Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lod Through the Eyes of Outsiders

One of the most beneficial aspects of work is seeing the impact it has on others. Sometimes, I feel it is easy to go through my work just thinking of what I need to do day-to-day, and not thinking about the admirable results I am producing for the communities I'm working with. Especially in my current situation, since I am leaving Lod in five months and may never return, it has been easy to consider my time here as a temporary project that has a short-term impact that will not hold meaning after I depart. What I have learned, however, is that this is the farthest thing from the truth.

Over the past week, I had the privilege of my parents coming to Israel to visit me. Even though we have Skyped almost every week and kept in touch through email and WhatsApp, their physical absence from my life made me miss them a great deal, and it was so nice to actually be with them physically. We were able to do many things together during their eight-day stay, including trips to some of Israel's most interesting cities like Jerusalem, Akko, Tel Aviv, and one of my new favorites Zichron Ya'akov. However, what gave me the most meaning was not the places we went to, but the time they spent with me in Lod witnessing the community I have called home for the past four months. Through their time in Lod, they were able to witness my projects and their purposes with open minds, and give outsiders' perspectives on the work I am doing.

It is one thing for my supervisors, coworkers, Yahel staff members, and fellow Yahel volunteers to compliment the work I am doing. They are doing the same work, and they all are motivated to do it because they believe in the positive impact it is producing. They are right to think so, but they are thinking with an insider's perspective that is completely subjective. When people enter a context from the outside, they have had little exposure to the matter at hand and are able to provide a trustworthy opinion without much bias. With this in mind, after my parents saw some of my projects and commended me for the positive impact I am creating, I believed them. I knew that by coming to Lod with different perspectives from those of us who have living and working here, my parents could give me honest and impartial opinions of what they saw in the city and which initiatives seemed effective. Though my parents' company in general made me overjoyed, the time they spent observing my work in Lod was the greatest gift of all.

My parents' fresh look on my work also allowed them to explain how my impact can be improved. This was especially relevant when they visited a music chug (activity) that I lead once a week with Ethiopian children at the Chicago Community Center. Over the course of this chug, I have struggled to decide what exactly my role should be. From my experience as a choral singer, I have learned music from a very technical perspective. Therefore, my gut instinct when giving singing lessons is to teach breathing techniques, how to sing musical scales, and how to match notes from a piano. I have also considered my role as an American, thinking that makes me responsible for incorporating some English into these lessons in addition to Hebrew. With both these things in mind, choosing appropriate songs to teach my kids has been challenging. There are some Hebrew songs I know that are catchy and fun like "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu" and "Yachad", and my kids have really enjoyed those. However, I have felt that in order to further improve my kids' knowledge and my ability as a teacher, I need to take risks and try teaching songs that are a bit above my kids' comfort level.

During the lesson my parents attended, I learned that these risks do not always work out. I wanted to help my kids learn more English by choosing a song that had both English and Hebrew, hoping the Hebrew would make it easier for them to follow. What I did not consider, however, was my kids' reading level in Hebrew. When I put the lyrics in front of them and started playing the song, it became clear that the song was too difficult for them to read and follow along to. Frustrated over their inability to perform, one of my girls stormed out of the room and the others hid in the corners and became completely unresponsive. I intended to continue pushing for my kids to learn this song until I realized the main issue: the lyrics sheet didn't have vowels, and these kids are still at the level of needing vowels in order to read. Realizing this mistake in judgment, I decided to drop the song and enticed my kids back into the lesson by playing "Let it Go" on my phone, which they love to sing and dance to. This was a very close call, and it made me learn to be very careful about comfort levels when working with little kids.

When talking to my parents after the music lesson, I expressed how I felt like a failure as a teacher for not being able to accomplish my goal of teaching that song and creating a very distressing scene for my students. Thankfully, they were able to talk some sense into me by saying that taking risks is important for personal growth and instead of being a failure, this situation was a teaching tool for how to continue with this chug for the next five months. They also showed me that the purpose of this chug is not necessarily to teach these kids how to sing, but to provide a fun and creative space in which they can express their love of music. They said from observing my lesson, they saw how much fun my kids had just being able to perform the simple songs I taught them, and I should just focus on more songs like that instead of pushing my kids' levels and trying harder songs. Because they came with outsiders' perspectives, my parents were able to provide valuable advice as to how to make this lesson more beneficial, and for that I am truly grateful.

The Chicago Community Center, where my music lessons are held

My parents' visit to my Yahel community also positively impacted them by showing them a different side of Israel that exemplifies sanity in a sea of disarray. When communicating with my parents throughout my time on Yahel, they have expressed constant concern about the wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and certain actions the Israeli government has taken that they have seen as detrimental toward peace. Particularly with the recent announcement of a bill that would force nonprofits to announce their sources of foreign funding, it is easy to see why Jews and others around the world are concerned about Israel's inclusiveness of different opinions and overall democratic character. However, when Israel's democracy is seemingly under threat, it is important to see the evidence on the ground that proves otherwise, and that is exactly what my parents witnessed through Yahel. We had the pleasure of meeting with Yahel's Executive Director Dana Talmi, an inspiring woman who devotes her life to recruiting partners in strengthening social change initiatives in Israel. Dana was very honest with us, and said that while she is scared of the direction Israel is going in, she sees many pockets of hope through the communities and leaders she works with. Dana also expressed that as long as there are loud voices on the ground and in the government fighting for change and justice, Israel's democratic character remains intact. After this meeting, my parents and I discussed this message and they were comforted with the knowledge that the people of Israel are not simply accepting the status quo, and they are fighting to a create a truly democratic society.

With Dana in her home in Zichron Ya'akov
Another highlight of my parents' visit was when they observed two of my lessons at Elrazi, the Arab primary school where I teach English three days a week. As I expected from the warm reception I have received since I started teaching there, everyone at school was so thrilled to have my parents there. The teachers invited them in with open arms, and the kids were enthusiastic to talk to them and learn more about America. The first lesson they saw was a music lesson with a section of the school's fourth grade led by the Canadian music teacher Jen. They definitely added to the excitement of this lesson by singing along with the kids and taking pictures of the class. They also gave the kids more confidence to speak English by giving them an excuse to use words like "mother," "father," and "brother."

My favorite part of this visit was when my parents got to see me teach one of my fifth grade classes. This is one of my favorite classes because the kids are cute, sweet, smart, and polite (the perfect set!). When my parents met these kids, they were very impressed by the amount of English they knew and how much they were able to communicate. Before I even took out the five kids I teach in my small group, my student Hiba, who is considered one of the smartest in the school, told my parents, "Because of Dan I love to speak English." This was very surprising for me to hear because I usually go through the motions of the day and I never truly realize the impact my work has. Nevertheless, I was very touched to hear this, and in that moment I could actually feel the positive influence I have on my kids. Through this instance and many others, my parents' outsider presence made me step back and see what my work is like from the outside looking in. In these moments, I could visualize that any time I engage my kids through lessons and activities, I am earning their respect and empowering them to challenge themselves in advancing their knowledge of my foreign language and culture.

Me with my small group of fifth graders

Me in front of Elrazi

Me with Elrazi's English teacher Adel (far left) and the fifth grade homeroom teacher (center)

My parents' visit brought me so much excitement and joy. Not only was I able to spend time with them after months without their presence, but I was also able to grow in my work through their outsider perspectives. Now that I am almost half-way through my program, it was great to reflect on the work I'm doing and ways to improve for the time I have remaining. I miss my parents now, but the examples and encouragement they provided remained in Lod past their departure, and will continue to do so well after my time here is finished. As Malala Yousafzai said, "One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world."

With my mom at a wine tasting in Zichron Ya'akov 

Kotel selfie with dad
The folks :)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Life is Precious...but so is Living

As I have mentioned many times, living in Israel means living in a complex and unpredictable reality. Sometimes this has a positive connotation, meeting eccentric people and having unique experiences that can only be visible in a place where so many cultures and narratives collide. Other times, however, the connotation is one of shock, sorrow, and fear. This, unfortunately, has been the case since last Friday afternoon, when a shooter attacked innocent civilians and killed two at a bar on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.

For those who know Tel Aviv, you know that Dizengoff Street is one of the most lively and exciting areas of the city. It has some of the best shopping, restaurants, and bars in the city, and it is one of the best places to see the trendy nightlife and youthful spirit that gives Tel Aviv its infallible reputation worldwide. I know this area very well, and I have gone there many times during my time on Yahel to explore and have a fun time with friends. I was most recently there Wednesday night, when I took visiting family friends to an excellent seafood restaurant near the corner of Dizengoff and Gordon Street. Little did I know that two days later, right next to where I sat and enjoyed a nice meal would be the site of tremendous terror and despair.

I could not help but think that I could have been a victim of this shooting if I chose to go out on Friday instead of Wednesday, or if the shooter decided to proceed with the attack on Wednesday instead of Friday.  At the same time, I had many friends who were staying in Tel Aviv for New Year's Eve, and were only a couple of blocks away from the shooting. What would have happened if they decided to enjoy a drink on Dizengoff as part of their New Year's celebration and happened to cross paths with this killer? It turns out they were all perfectly safe, but we had no way of knowing until they texted us saying they were out of harm's way. In a small country like Israel, when something this severe happens, it is likely you know someone who was affected, and it is essential to know that everyone close to these incidents is secure.

It is a feeling like no other to know that a place you feel the most comfortable and care-free in one day can turn into the most insecure and deadly place the next day. My heart is filled with sorrow for the victims of this tragedy. I also feel much fear, knowing that a place I spend a lot of time in can easily become a center of terror. However, my dominant emotions right now are anger and frustration. I am angry at how unfair it is, that the people of Israel cannot perform the most leisurely activities without the threat of being murdered by a lunatic. I am frustrated that during the course of the current wave of terrorism in Israel, I have not been able to go anywhere in the country without fearing a possible terror attack, which makes me much more reluctant to be independent and go to places I would normally go to without question. No one should feel afraid to go through their daily routines and do the things they are passionate about. For this reason, I strongly empathize with all Israelis going through this turmoil, and I am strongly committed to working toward a viable solution that allows Israelis and Palestinians to coexist peacefully and maintain normal and relaxed lives.

This was not the first time in my life I have felt insecure due to terrorism. This incident brought to mind many shootings in the US in public spaces such as houses of worship and movie theatres, which have greatly increased my anxiety and vulnerability when going to such places. I have, of course, also been largely affected by the numerous stabbing and shooting attacks that have occurred in Israel throughout my time here. However, this shooting resonated with me much more significantly than similar attacks have before. With the attack occurring in the exact location I was at just two days before, I couldn't help but insert myself into that context, and even think of myself as a victim. In my mind, that killer was after me and all others who would have been at that bar enjoying drinks and the company of friends. In my mind, I could have easily been killed that day, and if this violent trend continues, any next day I spend at a bar or restaurant could be my last.

Though at any other time I would be undoubtedly willing to spend a night in Tel Aviv, knowing the shooter had not yet been caught understandably made me very concerned for my safety. Therefore, when I was invited to go out for dinner Saturday night in Tel Aviv with some family friends, I had no idea what to do. On one hand, I was excited to try a new restaurant and get a taste of home, especially with one close family friend who I had not seen in a while. On the other hand, with suspicions that the killer was still in the area and the realization that I would need to travel alone to reach my location, I was so scared of the possibility of something happening, and I knew that being alone would make me much more vulnerable.  As with other instances when I have planned to travel to places in Israel soon after attacks were committed in those locations, this was not an easy decision to make. Very confused and emotional, I eagerly sought the advice of my parents, who had negative predictions of the safety conditions in the city but told me I needed to look at what others in the area were doing and decide for myself what the best course of action would be.

Ultimately, after hearing that my family friends would be able to transport me to and from Lod, I decided it would be best for me to proceed with my plans in Tel Aviv. I understood the security threat I was under with a killer still on the loose, and I recognized the importance of protecting my life over less important priorities such as a random night out. However, I also felt an obligation to prove to myself and others that this is the same Tel Aviv that existed before the attack, and at its essence it is not a place that should be associated with disaster and terror. I am always profoundly moved by the resilience of Israelis following terror attacks, and this has taught me something very important: If Israelis gave into fear every time Israel was attacked, no Israelis would ever leave their homes, and the fun, dynamic public sphere Israel has created would be nonexistent. In short, life is precious and worth preserving, but it is also worth actively living, especially in the aftermath of terrorism.

I have attempted to follow this message many times throughout my time in Israel, even in tough situations when others were more reluctant. One such situation was on Christmas, a day when there are many celebrations among Israel's Arab Christian population. As one who has grown up in a society that glorifies Christmas and has never missed a Christmas celebration, I thought it be meaningful to observe the holiday this year in a place with significant sites pertaining to the life of Jesus. However, when talking to friends and family about where to go, most of them thought it was risky and unpredictable to go to a largely Arab area at this time. So, just like with my Tel Aviv dilemma, I knew that I would need to trust my instincts and make a rational decision on my own. Knowing that there had been incidents in Bethlehem and Jerusalem soon before, I decided that Nazareth would be the safest option for me. Even though no one was going to go with me, which I knew would make more vulnerable, I decided that it would be worthwhile to go on a short afternoon trip to Nazareth to see the major sights and observe the holiday.

Even after all the uncertainty I had about traveling to an Arab city in the midst of such an unpredictable time, I realized from the moment I entered Nazareth that I was about to have a very meaningful experience. I have always been into learning about different religions, and since the semester I spent in Jerusalem I have become very committed to exploring important religious sites. I knew that Nazareth, a place where Jesus lived for much of his life, would be the perfect place to connect to Christianity's early history and continue my exploration of Israel's overall religious significance. My journey started soon after my arrival when a bus dropped me off right next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, a massive complex under which Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said she would give birth to the son of God. While walking around the city and learning about the main sites, including numerous churches from the time of Jesus, I learned that there is also a Greek Orthodox church that connects itself to the Annunciation, and that story conveys that the angel Gabriel confronted Mary at a well instead of a cave. I, of course, needed to walk the extra half hour to see this church, which was very small but was connected to a large plaza with a big Christmas tree decorated beautifully for the holiday. I found this debate to be very interesting because it shows the extent of diversity within Christian theology and how different Christian sects choose to depict their sites and the stories connected to them.

Additionally, I was very surprised to see that though it was one of the most important days for Christians in one of their most important cities, not many people were actually there. While walking around Nazareth's beautiful churches and discovering their stories, I only saw a handful of tourists witnessing these sites alongside me. My assumption is that similar to my concerned family and friends, many people thought it was too risky to go to Nazareth, even with the extra meaning that comes with being there on Christmas. Though I think everyone is entitled to their concerns, I have to say from being in Nazareth in that moment, this feeling of worry seemed like the farthest thing from the truth. Even when I was walking alone through Nazareth's large outdoor market and crowded streets, I felt just as safe as I would walking in any other part of Israel. Though I got nervous whenever I was spoken to in Arabic and was unable to respond, I was mostly able to communicate in English or Hebrew and I was comforted seeing both languages on the street signs and on shops and restaurants along the roads. I understand why people feel insecure when traveling to such areas at this time, but I think it's important for people to think rationally and realize that not all Arab areas are dangerous, and taking a leap of faith and going to one can provide you with a very meaningful and beneficial experience. In this regard, I learned that a big part of actively living life is taking chances that in the long run could allow for significant benefits, in terms of experience and perspective.

The Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation

Remains of the ancient village of Nazareth

The cave where Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary

Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

A wishing well in the Church of the Annunciation

The well where the Greek Orthodox believe the Annunciation occurred

Mary's Well Square

The Synagogue Church, a former synagogue where Jesus presumably preached
Christ Church, an Anglican church in the city center

In the midst of the unpredictable and concerning nature of the current wave of terrorism, I believe my work with Yahel is more relevant than ever. In order to restore calm and security to the people of Israel, we need to come to a permanent end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs. One way to do this is by creating ties between Jewish and Arab communities through working toward common goals and discussions about the topics that connect them. This is exactly what I have started doing every week with Juzur, an organization that seeks to strengthen Lod's Arab population and provide them with increased opportunities in areas such as education and employment. Every Sunday night, my group has started to join together with a group of bright, bubbly, charismatic, funny, and goal-oriented Arab university students to discuss our common interests and projects we can collaborate on to improve conditions in Lod. From our interactions, I have found these young Arabs to be some of the most interesting and relatable people I have met throughout my time on Yahel. Not only do we share many common interests such as movies, foods, and television shows, but we also share common goals of equal opportunity and lasting stability within our communities. If more people were to have experiences like what I have with these Arabs, they would know that peace is not only possible but it can also be durable if we take the time to truly understand the bonds that we share.

A group shot of us during our first meeting with Juzur

The situation in Israel can often seem dire, especially when contemplating recent events like the shooting in Tel Aviv. However, it is important to know that life goes on in spite of terror, and no attack can prevent committed Jews and Arabs from reaching the durable peace both sides deserve. Living in Israel has taught me to value life, but through living it to the fullest by stepping out of my comfort zone and accepting new experiences I can benefit from tremendously. Life is precious...but so is living.