Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Window Into My Life

Jodi Becker is a 10-month Social Action track participant from Sydney, Australia. During her time on Tikkun Olam, she will be volunteering at Kav L'Oved, Kadima, and BINA. Here she gives a personal account of her first two months on the program. 

Two months ago I arrived in Israel as part of the Tikkun Olam volunteer and internship program in Tel Aviv – Jaffa. The first month here was devoted to orientation, where we had an opportunity to get to know each other, do intensive Ulpan and go on placement visits in order to start thinking about where it is that we would like to volunteer/intern. I was really grateful for this initial period, as I felt it was a time which helped me get my bearings in terms of getting a feel for how to navigate myself around the city, being able to make myself understood in basic Hebrew, building friendships with the other participants and Israeli locals and to start thinking about where it was that I wanted to volunteer.

Living within the city of Tel Aviv has also brought me a continuous stream of multifaceted enjoyment. This is a city with its own irrepressible soul - and I can say from experience that there's nowhere else like it. From the buzzing, upbeat and youthful liveliness, which is encapsulated by the hustle and bustle of going to buy fruit and vegetables at the shuk, where you can hone your bartering skills; to spending my Shabbats basking in the sun at Jaffa beach, whilst countless dogs create mini sand storms as they zip past you, and where you can be rocked by the ocean’s waves, soundtracked by the happy pings of 10,000 games of matkot and the muezzin — or Muslim calls to prayer; to dancing the night away in the countless clubs and bars all over the city, where Tel Aviv nights become Tel Aviv mornings before you know it, as "last call" only comes when the final patron has finished their drink and stumbled out the door; to the countless fresh juice stands dotted all over the city, which sell giant cups of life-giving fruit juices that taste like they were squeezed from the vine of Eden; to the relentless diversity, which is evidenced by the insane mix of ethnicities and religions, which today stir through the city; Tel Aviv is a city where you never need to be bored; it is a place where there is always something on offer, for absolutely everyone, as it is filled with countless opportunities to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

Something I’ve also enjoyed, from the very beginning, is the experience of living communally with people from all over the world. Living in an international share house, with eight housemates, is an incredibly enjoyable experience. In my house we have two Americans, from New York and California (one of whom has previously lived in Peru and speaks fluent Spanish), a Chilean, an Argentine, a Brit, three Israelis and me. It’s a truly amazing experience getting to live in such a diverse environment, with a constant stream of Hebrew, Spanish and English ringing out in the background of my daily life. It’s incredibly interesting to be exposed to such a wide variety of differing cultural perspectives on a daily basis. I feel that this experience is widening my eyes and opening my mind, simply by being constantly surrounded by such a variety of people, with differing perspectives, experiences and beliefs.

A tradition, which I have been partaking in with the other Tel Aviv participants on a regular basis, and which I enjoy a lot, is our weekly potluck Shabbat. Every Friday night we all get together and each bring a dish, or something to contribute, to my friend’s apartment. It’s really nice to have this time together, at the end of the week, to unwind and enjoy each other’s company over delicious homemade food. During this time we also go around and tell each other what the highlight of our week has been. It’s a good way to check in with each other and see what it is that is being valued most by other people who are sharing the same experience, on a weekly basis.

Ulpan has by far been one of the best on-going experiences I’ve had here in Israel. The classes are great in themselves and our teacher, Yael, is incredible. These classes make me feel so motivated to improve my Hebrew, which is reinforced by the way Israeli’s treat me when I make the effort to speak with them in it. I’ve also recently signed up for an Ulpan alternative, called This Is Not An Ulpan. This is a non-profit class devoted to food, where we meet once a week with people from all over the world to talk about food in Hebrew, as well as to cook and eat together. It’s a really unique and innovative way of learning Hebrew and becoming more comfortable speaking in it in a relaxed, fun and open environment. I’m feeling incredibly motivated to improve my Hebrew and I can’t believe how far I’ve come with it in only two months. I also find that my daily interactions with Israeli’s have become far more interesting and I feel as though they respect and accept me more, with every effort I make to converse with them in their own language.

The thing which has struck me most, and which has been the best part of my experience here so far, is the experience that I am having with Israelis. From the very beginning I have felt as though I have been welcomed into this country with open arms and have been given the feeling that I have a place here in Israel, my second home. One of my favourite things to do here is to spend time alone, exploring the city. As every time I do I am overwhelmed by the incredible experiences I have with the locals. Whether it’s an artist I met at the artist’s market, who told me of his recent trip to India over a cup of Chai; to a new friend I made sitting on a public bench, who I hardly go a day now without speaking to; to the local store owners who get excited when I make the smallest effort to speak with them in Hebrew; my amazing madricha, who has been there for me one hundred percent, whether I’ve had a fall and needed stitches, or needed advice on where to volunteer; to the countless Israelis who have offered to help me find my way whenever I’ve appeared lost; and the multiplex of other incredible experiences I have here on a daily basis. There’s without a doubt something incredibly special and unique about Israelis. They are extremely un-superficial, have a sense of care and feeling for each other (even amongst strangers), which I have not yet witnessed before, have very unique and beautiful outlooks, and ways of perceiving their surroundings, and have a way of making me feel so accepted and cared for.  I feel so comfortable here, knowing that even though Israelis can often come off as rude and abrasive on the outside, as they can be rough, pushy and brimming with chutzpah, if you push back, drop the foreign formalities, and approach them with an open mind and open heart, the people of Tel Aviv will take you in as one of their own, as when it comes to anything important they will be there completely, as on the inside they know what really matters.

My experiences with the people here have also led me to question my Jewish identity, as this is something which I had felt estranged from, for a long time in my past, and which I have been thinking about a lot during my time here. A long time ago I stopped believing in religion and started to develop my own form of spirituality to live by. Yet I had still retained a sense of cultural identity as a Jew, however this is something I hadn’t really started to explore until I came here. For the first time in my life I now really feel as though I’ve found my people, who I feel extremely connected to in ways I can’t yet explain... I feel as though the people here are tied to each other in some underlying way, as though this is a country made up of a big family, with roots going back thousands of years. Although there is simultaneously a deep divide between the religious and secular Jews, which I am aware of everyday, and which made me uncomfortable in the beginning, I am coming to understand, and come to terms with, as the way things are more and more every day. I have started to appreciate their way of life from a detached, outsider perspective and have started to really enjoy having it in the background of my life. For example, whenever there is a chag, I really enjoy sitting on my roof and listening to the festivities going on around me. As I live in Kiriyat Shalom, a religious neighborhood in South Tel Aviv, it’s easy to be a silent witness to the goings on of the religious way of life here, without having to actually partake in it at all. It’s really nice to hear people coming together, to sing, dance and eat, all united by traditions, which date back for centuries.

Volunteering has also been an amazing part of my experience here in Israel so far, although I’ve only just started and have still yet to start my most important one. After going to nearly 20 placement visits, and getting a sense of the multitude of differing placement options on offer, I have decided to volunteer my time at Kav L’Oved (which I’ve yet to start), an organization which provides help for  disadvantaged people, including refugees, migrant workers and Arab Israelis, by helping them find resilience in overcoming difficulties they face at work,  assisting them to navigate their way through legal limitations which are imposed on them, and making sure Israeli labour law is being enforced. I have just started volunteering at Kadima Youth Centre, which is a daycare centre for children aged 7-12 of African descent, where I spend my time helping kids with their homework, teaching them English and playing with them. I’m enjoying volunteering here a lot, as they soak up any information I give them like little sponges, whilst helping me to improve my Hebrew. Finally, I’m volunteering my time at Bina Secular Yeshiva, which is the only non-orthodox institute of its kind in Israel today. I really believe in this organisation, as it provides an opportunity for secular Jews to come together to learn Hebrew, Israeli history and discuss what it means to consider oneself as culturally Jewish. It’s an amazing organisation and I think it’s very important to have such an institution in Israeli life, which enables secular Jews to engage with Judaism in a way which is meaningful for them.

Looking back and thinking over my time and experiences here it’s hard to believe I’ve only been here two months. So much has happened, my thinking has been challenged in so many ways and I’m growing to love this place more and more everyday. It’s only been two months and I’m already thinking very seriously about making Aliyah, as the only recurring thought I’ve had since I’ve been here, which has really troubled me personally, is that ultimately this experience will come to an end. I love it here in Israel and everyday it starts to feel more and more like the best home I’ve ever known.  Maybe one day it really will be…

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