“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.
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.