Graduating from Northwestern University in the midst of the economic crisis, a good job seemed unobtainable. So with a suitcase, JUF SKIP funds, and a Masa Israel scholarship, I went to volunteer in Israel.
Hoping to learn more about the country while working in a meaningful field, I enrolled in the Community Service track of Masa Israel’s Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa program. Its focus on working with the immigrant and refugee communities of Tel Aviv attracted me initially, while the program’s intensive Hebrew lessons, classes about Jewish identity, and trips around the country promised to round out the experience.
My volunteering took me to parts of Tel Aviv that one doesn’t see as a tourist—from a prison in Ramle where I mentored minors who came into Israel without parents or guardians, to a local public school where I taught the children of refugee and migrant workers, to a therapeutic horse riding center for children with special needs, to a refugee shelter which was little more than a dingy apartment building in the rough part of town.
I became particularly involved with the children at the refugee shelter. While most of our time together was spent laughing and playing, there were certain moments when I was overwhelmed by their personal stories. My first day there I met a bright and smiley eight-year old girl from Sudan who giggled as she talked about school and friends. Another volunteer later told me how that happy girl had seen two of her older brothers shot and killed right in front of her. That same day, I was playing with her little sister who, between spinning in circles and tickle fights, wanted to know where I was from. “America,” I told her, and asked where she was from. “A bad place,” she responded solemnly in Hebrew. Even with my elementary level of Hebrew, there was no mistaking the meaning behind those words.
Trips all over Israel further shaped my understanding of the country. As a group, we visited places such as Sderot, where we met people for whom rockets and bomb shelters had become a way of life, and recognized and unrecognized Bedouin villages, where we talked about the particular challenges facing them and other minority populations.
I also learned a lot from the Israeli soldiers who were part of our weekly classes. They did similar volunteer work as part of their army service, and their participation in our discussions provided an Israeli perspective to what we saw and understood only as visiting volunteers.
Overall, I came to see Tel Aviv with new eyes. What was once all glitzy beaches and cosmopolitan glamour proved to be much more complicated and interesting. Being confronted with Israel’s problems on a daily basis challenged the rosy, idealistic view of Israel that I had always been taught to believe. How, for example, could a country founded by refugees for refugees be so hesitant, even negligent, towards the growing number of African refugees who are looking for a safe haven? Does being a Jewish state mean turning its back on non-Jews?
As an American, I didn’t feel it was my place to provide the answers to these impossible questions, but rather to observe, learn, and help in whatever small way I could.
I don’t know what comes next now that my five months with Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa have ended. It’s difficult to predict how managing a class of toddlers in a roach-infested preschool or talking about Barack Obama with teenage boys living in prison will impact my professional or personal life. There were lessons learned and skills acquired to be sure, but it’s a little too soon to be wrapping up this story. Suffice it to say that my Israeli interlude was a valuable and meaningful experience, and I wish that every college graduate could say the same for their first few months in the real world.
Arielle Gottlieb grew up in Skokie and attended Northwestern University where she studied Latin American Studies and Creative Writing. She hopes to continue working with immigrants and refugees in Chicago.