Happy One Month!

 Today’s participant blog post comes from Rachel Iroff, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. The group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Rachel’s personal travel blog, which can be found here.

Happy one month in Israel anniversary to me! It’s very cliche to say this, but it has flown by. All the trips, meeting new people, navigating my way around a new city and country, learning Hebrew (I’m up to preschool level now!!) and experiencing a new culture has led me to this point- my first day on the job!

We have been in orientation through Yahel this past month, meeting our potential placements and learning about the different organizations in Lod. We visited two different types of student programs: a village where university students live in shipping containers and have two social change projects- joining an existing project and making their own- while going to university, and a young adult center that has apartment style buildings near the center of Lod and the students volunteer all around the community. Both programs successfully bring young adults into Lod in order to revitalize the city and once again make Lod great. We have been fortunate to meet some of these students, and they are incredible people. It has been so much fun getting to know them and the student-run only bar in Lod (open every Thursday! )

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Seriously, they live in shipping containers!

During orientation we have also visited several schools and the Head of the Education Department of Lod. These visits have to be one of the top culture shocks for me. The school buildings were built fairly quickly (along with the rest of the country) and look more functional than beautiful. Students seem to have more leeway during the school day, being able to move in the hallway and talk to friends while walking in groups. The walls are mostly bare, save for a few posters. Of course, every school we went to was different and we have only visited schools in a certain section of Lod- a very small sample size! One of the most impressive schools we visited was in the Train Neighborhood of Lod, a notoriously bad part of town for several reasons. We visited a brand new Arab high school that was not only gorgeous but obvious that the teachers cared about the education of their students. Shirin, the principal was a dynamite lady, which made a majority of the Lod Arab population uneasy with having a woman in such a powerful position. She told us stories of the violence against her and how much she had to fight for her students to have “the most beautiful school in all of Israel.” And it was indeed gorgeous.

The reactions some Israelis have when I tell them we visited and are working in Arab schools is astonishing. Almost my entire group and I have received blank stares or shocking statements in return when we mention we are working in Arabic schools. The most common response is something along the lines of “Why even bother working with them? It won’t help solve anything.” I am trying so hard to understand the history behind those words and to remember that I come from a very different culture. The deep tension and conflict between Arabs and Israelis continues to amaze me- there is a lot to work to be done for a long time.

Back to orientation…we have had several trainings over a variety of topics. Ulpan, the class I am taking to learn Hebrew, is incredibly challenging but very helpful. I have at least doubled my vocabulary of spoken Hebrew in just a month! I can now order food at a restaurant, ask the price of an item, and have a very simple conversation with someone who speaks very slowly. We learned about sexual assault and how to be aware of not only ourselves but also of the kids we are working with. Another speaker spoke about how to connect with at risk youth and how different organizations around Israel are trying to reach out to them. A helpful training we had was how to teach kids English as a second- or fourth- language and specific miscues to look for.

My morning placement is at a cute elementary school called Rambam. It has a different perspective of childhood and education and I’m trying my best to adjust. My role at the school is to teach English to grades 3-6, since they begin learning English in the third grade. The teacher I will be working with is currently on maternity leave for two more weeks which made my first day today interesting. I am working with one or two students at a time and working to identify different items we see, talk about our families and be able to introduce each other in English– simultaneously they are teaching me so much Hebrew! English is important to schools here because the students have to take several placement tests during their school years in English. What is interesting is that the Arabic, Israeli and Ethiopian students all take the same test- even though English is the 4th language for Arabic students (spoken Arabic, written Arabic, Hebrew then English), 3rd for Ethiopians and second for Israelis. Imagine if all American students had to take a test in Spanish to pass, what would our schools be like?

On a completely different note…

This past Tuesday we were scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the day but for security reasons we didn’t go. The American media is giving snippets to what is happening, but there have been many attacks in and around Jerusalem and the West Bank. There is a whole other discussion to be had on what choices are being made by both sides, but all I want to say now is that we are all being very cautious and safe. We keep up with the news and are aware of our surroundings- pinky promise I’m very safe!

Anyway, Yahel has rescheduled our Jerusalem trip for later in the year and instead we went to Haifa! Such an amazing city. We visited a community center that works very hard to have Christians, Jews and Arabs learn about each other in a safe place. They put on two festivals a year in order to tell and learn about each other’s religions and customs, which is something that Israel definitely needs more of. Afterwards we went to the Bahá’í Gardens, one of the most peaceful and serene places in the world. The Bahá’í use symmetry and thousands of different plants to show that even though people are different and spread out in the world, it is possible to find common ground and create something beautiful. These two places of peace did my confused heart a world of good, it is encouraging to see people succeeding in talks of peace amidst such a conflicted time.

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I also was able to meet my host family, the Ankory family, for the year for Shabbat dinner- they live literally around the corner from me! They are so incredibly welcoming and warm that my nervous worries were quickly banished. After having food literally served right onto my plate, I learned that the mom (ema) is also a special education teacher and the oldest daughter Rut is a math teacher—I literally go around the world and still end up with teachers for a family! I am so excited to get to know their entire clan: two grandparents who have promised cooking lessons, two parents, five children- one married with two kids, and several cousins who just show up in the middle of dinner and start to talk over each other.

All in all, this is an amazing start to a year full of learning, growing and exciting adventures. Stay tuned, but until then… Ani tzarecha lelechet leochel aruchat erev, achshav! (I need to go eat dinner, right now!)

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