traditions, but they were very liberal about Shabbat observance. They were fine with using electronics, and they even offered to drive me home after Friday night dinner. Also, they spoke near-perfect English and they were able to discuss American popular culture to a tee (They had me at Friends and South Park). Due to the similarities I found between this family and Conservative Jewish families from my home community, I knew that the division between Jews and Arabs from this family is indicative of a more widespread division between Jews and Arabs in Lod. This made me realize that my work here is so much more valuable than I expected. It is not only my responsibility to teach Arab children English, but I am also responsible for teaching Arabs about the Jewish and Israeli cultures and showing them that Jews can be partners rather than adversaries.

This mentality played a major role in my selection of my morning volunteer placement, which I needed to submit at the end of last week. My first choice, the one I am most likely to be placed in, is the Elrazi Arab primary school. When I visited this school, I was immediately drawn by the energetic and friendly children who were very eager to talk to and play with me. I was also able to help lead some games in an English classroom there, which gave me experience working in that environment. Though knowledge of English is not very prevalent among Arab children due to its status as a fourth language (after spoken Arabic, written Arabic, and Hebrew), the kids were very enthusiastic about learning English and I was able to communicate with many of them in Hebrew. I expect that the lack of knowledge of English and the fact that there is only one English teacher would make this job difficult. However, I came to Lod to work with Arabs, and I am sure that I can find an effective way to help these kids improve in the areas of English in which they are having difficulty. I am also confident that having a position at this school would greatly enhance my knowledge of Arabic and Israeli Arab culture and the kids would be able to understand a Jewish perspective, which would significantly benefit both sides.

On another note, last night I saw Matisyahu in concert in Jerusalem and it was by far one of my most fun nights in recent memory. Even though I only very familiar with a couple of Matisyahu's songs, it felt so powerful to watch him perform in Jerusalem after all the violence that has occurred there recently. Not only is Matisyahu a great talent, but he sent a strong message that Jews and Israelis will not allow terrorism to let go of our beliefs and make us scared. It was also very fulfilling to be back in Jerusalem and participate in such a special event next to the walls of the Old City and Mt. Zion, sights that hold so much historical and religious significance. And, of course, One Day and Jerusalem were off the hook. I am posting videos I took of the concert below, so you can get a glimpse of how special it was.

And now, I am in the midst of my last week of orientation. Just one more week until my work begins, and I am really looking forward to it. Will definitely post more updates soon!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Complex Elements, Worlds Apart

Carmel Market in Tel Aviv

Amazing hummus at Abu Hassan in Jaffa 

Jaffa Port
Dizengoff Square
The Kotel on Simchat Torah
Outside the Old City of Jerusalem 

I recently returned from an exhilarating weekend trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with other Yahel participants in Lod and Rishon. While I had a lot of fun immersing myself in these extraordinary cities, going to one after the other also made me focus on their drastic differences. I have always known and heard about the contrasting natures of these two cities, but this time I was able to see the differences much more clearly. These differences were brought further to fruition this week after the devastating terrorist attacks in Jerusalem's Old City, which had a major impact on my group's plans.

To me, this past weekend brought brand new meaning to the word complexity. As one who spent his entire college years studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am very aware of the complex nature of the conflict. After living in Jerusalem for a semester, I am especially aware of Jerusalem's unpredictability and the risks that arise when going to such a contentious city. After all my years of studying about and traveling to Israel, I thought my response to this situation was a clear one: to go to Jerusalem despite the terrorism. I knew this would be a risky move, and one that would involve many precautions in order to ensure my safety. However, after living in Jerusalem and hearing about the increased security presence there for the holiday, I was confident that I would be safe if I avoided certain areas that have been historically prone to tension. Jerusalem is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I knew my heart would have been filled with so much sorrow and regret if I decided not to be there to celebrate Simchat Torah as I planned.

What made this decision complex was taking what others had to say into consideration. First, I thought about what my program recommended I should do. While I was in Tel Aviv, I received messages from my advisors and counselors saying I should be very cautious should I choose to go. My program gave me much independence in this regard, but it was also clear that they would rather I skip the Jerusalem leg of the trip and not put myself in harm's way. Second, I looked at the news, seeing what reports on the ground had to say about the situation. Perusing articles from many sources, I got very contradictory information. Some sources were describing the horrific and dangerous scene in Jerusalem, while others were reporting about measures being taken to strengthen security for the holiday celebration. This turned out to provide very little assistance, and I decided to turn to other means to make my final decision.

The issue that mattered most to me was what the rest of my group was thinking. From the get go, both the Lod and Rishon groups were very torn about what to do. This is partly because many of my fellow Yahelniks have not been to Israel many times before, and were anxious about the possibility of traveling to a city where sparks could easily fly at any second. In the end, many of my group members, including all the Rishon representatives who were with us, decided it was best not to go to Jerusalem. I respected their decision and their desire to stay safe. I also knew that part of the value of this trip would be the community aspect of the celebration, especially since these people have truly become family to me.

After the majority of our group decided not to go, I and four others were very on the fence. We truly wanted to experience what we knew would be a holiday celebration to remember, but at the same time we also knew it would be bittersweet to celebrate without our new family members as we planned. In the end, the five of us decided as a group that it would be best to go to Jerusalem for the holiday. This was a very hard decision to make with so many unpredictable pieces involved, but we realized how special this celebration would be and were willing to take the necessary precautions to enjoy Jerusalem in a safe manner.

One lesson this experience taught me is safety and security can be viewed in a variety of ways, especially in Israel. It amazes me how one just needs to travel the half-hour car ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to look at important issues through entirely new lenses. In Tel Aviv, the most I was concerned about safety was when I was guarding my possessions at the beach and trying to stay alert when walking around the city center late at night. In Jerusalem, I had no choice but to be concerned about safety, since I was walking near streets that days before had been the epicenter of mass terror.  In Tel Aviv, I was able to enjoy a relaxing couple of days sitting on the beach and witnessing many of the compelling sites, restaurants, and bars. In Jerusalem, while I was able to meaningfully celebrate the holiday through prayer at the Kotel and delicious meals with host families, it was impossible to escape the tension in the air from the recent events and specifically the notion held stubbornly by many that Arabs will continue to heartlessly kill innocent Jews. During my conversations with many people I met in the Old City, the idea of any effort to make peace with the Palestinians seemed like a naive dream that should be kept in fairytale books. At this time, it seemed that the world was divided between Jews and Arabs, and any membership of one group required hatred of the other.

Another lesson that I took note of is how powerful the emotional bond is with family and friends. When you are near a situation in which your life may be at risk, you for sure know who has your back, and who is there to give you support when you really need it. Throughout the weekend, I received multiple messages from family and friends asking me if my trip to Jerusalem was still on and telling me to stay safe. When hearing these thoughts, I felt really appreciative of all the love and care I have in my life.  I learned that though you may disagree with people some of the time or not talk to them much, if they really care about you they will be there for you when it counts, and that is truly a sign of having love in your life. I want to thank all of you who sent me messages and continue to give me your love and support.

In the end, I'm proud that I went to Jerusalem for Simchat Torah, and I'm proud of all the work I will be doing soon in Lod to promote a peaceful and stable society in Israel. Hopefully one day, through efforts such as mine designed to affect coexistence between Jews and Arabs, terrorism and violence in Israel will just be in the history books and never incorporated into the lives of innocent civilians. The principal of the Arab high school I visited today said something I found very wise. She said that children who throw stones don't have hope and know nothing but fear, and these children can only be cured through education. I truly hope that my work in Lod can help provide Arab and Jewish children the education they need to know that conflict is not the solution, and it is possible and necessary for both sides to coexist peacefully.