Learning Doesn’t Stop on Vacation, David Aptaker / Yahel Social Change Program Participant

A lot has happened in the past months. But no part of the program has felt quite as high spirited as the holiday season here in Israel.  It’s been a great stretch of fun since Purim.  I think my highlight, however, was the Pesach break.  It wasn’t just vacation and a full halt to learning.   I had the chance to learn and explore on my own—outside of Yahel.

Petra’s air is arid and often mixed with a light waft of horse poop.  Summer is moving in now.  There was a dim hum of a mixture of languages down near the main attractions—tourists from everywhere, scrambling around, eager to test their bargaining abilities with local shop owners.  Shwarma was in restaurant windows, Bedouin men walking in their jalabiyyas, and a wide variety of kefiyehs visible at every turn; red ones, black ones, green and blue. I even heard Hebrew being spoken in the streets—a relief to see that Israelis can travel without too much concern in at least one other place in the Middle East.

I was lucky enough to have visited this historic city two and a half years before.  During my travels, I met some local Bedouin guys my age who became my friends.  On this particular visit, I was able to link back up with them, and this time, they really helped me and my travel companion/roommate (Dave Korolnek) with everything.  They sent a car to the border to pick us up, they got us tickets to tour a candle-lit Petra, we ate “mansaf” style lunch at their families’ house, we saw one of Ala’adin’s castles from the Crusader period, and we had an amazing barbeque in the desert of Little Petra.

Being with these friends of mine was a lot like being in Gedera in our first weeks of the Yahel program.  I was constantly looking around me, eager to soak in every bit of information my eyes, ears and brain could wrap themselves around. I tried to pick up bits of Arabic, and to immerse myself in my environment.

During our barbeque in the desert, I sat with my friends Ahmad, Rami, and Feikh, and had the chance to talk politics (something I love doing).  Generally, I’m hesitant to bring up Israel up in conversation when I’m outside of Israel, but I went for it.  They were surprisingly receptive to the topic and we discussed Israel’s policies with the Palestinians, Arab citizens of Israel, and the Bedouin.  They discovered that I’m currently volunteering in Israel in the Ethiopian community of Gedera, and they also knew I was Jewish.  Most Israelis develop ulcers when I tell them I was in an Arab country and told locals I was Jewish and working in Israel.  “Are you crazy? It’s not safe! Maybe it’s because you’re American.  I could never go there.” I can be crazy, Jordan is quite safe, I am an American, and I saw plenty of Israelis in Petra.

Why am I talking about Jordan and my experiences there? It’s because Yahel has given me new tools to explore new cultures.  When you go into a new culture, you have to drop your prior stigmas, and your prejudices.  You give everyone a clean slate, and if you do it genuinely, I believe people are willing to do the same for you.  Perhaps general Arab sentiment towards Israel tends to be negative.  So what? Until you come to the table with a smile and open mind, the stigmas against Arabs and against Israelis and against Jews will never disappear.  All your experiences are through a clouded lens.  People appreciate when others genuinely open up to them.  Coming to Gedera, it was not until I opened up and gave myself to the program and the community that I began reaping the benefits, and the same goes for my travels in Jordan.  I look forward to using this knowledge in every country, state, and culture I encounter and explore for the rest of my life.  Thank you, Yahel.

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