What is the Problem Here?

“Why would you live in Shapira? Isn’t it really dangerous?”

This is a common question I find is usually asked by family, friends, taxi drivers, waiters – anyone who knows Tel Aviv and finds out where exactly I am staying.

In answer to everyone’s question on the security of my area, yes. It can be dangerous, but I would not walk around alone at night in any unfamiliar area no matter where I am. I wouldn’t do it in New York City and I wouldn’t do it late at night in Saratoga (trust me, I know from experience). Where I live right now, is in the area of Tel Aviv where everyone who is basically forgotten by the government is pushed off. This includes many religious, impoverished Jews (often Buhari), foreign workers brought in from agreements arranged by the governments of Israel and other countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, and finally, what feels like the largest presence in my neighborhood, the African refugees. These people come from all over the world, really, but the majority come from Darfur and Eritrea, with the largest percentage of their population in Israel living at my doorpost.

I think there is a very similar situation going on here to the one we find in America with Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants. Maybe the views in Israel regarding the asylum seekers are not as ignorant as those of our dear presidential candidate, Donald Trump, (I’m not entirely sure about that, yet though) but there are definitely tensions in South Tel Aviv as a result of their being here.

What does this mean for me, though? Well I wake up every morning and go to bed every night hearing and seeing the children of these very refugees playing on the streets outside my apartment. Every time I hear their laughter, and, yes, their crying as well, I say to no one in particular “I want to just adopt all of them and take them home with me!” For me, coming from a background and family such as mine, I will never be able to fully understand what they are going through. Maybe a bit better than some I will be able to, but no matter how close I am to a situation like these children’s, I don’t think I will ever truly be able to grasp what these kids are growing up with because I haven’t gone through it and Israel’s very existence ensures that I never will. Which is exactly the irony of these immigrants entire situation within Israel.

And then there is Buhari Jews who are just shoved into the side of society because they are so old, poor, and have developed so separately from every other Jewish culture until about twenty-five years ago when their community made Aliyah to Israel. They, too, are also just people trying to make ends meet. In the apartment my group stayed in the first weekend of my program, our neighbors were a family of Buhari Jews. Obvious to us from the first moment, they are a close knit and pretty observant family. We heard them having a Shabbat dinner from our balcony and their dinner sounded more to my untrained ears like a Passover Seder. But they saw us listening to them (they’re prayers were sung so beautifully and unlike any Ashkenazi prayers sung in my synagogue back home) and waved us all (one boy and seven girls) down to partake in the end of their Shabbat mean and service with them. In true Jewish fashion, they were the best hosts imaginable. They gave us all the food they probably had, and invited us to share the tunes we knew of the prayers they were leading with them and then somehow they would work their own tunes into our tunes and we would be singing two different songs that were one song as one song. While their English was pretty much as broken as possible, between having four girls who can speak a little Hebrew and some guessing games involving pointing, it was an amazing night full of new people and a new culture.

So after those long anecdotes, I want to get to why I am here. My Mechina and my apartment are in South Tel Aviv because we want to make a difference and we know we can. Just the other night I was playing with a little boy who lives across the street from me; to see his face light up the way it was, was a feeling like none other. I will be volunteering in my community. My community. I am living here now and I think pretty much everyone in my Mechina can see how much this area needs help that we can provide. As all the areas around Shapira became gentrified, the worst problems of those areas (to tell it straight, I am talking about the addicts and prostitutes) got pushed into different parts of Tel Aviv – one of them is Shapira. This relates back to what I said about being smart to stay safe. But this also means something for these kids. Their parents must do the sh****est, under the table jobs as they cannot obtain work visas on a refugee status, and as a result, they must leave their children alone most of the day. Or the children are orphans. Or the children’s parents just don’t care about them. As we all know, kids are impressionable to what they see around them and these kids come from every situation imaginable.

View from the roof of my apartment. That is the Central Bus Station in the background.
View from the roof of my apartment. That is the Central Bus Station in the background.
Breakfast with old friends. It was so incredibly amazing having you stay with me, Sarah! Thanks for putting up with that all nighter...
Breakfast with old friends. It was so incredibly amazing having you stay with me, Sarah! Thanks for putting up with that all nighter…
5AM Tashlich service my Mechina put on at the Mediterranean Sea
5AM Tashlich service my Mechina put on at the Mediterranean Sea

Here is a movie recommendation for the day. If you are looking for a heart-warming, short documentary, watch “Strangers No More.” It is about the school that the kids in my neighborhood go to. All of the kids who are forgotten by society go there. Jews, Muslims, Christians, None-of-the-above. They come from over forty different countries and have some of the worst stories you can ever imagine. They are so different, it seems like their only similarity is the fact that they all have had indescribable hardship. But in this movie, you see kids of all colors, languages, and cultures playing during recess, hugging each other, laughing, learning, and excelling. This school is called the Bialik school and I hope, for the four days of the week that I will be volunteering as apart of my Mechina, I will be able to volunteer here. Give the kids love, help them with homework. Whatever they need.

Yes, where I live can be dangerous. I do not like anyone walking alone at night or a long way alone during the day. But the people are genuine. Just saying “shalom” to a woman walking on the street can put a smile bigger than any you’ve ever seen before on her face, and probably yours, too. While I cannot stop people from asking me if I made the right choice coming here, I can honestly say to everyone who is skeptical, I have never seen a more interesting neighborhood full of good people who just need a little bit of help. I do not ever regret choosing to come here and, I guess, my hope for the new year is to try to help people understand that an entire society shouldn’t suffer because of some people who give it a bad name or their socio-economic class.



The Steps We Take

If you were to have gone out for a morning walk around, oh I don’t know, 5:30 AM, you would have seen quite a sight: Sixty-some-odd seventeen and eighteen year old teenagers running around the streets of Tel Aviv for two hours carrying three stretchers. Yeah, that’s right, stretchers, like in the Army. One of the most unique parts of my program is its cooperative Israeli and international components. This means that the seven Americans and one girl from Holland are vastly outnumbered by the fifty-three Israelis who are taking a year off before their mandatory army service following high school.
It has made for a very interesting environment. It’s sink or swim and each of us in the Gapnikim group, as we are called, has been faced with this, I believe. It is difficult to put yourself into situations where you understand absolutely nothing about what’s going on around you. Who knows if the people you hope will be your friends are talking about the weather or the government or you. Its nerve-wracking. I have thrown myself into the Israeli teens and even just one week into the five to ten month program, I get a feeling that this year will be a good one.
Considering the day I have had, I am very proud of myself for still being so optimistic. Give me a second though, I’ll have to explain myself later.
This past weekend, my entire program (Israelis and Gapnikim) went on a two day hike in the north of the country, near a city named Haifa, which I believe is also just south of Lebanon. It was complete with sleeping under the stars and coyotes howling only five feet away from where we were sleeping. The hiking was beautiful and the camping an amazing experience. I got to both talk to loads of people who I hadn’t gotten to previously and also get a lot of time to think about life in general while surrounded by the silence of nature (my gap group decided to do silent hiking for a while).
Its truly amazing how we all take different paths to reach the same destination. We follow the same trail, but where we step and which direction we lean to keep our balance reflect who we are in ways we might never realize. Some people step on the rocks, maybe they like the feeling of living on the edge, while some people step in between them, maybe they like the comfort of always being in control. But at the end of the day, we all reach the end of our goal.
And the funny thing is, we focus so hard on where we are stepping that we don’t even realize how far we’ve come. You look up after ten minutes of walking and all of a sudden you are looking at the sea! (Kind of like how I haven’t posted in a week and I didn’t realize). So you stop for a few seconds and marvel at its glory, or maybe you walk and look at the same time, but start to lose your balance. Either way, you struggle to find the line between staying in touch with the goal and the path you must take.
What do all these metaphors really mean, you may ask? Well in a group like the one I am living in now, it gets hard to see the end outcome of what you want, who you want to be, and what you want to accomplish. It can be difficult to be yourself, one of the girls I have talked to over the past week has been saying that being in a group can really make people become impressionable. You see people all the time and sometimes you can start acting different from who you really are. I don’t know if I want to call it peer pressure, but it can definitely get overwhelming not being just you. You are now you with seven other people. But on this hike, I saw that it’s OK to be not yourself and to be alone. So long as at the end of the day, you are you, maybe just a new level of you. At the end of the day we are getting to the same place and the steps we take are only part of the final product.
My path took a detour from everyone else’s today, though. At the end of our army preparation workout, after I had given my all and stayed strong, sharing the load (literally, my shoulder has the bruise to prove it) and encouraging my new friends to continue on and do the same, I had an accident. On the final lap, I took a bad fall. It felt like my thigh was being ripped from it’s socket – this wasn’t what happened, but that’s just what it felt like.
After being carried on the very stretchers I had been carrying only minutes before, seeing the people, who had only just met me, jump up and volunteer to carry me all the way to the road to find a taxi … It is just surreal. It seemed like so many people offered to come with me to the hospital and I felt more included that I had been in a long time, in some sort of sick way.
It ended up only being a sprained thigh. The doctor said that I should be all good in a few days, so I guess we will see. But the fear I felt when it happened, and the isolation I feel being an American girl who got hurt while doing an Israeli exercise and is now on crutches because of it is overwhelming. I feel ashamed that I couldn’t finish. And I feel isolated because I now am relatively immobile. I need more help than I want to ask for and I can’t go to hang out at places that are too far away. I know it could have happened to anyone, I was in a large group of people, all of us running. It is disorienting, but I still would do anything to go back to this morning and finish strong with my new Israeli family. To not be hurt only one week into the program.
There are much worse things in life. So much worse happens to so many people. I am so lucky to only be experiencing mild pain right now while I write this post, but still, I still cannot help feeling sad.
Yet, this is my path. The steps I took are what got me here and hopefully the worst is over. At the end of the year, when I hopefully will have figured out what I want to get out of my program, I will glance back and see that everything that happened only made my journey more interesting, more special, and more formative for me as a person. It has shaped me. My limits have been tested more; I believe I am already stronger.
After all, “it is not an adventure if nothing goes wrong.” Compliments of Sidney Hellman.
My next goal is to find a way to surpass my sense of isolation whilst surrounded by sixty-two people.