NY Onward Israel Summer Service Learning: Stranger by Jaime Mishkin

This week’s Yahel participant blog post comes from one of the participants on this year’s New York Onward Summer Service Learning Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ein HaYovel neighborhood of Jerusalem for 6 weeks this summer. Here, Jaime reflects on her first few days of volunteering. You can find the original post, and more insights from the NY Onward Israel group, on their blog here.

After a week of attempting to understand the ins and outs of Israeli society, it was finally time to become a part of it. Today was our first day of volunteering, so Aaron and I headed to Moadonit Noar, a community center in Ein Kerem.

When we walked in, we met Rachel, our Israeli manager. She had long, beautiful hair, golden skin and jewelry to match, and seemed cooler than I could ever hope to be. I was intimidated by her flawlessness, but Martin informed us that she was nervous and embarrassed about her English. This knowledge reminded me that this is an exchange — not only do I have fears coming into this experience, but so too do the Israelis with whom I’m interacting on a daily basis.

At around one, all the kids — about eleven of them — came storming into the small room and sat down at the tables. They grabbed their plastic plates and served themselves rice, peppers, schnitzel and you guessed it: cucumbers. While the kids ate, Rachel called them up one by one to give them name tags I’d written with their transliterated names, and each one of them talked about what they did over shabbat. I couldn’t understand a word, but could recognize their shy smiles and pride in sharing their weekends. One boy, Orel, turned to me and asked in Hebrew whether I had heard the sirens. Ma? He pointed his finger up and traced circles in the air. Ken, I said. Then he went back to eating his schnitzel.

As the meal went on, I sat there, not knowing how to interact, relying on high fives to bridge the silence. Anglit? Ani lo medeberet ivrit. Ani medeberet ksat kstat kstat ivrit. Ani lo mevina. These were my phrases of the day. I began to feel their frustration at my not being able to speak Hebrew, but also their pleasure in their own knowledge of the language, and in teaching me. This was the immersion I was looking for, but I couldn’t help but ask myself: who is benefitting more from this — me or the children?

There was no set structure for the day, save the one scheduled baking class. After lunch, the kids amused themselves however they wanted to: soccer, puzzles, drawing, coloring, etc. Aaron’s stature proved useful for kung fu practice, while I was led by hand around the room with Shirel, my pig-tailed friend. We put together puzzles, drew turtles, and probably didn’t have one coherent exchange. Still, I felt the love. I then sat down with Noy to play hangman on the whiteboard. Even with my limited alef bet, we made it work. Because I often had no words to describe what I wanted to say, our whiteboard hangman evolved into a game of pictionary. She’d also ask me some questions and draw pictures: do you love apples? Do you love cake? Do you love fish? Indeed, I did, and so our friendship was solidified.

A weird sort of confidence emerged throughout the day — a confidence in my speaking abilities, oddly enough. It wasn’t that I’d gained so much new vocabulary; it was more that I couldn’t meekly turn to my English like I so often do when I feel scared to say the words I know. With confidence I said the smallest words: Yofi! Yafe! And as silly as it seems, being able to use those words — without judgment, of course, from 8-year-olds — gave me the confidence to attempt to construct sentences and just speak.

After the day was done, I was most struck by the children’s capacity to love a stranger who could barely form a sentence — to take my hand, to lead me to a table, to sit on my lap and talk to me. Especially right now, amidst all the hatred existing between Israelis and Palestinians, we have to hold on to this childlike notion of acceptance. We mustn’t forget our capacity to love those we deem “other,” and we must challenge ourselves to confront this everyday.