Today’s participant blog post comes from Rachel Lieberman, a newly graduated alumna of the Yahel Social Change Program. Rachel’s group was living, learning and volunteering in Rishon LeZion, Israel for 9 months this year.
As we started to pick out beads with the English letters to spell our names, I felt a small sense of pride that Yitzchak could recognize the letters without my assistance. Over a plate of injera that his mom promptly placed in front of me when I entered through the door, we started putting together the bracelet in our second-to-last weekly learning session. But I soon realized that there was no “A” left for my name – Rachel.
Over the course of nine months on Yahel Israel Social Change Program, there were many times that felt this way. Times when things simply did not fall into place or work out as I had expected. Times when I felt that I was moving forward to only be pushed back. Times when I could not articulate myself due to the language barrier and culture gaps. Times when I knew how things should work only to realize that there was another way to do it. As the program is at the conclusion, I am trying to find a way to seek closure, reflect, and leave with a defined experience. But the last nine months has not been a program, it has been my life. It is impossible for me to summarize what I have gained, and I am positive that as time goes on after the program, I will discover that I have gained even more. But I will try to narrow down to a few lessons that I have learned.
Your Imagination Always Produces a Scarier Scenario than Reality
Walking up the stairs of an apartment in Serbia, a country that I had been in for less than three hours, I started questioning whether I had made a wise decision to come to this Shabbat Passover meal. Besides “fala” or “thank you,” I could not speak the language nor did I even know the people that I was about to have dinner with. I had simply emailed the Belgrade Synagogue asking if there was a place I could join for Friday night dinner and had gotten a response and invitation hours earlier. Now as I knocked on the door, I wish I had stayed with my friend.
The seven-months on Yahel leading up to this Shabbat dinner, conditioned me for this moment. I became used to going into stranger’s houses for meals without fully knowing who they were, without fluently speaking the language, and frankly, with always a quick thought before knocking on the door that “I can still get out of it.” But through many of these encounters and by conditioning myself through practice, I have learned that new encounters are always scarier in the imagination than reality.
Different Cultural Values are Simply That… Different
I had a scheduled plan for the day. From 10:00 am – 11:45 am, I would help my friend with a psychology paper, from 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm, I would record Leah’s host mom, Mazal, make injera for a video that I was creating, and from 2:15 – 4:00 pm, I would clean the apartment before Julie’s parents came over. The day was going as planned until I arrived at 12:00 pm to an empty apartment. After Mazal arrived back home and started preparing the chicken, I soon realized that my schedule would need to be readjusted. Leah and I passed the time by playing soccer, cards, and conversing through a combination of Hebrew and English with Leah’s host siblings. Finally at 1:45 pm, I started recording Mazal as she prepared the special flour, teff, for the injera.
During the two hours of play time, I was reminded once again of the different values that I put on time versus others. In my view, “taking advantage of time” means fully scheduling myself so that I can be as “productive” as possible. In the Ethiopian culture, time is viewed different. For example, there is a coffee ceremony called Buna, and the process of making Buna and then sharing three glasses of it is nothing like express-ordering your Starbucks coffee for a quick meeting with a friend. Over the nine months, I have experienced that many times the relationships that I have built without my culturally-constructed sense of time are both different and are strengthened faster than my relationships infused with the Western-notion of “time is money.” Moreover and more importantly, it is a reminder that my values are not the superior ones. Values from different cultures are simply different, and cannot and should not be categorized into boxes of better or worse.
You cannot accomplish anything on your own
As part of my volunteering on Yahel, I worked at Tebeka: Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis. It is a nonprofit that works towards the legal and social equality of Ethiopian Israelis. Over the course of the nine months, I have seen the extensive amount of racism, both explicit and implicit, within this country. I have also had many conversations with Israeli friends and internationals living in Israel who want to know more information about minority groups within Israel, but do not know how to obtain this information. Out of the need, I organized an English-speaking event on June 25th with Israeli activist, Shlomi Hatuka. The talk focused on racism in advertisement and the different types of racism present in Israel. While I took the initiative for the event, it succeeded because I collaborated with many people. Over the nine months, I have worked with individuals in the community and other participants on Yahel on various projects. Additionally, we have met with dozens of changemakers. From my experiences and the lessons that I have learned from the changemakers, it has become obvious that the only way to make real social change is to work with others.
So as I tied on my new “R-Y-C-H-E-L” bracelet, I could not help but smile to myself. These lessons, along with numerous others, caused me to simply use another letter instead of opting out of making the bracelet altogether. Over the past nine months, I have had to change, adjust, become flexible, and ultimately realize that nothing works out exactly as intended. But despite the challenges and varied outcomes, I have decided to stay in Israel another year.
Because although my honeymoon phase with Israel is over, I still can’t leave her. As this trip is my seventh time to Israel and eighth program, there is something about this country that keeps me coming back. It could be the shift on Friday afternoons as everyone prepares for Friday night dinner, the passion for life that is almost tangible among Israelis, or the camaraderie and place of belonging that I feel in the Jewish state. Many of the reasons that brought me to live in Israel for nine months – however – have lost some of its magic. Over the inevitable difficult periods during the course of the program, I internalized my connection to this place. I do not have family here, I do not speak the language fluently, nor do I naturally fit in with the culture here. From an American perspective, I used to see Israel as a united country. From living here, I now know that the divisions between secular, dati, Haredi, Ethiopian, Russian, Arab, Yemenite, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc. are deep and divisive. These issues, along with the unsustainably high cost of almost everything, has made me lose my new lover’s eyes for this county. But, I have decided to stay.
My connection and love for this country alongside my strongly-held belief that change can and will occur is keeping me here. There need to be many changes in Israel – acceptance of pluralistic Judaism, connections between the different groups within Israel, and a renewal in a Jewish identity. If not, Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state are at stake. I am passionately motivated to fight for these changes. Moreover, there are so many people working towards the betterment of this country, who live lives with intention, and do not accept the status quo. As I am only at the beginning of my career, I want to learn from these people and learn from their self-efficacy to make change so that I can further develop my own. Thirdly, and I cannot properly articulate it even to myself, but my love for this country runs deeply in me. I love that I can meet a stranger on the bus and then be invited over to their family’s house. I love that there is so much diversity both within Judaism and within the many different ethnic and religious groups that live in this country. I love that although it is thousands of miles from my home, I feel connected and a sense of belonging here.
As I prepare to enter this next stage, I cannot help but be grateful for these past nine months on Yahel. I am leaving these nine months with confidence in my ability to succeed in new places, the recognition that my way is not the only way, and the knowledge and motivation to continue to surround myself with people who ask more of themselves and of the world around them. My time on Yahel has allowed me to learn more about the issues in the state of Israel and has given me the motivation and knowledge to work towards certain changes. These months will forever be one of the most influential and impactful times in my life.