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 :)

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