Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Harsh and Humbling Reality

Rachel Kiner, originally from Scottsdale, Arizona is one of Tikkun Olam's current coexistence track participants. During her time on the program Rachel is teaching English at Ironi-Zion, an Arab high school, as well as volunteering at Windows: Channels for Communication  and YALA Young Leaders, a Facebook-based movement creating and enacting a new regional vision of freedom, equality, prosperity and peace. 

When I decided to come on Tikkun Olam I had two intentions. First, to understand the complexities within Israeli society to the best of my ability so that I could commit myself to making the world a better place through conflict resolution. On the other hand, I wanted to see if this was a society I could make my own. I thought to myself, what better way to acclimate myself to Tel Aviv as a potential home than by trying to understand even its darkest sides and then shine light in any way that I could in order to make it a better, more socially just and conscious society? I didn’t know if it was possible, but I wanted to try.

Without having any expectations of the outcomes, these were the hopeful thoughts that I entered my experience with. What ended up surprising me was the harsh reality I was met with, and the journey it has been coming to terms with them over the last 3 months. At first, I was proud to say what I am doing here when an Israeli asked. I often answered with a big smile, “I’m doing a social justice internship program and working with coexistence organizations.” If they asked further, I would often explain that I teach English at an all-Arab high school and volunteer for nonprofits trying to create windows for communication between Arab and Jewish youth.

It did not take long for me to realize that my pride was rarely met with appreciation or even understanding for the need of this kind of work. Most often the response is one of shock, sometimes followed by interest, humor or even anger. Some people laugh, assuring me that I must be silly to think that anything can be done to help the situation here. Others have seemed almost offended, implying that I must be a traitor to be a Jew wanting to help integrate the “other” into society. Encountering these various and unexpected reactions from Israelis has forced me to adjust my attitude. It is unfortunate that I no longer share what I am doing here with the same sense of pride as I did at first, but I believe this is part of the learning process, and I must understand these perspectives because they are the reality for Israelis who grew up in this charged atmosphere. Trying to empathize with their narratives has forced me to adjust my attitude about what I can do to help as an outsider. Now I meet their questions with a sense of apprehension instead of feel-good energy. The other day when someone asked that I must know peace is not possible, I found myself agreeing with him rather than scolding him for his attitude! It seems that the majority of people living here are adamant that nothing will change, and choose to live comfortably inside the bubble that is Tel Aviv rather than feel burdened by the balagan* that surrounds them. Here denial is a survival mechanism, and political apathy is a sad result of so many years of violence, fear-based media and loss of hope in the peace process.

Although at times confronting this reality has made me doubt if Tel Aviv is actually a place that I can become a part of, my feeling of being at home in Tel Aviv has been even stronger. It is the place where I feel the most in touch with myself and free to express that individuality. I see my own individuality reflected back at me by others rather than feeling a pressure to fit in. Feeling like I belong here and wanting to stay in this community (at least for the time being) has been a struggle to reconcile with my feeling of responsibility to improve it.

As Tel Aviv has been growing on me, at times I have caught myself gradually adopting the bubble mentality. This is not a conscious decision, but rather a natural response to daily life. Tel Aviv really feels like a bubble. It is a secular, liberal oasis apart from a right-leaning religious majority elsewhere in the country. Reflecting on my transformation of attitude since being here, I guess feeling like there’s nothing I can really do to help the discrimination, racism or integration of the other into Israeli society has caught me feeling apathetic, adjusting in the way that seems natural for Tel Avivians. But I feel guilty about this and recently have found myself asking if it is okay to know about all of the complexities here and ignore them? Is it okay for me to take advantage of the Jewish state’s inclusive immigration policies and build a happy life here for myself knowing full well all of the people who questionably have even more right to live here than me, but instead suffer because of the reverse coin of the very same immigration policies? These are questions that I am still dealing with today.

The fact that much of this society does not want my help which I at one point was so proud to give has been challenging to come to terms with, but it has also been humbling. There is wisdom in understanding and respecting others’ realities, even if it does not resonate with my own values. But the real challenge has been adjusting my own approach to meet their reality, rather than allowing myself to become disappointed and apathetic. I am allowing myself to feel grateful for and humbled by this shift in perception, because there is wisdom in being empathetic towards multiple perspectives and also coming to terms with the limits of your own abilities. I may not be able to change the world as I once dreamed I could, but I am learning what I can do to help change the world. And everything that I am capable of doing starts with my own mentality. If I can remain hopeful about a better future, even if that is generations down the road, then hopefully I can inspire others to feel that way too.

*balagan = “mess” in Hebrew

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reshaping My Vision on Israel

Jenna Cohen, age 23, originally from Skokie, Illinois is one of our 10-month participants. A Graduate from Knox College, cum laude with a degree in English Literature and minors in Creative Writing and Spanish, Jenna is interning at Latet Israeli Humanitarian Aid and volunteering at Etgarim, an organization that promotes outdoor activities and educational programming for youth with special needs.

Where I live in South Tel Aviv, crumbling facades and rundown buildings are just as numerous as the chic bars and modern storefronts that one typically associates with the city. Appearance-wise, it makes sense that Birthright, a program designed to entice young Jews to come to Israel, would skip my neighborhood. South Tel Aviv is poor. Daily life is more of a visible struggle here. There are more beggars on the street, more prematurely weathered hands digging through the trash to find their next meal. There are people in need here—Jews in need—and it's not a pretty or an easy thing to see, but it's something we need to see. I had already been to Israel once before, but I knew there was another side to Israel that I needed to experience in order to truly love and understand Israel, a country that had come to mean so much to me. So, four years after I first set foot on Israeli soil, I'm back as a Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa participant, working to aid and embrace "The White City" in whatever way I can.

Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa is both and educational and an experiential program. Participants divide their time between studying Hebrew, Jewish texts, art, and history (among other subjects), and volunteering/ interning for social action and coexistence programs in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Such programs include (but are not limited to) afterschool tutoring programs for at-risk youth, volunteering at safe houses LGBT teens, and leading integrated acting classes for Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and African teens. It's exhausting work, but each night, my remarkable peers return home smiling with the knowledge that they made a difference for someone that day.

The work I do is a little less hands-on day-to-day. I work as an intern at Latet Israeli Humanitarian Aid, which provides aid to Holocaust survivors and families in need across Israel. I work in Latet's Development and Community Relations Office, where I, and two of my fellow interns, work on English grants, marketing materials, and international outreach. Most days, our work at the Latet office is meaningful but not terribly glamorous. However, last month, I had the extraordinary treat of going visiting one of the Holocaust survivors who benefits from Latet's services.

Alex is a wiry gentleman in his 80s with faded Russian military tattoos on his hands and the gruff voice of a man who has smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day for several decades. Most of the food on his kitchen shelves is canned or boxed—having come from Latet’s supplementary food packages and yearly food drives. And his living room doubles as a bedroom in order to make space for the cobbler shop that Alex runs out of his apartment. On the day of my visit, Latet was installing kitchen shelves, a new armoire and safety railings in Alex’s home—a service Latet offers to Holocaust survivors who need extra aid and spend a lot of time alone. I was there to photograph the renovations, but all I could see through my camera lens was Alex and the quiet pleasure that filled his eyes each time a new piece was installed in his home. As soon as the kitchen shelf was installed, Alex began piling it with food; when the new armoire was finished, he immediately pulled clothes off the chair that had acted as his dresser and began purposefully placing them inside. When the shower railings were finished, he practiced getting in and out, clearly grateful not to have to use an old plastic strap to steady himself anymore.

              It took several hours to build and install all of the additions to Alex’s home, but to me, the entire experience seemed to pass in a matter of minutes. As the handymen hammered and nailed away in the background, Alex gathered us on the couch of his living room/ bedroom and told us the story of his life. And while I only understood a fraction of Alex’s accented Hebrew, I felt a strong connection to him by the end of the afternoon; I didn’t need language to understand his soul. I left that day with a renewed vigor for my work at Latet, having seen with my own eyes the good that hours of work behind a winking computer screen can do. My efforts not only meant something, they brought about positive change that I got to see with my very own eyes.

Working at Latet and meeting people like Alex are experiences that have reshaped (and continue to reshape) my vision of Israel. Before Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv- Jaffa, I thought I knew Israel. But looking back, I see now that knowledge of Israel was limited to the famous places that one finds on a postcard like the Old City and the Dead Sea. However, after two and a half months of working and living with the people of South Tel Aviv, I have richer experiences to write home about.

I can’t believe my good fortune to be a part of this amazing program and the profundity of the experiences I’m having. I have never felt so close to Israel and the Jewish people as I feel right now on Tikkun Olam.

Monday, October 26, 2015

To Live in the Bubble that is Tel Aviv-Jaffa


Molly Block, originally from Chicago, Illinois, is a  10-month Tikkun Olam participant on the Coexistence Track. During her time on the program Molly is volunteering at ARDC (African Refugee Development Center), Mesila, a day-care center for refugee children, Ironi Zion, a mixed high school of Israeli Jews and Arabs, as well as Windows: Channels for Communication. 

I am in Israel. Amidst all the chaos, stabbings, rockets, and strife, I am living a relatively luxurious and safe life. I have a weekly routine that could not be bothered by the happenings around the country and a phone that doesn’t stop ringing with the latest news updates. Living in Jaffa, a mixed Muslim, Jewish, and Christian city within the Tel Aviv-Yafo hub, I truly do feel safe. I wake up to the call to prayer from the nearby Mosque, go back to sleep, and then wake up from my alarm. I bike to class/work every morning, smiling at my neighbors opening up the bike shop, riding through the chaotic streets of Jaffa, avoiding potholes on my left and the woman feeding a flock of pigeons on my right. I go to yoga, I go to work, I come home. Maybe sometimes I’ll grab dinner with a friend, stop at the beach, or even spend a night out dancing. As you can see, I have developed the blissful ignorance that engulfs Tel Aviv.

         Recently, with the escalation of violence around the country, it sometimes hits me - I am living in a volatile region. A family friend is connected to a couple that was shot in the West Bank; I was at the bus station where there was an attack and an Eritrean man was misidentified as a terrorist. These personal connections to the violence remind me how much of a reality this situation is.

         My feelings of this dichotomy vary from complacency to frustration: "this city is so beautiful and eclectic. I feel able to be myself without worrying about the judgments of others" turns into "how the heck can NO ONE talk about what's going on?!" pretty quickly. I have dense discussions with the people on my program and other non-Israelis living here, but I find it difficult to get into deep conversations about the situation with most Israelis I meet. Often times, I am given short, generic answers that are hard and one-sided with no wiggle room for discussion or debate. I feel that as the friendships I have created grow, I will be able to understand more about what people are truly thinking and feeling, but these surface level interactions have definitely been frustrating for me.

There is also this theme of fear around the country. For me, the violence isn’t really what incites the fear in me. I am not scared of getting stabbed. I am not scared of bombs. I am scared of running out of money. I am scared of being completely responsible for myself for the first time. I am scared of being intellectually challenged and confused. I am scared of the inconclusiveness of this conflict and region.

Fear. Fear is a scary thing, but it is also a motivating tool. Fear of not living up to my expectations for myself --  fears of not living up to the expectations of others. To be honest, fear is really what brought me to Israel. I was having so many doubts: why am I coming here, is it worth the money, the time, the unanswered questions. In moments of clarity (or positivity) I realized that these fears truly shape the way I live. Fear makes me excited, and that is why I'm here. I am here to learn and understand about myself, the region, and how to come to terms with what people are thinking, feeling, believing, and experiencing here. I am here to find my own sense of self. I am here to be in the conversation and not be so swayed by the hearsay that has surrounded me. I am ready to be challenged, to be confused, to understand, to be understood, to clarify, to learn, to truly be vulnerable and open.

To live in the bubble that is Tel Aviv-Jaffa, permanently or temporarily, one has to disregard the injustices going on around this Holy Land. In order to enjoy my life, in order to be able to take advantage of all that this metropolis has to offer, I need to sometimes let go of the part of my mind that is determined to understand the situation going on here and just live, be, and experience. At the end of the day, I always come back to the reality of the region I am living in. It is a reality I am just understanding on a superficially surface level and I cannot wait to continue to dig deeper.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trying to Kiss the Shore

Tori Maidenberg, originally from Houston, Texas, is one of Tikkun Olam's 10-month Social Action Track participants. Tori shares with us what her first month in Israel has been like, and what this Yom Kippur means to her. 

As Yom Kippur descends upon us tonight, I’m forced to look inward to reflect on the past year. Why did I come to Israel? What does Israel mean to me? Can I both love and criticize her at the same time? What does being Jewish mean to me? What do I want to get out of Yom Kippur this year?

The whole country will become silent on Yom Kippur. Cars, buses, and taxis will all disappear, stores and restaurants will be closed, and what I’m most looking forward to this Yom Kippur is answering all those above questions. This year, my Yom Kippur is a quest to find meaning and what better way to do it than to give back to a country I hold dear to my heart through volunteering? I wrote the below poem in an in-class exercise with Tikkun Olam. It represents my hopes and anxieties for answering these questions within the next 10 months:

Lost at sea, I am reflected in the sparkling, cold waters.
Still, silent—I am here lost at sea.
In the distance, a relentless wave never stops trying to kiss the shore.
I think to myself.
It is sweet to kiss the shore,
But even sweeter when you arrive just to be sent back.

I chose to join this program because every time I inched closer to a fuller picture of Israel, I was sent back once again—just like the wave trying to kiss the shore. Since we arrived here 3 weeks ago, we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly (and we only just begun). We run into paradoxes every day, some more comical than others: like the Tel Aviv Mayor making illegal the Kapparot tradition of swinging a chicken around one’s head in order to cast sins away, whilst no resolution has been found for the thousands of stray cats that roam Israel’s streets (but, hey, at least some chickens won’t die this year on Yom Kippur). And other paradoxes are a bit harder to grapple with such as the dialectic between a religious and secular state. Between safety & security on the one hand and racism & exclusivity on the other, and the survival of one people’s identity but in consequence of the uncertainty of another.

If anything, what I have taken away from our seminars and discussions in the Tikkun Olam program is that sometimes there are no solutions. Oftentimes, the world will give us dichotomies and it is up to us to go beneath the surface in order to find various shades of gray. Within these dichotomies we may stumble upon complicated paradoxes and instead of acting upon an immediate yearning to solve them, maybe it’s best that we sit back and first listen. Once we do, we can inch closer toward the shore—and maybe this time we won’t be sent back.

On a more lighthearted note… I love living in South Tel Aviv. Sure the Central Bus Station could use a good cleaning and might be rough around the edges but to me its ruggedness is precisely its charm. At night I return home to our apartment in Kiryat Shalom, a religious Jewish neighborhood, and between the Tallit and Yarmulke I feel both safe and uneasy. On the one hand, these are my people but, on the other, I feel so different to them. Something a Tikkun Olam staff member said in one of our seminars reminds me though that it’s not necessarily about reconciling these conflicted feelings so much as it is necessary to understand them.

Every day I’m getting the hang of what it means to be a Tel-Avivian more and more. With my shiny new (well used, but new to me J) bike, I feel a sense of freedom like never before, and I’m most excited to explore this city on wheels.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yom Ha'atzmaut in the Classroom

Sage Paquette-Cohen, originally from Boston, MA  is a 10-month Internship Track participant. Throughout her time on Tikkun Olam Sage has been interning at the Holland House, a therapeutic rehabilitation center for children with special needs,  and volunteering at the Women's Court, an open space for girls at-risk in Jaffa, as well as Save a Child's Heart (SACH), an organization which provides heart surgeries for children from developing countries.

Just after returning to my normal work schedule following Pesach break, I noticed Israeli flags lining the either side of the street whilst waiting at a bus stop in Jaffa. I had been so busy with volunteering and classes that I had almost forgotten about the approaching holidays: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

In the weeks following, we would discuss the meaning behind and the importance of each holiday as a group. As an American, I was interested in learning how much U.S. Memorial Day (a holiday that is often overlooked or rendered insignificant by furniture sales and backyard barbeques) differs from Yom Hazikaron. The latter is, undoubtedly, a day that is observed and honored by much of Israeli society. Unfortunately, because of Israel’s mandatory military service, many people have been directly affected by the loss of a loved one caused by acts of war and violence since the country’s inception. To pay respect to those fallen soldiers, people attend memorial ceremonies, wear white clothing, and observe a 2-minute siren that sounds nationwide on the evening before and morning of Yom Hazikaron. Naturally, the day is very somber and I didn’t feel completely comfortable partaking in many of the day’s activities as a bystander who has trouble comprehending the kind of pain that comes with losing a loved one to war.

Aside from my discomfort at the prospect of attending the day’s events as a “tourist”, I was also taken aback  by the rift that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut create in Israeli society. This became startlingly clear to me during work on Memorial Day. I intern at the Holland Center, a daycare and rehabilitation center for disabled toddlers in Jaffa. The Center employs both Jewish and Arab teachers; this is usually not an issue, as all of the staff members take their jobs very seriously and adore the children they care for. The contrast between the two groups, however, becomes more obvious when religion enters the classroom. Because the Holland Center is funded by the Tel Aviv Municipality and is, for all intents and purposes, a preschool, Jewish education is a part of the classroom “curriculum”. The children learn about approaching Jewish holidays by way of arts and crafts and song, and Yom Ha’atzmaut was no different. On the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut (which happens to be Yom Hazikaron), the Holland Center threw a party complete with Israeli songs honoring the country’s independence, tiny Israeli flags that were passed out to each child, and even an Israel-themed cake. It was clear that this level of Zionism, both its presence in the classroom and the fact that it was being introduced to a group of two-year olds from a myriad of different backgrounds, made the teachers uneasy. In the midst of this celebration, the Memorial siren sounded. One by one, the teachers stood -- all but two women, both wearing hijabs, and both looking exceedingly uncomfortable with the situation. 

I’ve thought a lot about that two-minute siren since that day. After pondering it for a long time and working through a number of emotions, I can honestly say that this is just one more example of how utterly confusing and conflicting my life in Israel has been. Although, as a Jew, I naturally feel more a part of the Jewish-Israeli part of society here, living in a primarily Arab community through holidays that celebrate the independence and religious nature of this country has challenged me in ways that I still haven’t processed fully. It will take a long time, I think, to understand my stance on the issues that afflict society here; but I am grateful for the opportunity to ponder these questions in a critical and tough way. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Tikkun Olam Experience

Becca Schwartz, originally from San Francisco, California, is a Tikkun Olam Spring 2015 participant. Becca volunteers at Terem Refugee Clinic, as well as ARDC - African Refugee Development Center. Becca shares with us her experience thus far on Tikkun Olam! 

  I first heard about Tikkun Olam through my birthright trip and I knew immediately I wanted to be part of the program. I fell in love with Tel Aviv and my interests lie in psychosocial work with disadvantaged populations, so this program was exactly what I was looking for post graduation. I applied for the internship track and once I arrived here I chose to do my internship at Terem, the refugee hospital clinic at the Central Bus Station. I spend most of my time at this clinic every week and for a few hours on Wednesday nights I volunteer at ARDC (African Refugee Development Center).
The asylum seeker situation in Israel is complicated and you cannot truly understand it until you get here and experience it first hand. It is mostly one big “balagan” which is Hebrew for fiasco or chaos. That being said, there are many organizations trying to assist by promoting advocacy, awareness, and policy change.  Both my internship and volunteer hours are spent at two of these organizations. At Terem I work in reception and take on special projects for the clinic. At ARDC I help applicants fill out Refugee Status Determination forms. Both places I work not only allow me to provide aid to this population (which primarily comes from Eritrea), but work along side them. My co-workers and clients are wonderful. They have taught me what true strength, compassion, and determination looks like. It is through these experiences, I have kept a positive and hopeful out look on the complicated asylum seeker situation. It is my hope that the Israeli government will adapt a better system to determine refugee status and no longer keep this population in a legal status limbo. 

            When I first got here adjusting to Israeli culture was a bit tough. The cultural norms are pretty different from California where I was born and raised. But after living here for two and half months I understand why the word “sabra” is used to describe Israelis. The word refers to a cactus that is prickly on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. This is a perfect description of my interactions here. It might be little intimidating at first but know that the kindness you will encounter here will be like unlike any you have experienced before. Israelis truly are the most genuine people I have ever met.
            Everyday I am here I discover more and more about this beautiful city. There is always a new food to try, a new street to explore, and a new face eager to talk to you. I am excited to see what the next two and half months hold.