Next Stop: Tokyo

So I’m off to Japan for a little under three months where I will be interning for the Japanese NGO Ashinaga. Ashinaga’s mission is to “provide educational and emotional support to orphaned students worldwide.” My jobs from what I can understand is to act as a source of support for the students, teach English lessons, and work on developing their Student Ambassador program.

The Student Ambassador (SA) program is how I first heard about Ashinaga. The SA programs are small networks within universities (or student organizations in simpler terms) that are committed to helping spread Ashinaga’s values and missions around the world. Last year was the first year of the SA program and I, kind of on a whim, decided to just get involved in the organization.

It was activities night at McGill and, like everyone else at activities night, I think I signed up for more than 30 clubs that night. But for some reason I was drawn more to Ashinaga, despite it only have two members (the then president and vice president) and what seemed to be a lack of direction. I think I saw its potential and thought it was a good opportunity to get involved. To try to help make a difference in the new community in which I found myself.

I was definitely right about all that.

But, I in no means ever thought I would become its president by the end of the year – something I’ve been told is a bit uncommon for a first year (or freshman, for all my Americans). And I definitely didn’t think that the NGO student club would actually be a huge international NGO with enough funding and commitment to this SA program that they can fly out their interns and subsidize their living expenses.

So, after only my first year at McGill university completed, I find myself sitting in the Chicago airport waiting to board my flight to Tokyo, waiting to go on my next journey, mildly in awe/straight-out bemused as to how I even got here. With an open mind, I am truly excited to see what happens this summer and how I find this new culture I am about to be immersed in.

Beautifully Complex and Frustrating

Well, I’m coming home in about a week.

Don’t have too much to say at the moment.

It ended well after we our final week long trip together in Jerusalem finished: We had good goodbyes. Lots of summarizings of the year. Last moments of bonding. Tons of crying.

The connections are strong. Right now, they almost feel alive and breathing. Tangible.

Not to be cliché …

I hope that my friends, here, find ways to continue seeing each other, despite their drafting into the army and following their own separate paths inside. And I hope, when the opportunities present themselves, that the other internationals and I find ways to easily reconnect with each other and with our Israelis.

A word we liked to use here was “process.” The process that each one of us went through over the year. How we changed and how we grew. And I think that this process I underwent is one of the most precious gifts I could be taking home with me from this year. Something that is going to have to follow me wherever I go and with whatever I decide to do. I didn’t see my process happen. And I don’t see how I am different from the beginning. But I witnessed others’ and I see the beauty of both who they were and who they became. These others have said the same to me. So, I really hope that this gift does stay with me and I don’t loose who I am. That, in my next adventures, I can continue to carve this path onward and upward.

I do not know what will become of this blog when I return. America just doesn’t seem exciting enough to me to document. Life there is my normal life from nefore this year. I will not be able to do work with Asylum Seekers or be living in an emmersive environment of a completely different culture. Canada, where I will be attending university, isn’t so far off from America, either. (Sorry to all my Canadian friends out there. Your country is still amazing.) And university is just university. Almost every 18-plus year-old in the world goes through this experience. I will always have things to say and share. Opinions and thoughts that I have developed and crafted. But I simply don’t know yet if I will feel like they will be important enough to share with the world.

So for all of those who stayed with me the whole way, thank you – for now, at least – for experiencing this part of my special year with me. Even if it was only for one or two readings here or there. These blog posts have documented the most formative year of my life yet. And it was a great ride. And maybe there will be more moments to come, who’s to say. Like everything else, I will wait and see.

In the meantime, I will be enjoying my last week in Israel. Traveling the country with friends, visiting other friends and family for the last times, and just simply getting my fill of this hot, humid, and beautifully complex and frustrating place.

And So the End Begins

Tonight is my last night in my apartment.

I didn’t really see it coming. No one from my program really celebrated our last night together.

Like…I knew this was coming, but I didn’t expect it to happen today.

It kind of just happened. The end. We haven’t even really talked about it much, or at all. It’s one in the morning, and I only just realized that its my last night in the apartment. I think an hour ago.

I don’t exactly know how I am supposed to feel. It has been a hard couple of last weeks with some amazing, insanely meaningful moments. It has been one summary after another. One closing discussion leading into the next. One more moment where I realized just moments after it happened, that that might have been the very last time I am able to do this.

And it hurts. It hurts so bad.

I said goodbye to my kids in my moadonit, today. And my heart is truly broken. Those kids were one of the most important parts in my year. I walked a group of the kids home afterwords, because they lived close to my apartment, and bought them all ice cream. I didn’t realize until after the ice cream choosing chaos ended how it was my last time with these kids. And next year, they will get someone else. Another American on Bina Gap Year. Because that is how life works.

I know I sat here a year ago, telling myself to enjoy every moment – because the end of the year will be here before I know it … and here I am, wondering if I succeeded.

A drawback of not fully understanding Hebrew is that everything I am experiencing seems like it is behind some sort of screen. I feel slow and sluggish. And that I only got half of what was said. So when we had our ending ceremony or our last classes or even the last volunteering time, I felt like it came so suddenly and had no buildup. Almost like its not a big deal.

It is a big deal.

Either way, a year later, I find myself back where I started. At one in the morning, a week before my return to Saratoga or the start of the rest of my life – apprehensive. I do not know what is going to come next. I do not know what I actually want to do in university and I am so scared about loosing my relationships with the amazing people I have met this year.

I know I will figure everything out,  but I cannot help but to have all the ideas we never did and all the last things I wanted to do one more time floating in my head. And I hope this does not turn into regret. So, in times like these, I think the best comfort I  can hope for right now is that my memories will be of all the best times I had this year. And that I continue to grab as many moments now as I can.

So today is my last night in my apartment. And I am celebrating it. My way. Know that this year was formative and important. And every moment is influencial for me. Despite the barriers I have.

Thank you.

What Next?!

Disclaimer: this will be long. Skip to the bottom if you are tired of reading everything I have to say. No hard feelings, promise.

I know I kind of just posted about how the second half of my program was about to start, but the funny thing about time is that it is always moving and two months after the half way mark leaves me with only three months left. And three months really doesn’t seem like a lot. As I find my brain settling into a rhythm of “this is almost over,” I just get more and more conflicted.

I do not regret coming and spending a year here in between high school and college. I have met countless of amazing people: from my gap group to my Israeli peers to my teachers and administration to the people I work with. I will be leaving this year knowing people from dozens of countries all with their own life stories and reasons for how our paths ended up crossing. I have learned from these people, especially the kids I volunteer with who come from Eritrea, Sudan, the Congo, Darfur, Ghana, and so many more places. Their smiles say so much and when they don’t smile, it says so much more. My classes have been so enjoyable (mostly when they were in English and I was actually able to understand what was happening…) and they are taught by equally interesting people – this list goes on and it will be impossible for me to name everything amazing.

Most of all, though, my friends have amazing. And I am scared. Because, for the most part, we are all going off in our separate directions. My Israeli friends are going to be serving in the army. They will take the leadership skills they gained here at Bina and be the future leaders of the Israeli Defense Forces; serving in positions all the way from combat units and pilots to Intelligence. Regardless of the seven hour time difference, we will be in different worlds as I begin tackling my own journey in university.

And my gap group is splitting as well. Well, except for you, Eve! (Eve and I will both be attending McGill University this September). But, most of my gap group is going to their own college – or staying in Israel and volunteering to be a lone soldier, serving in the IDF. I am worried that when I get home, after having been through such an intense, life-changing experience where I had no space to breathe because I live with fourteen people in a tiny apartment, life will just continue on like I never went away. Like I didn’t change. Because, just like time, life does that.

Our experiences don’t affect our neighbors and they are not written on our foreheads so that when we meet new people they will look at us and automatically see our message:

“Hey! Look at me! I just spent a year in Israel on an army preparation program and I am so different than I was ten months ago! Please treat me like I changed!”

Yeah…

I don’t think life works like that.

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So, it’s scary to think that even though fifty other people experienced all of this with me, there are way more than fifty people in the world. For those of you that knew me in high school, I had a tendency to obsess over trying to be in Israel and I am still not sure if that hindered me from experiencing things or if it just shaped my character. I don’t want to miss any of the rest of my life because I am getting over the (good) trauma of participating on Bina. If I learned anything these past seven months, it is that time goes fast and the good moments can be frequent or far and in between. We can’t know, so we need to learn to recognize them and not be caught up in something that already happened or else time will fly by and, before we know it, all the good times will have slipped by, too.

(Sorry, there’s a little bit more to go. If you’re still reading: Kol haKavod! But you can still choose to skip ahead…)

On the flip side, a part of me is ready to come home. My parents were just visiting, I believe twoish weeks ago, and as much as I absolutely adored showing them around my home here in Israel and truly feeling apart of the Shapira/Florentine, Tel Aviv community, part of me really missed being home. Or maybe not so much being home as not being in such an intensive program. And my family.

If anyone is interested in Bina and is reading this blog post, you need to be aware of what you are getting yourself into. The schedule is intense and not entirely flexible. Classes are mandatory and we wake up at six or seven and don’t come back to our apartments some nights until ten or even eleven. And then on top of all of that, for me personally, because I am learning Hebrew in Ulpan four days a week, I have a ton of Hebrew homework. So I come back around ten and then chill for a little bit only then to have to do my homework. At least I have a building full of native speakers to help me.

Anyways, it is exhausting. Not in the way high school is, just in the standards and expectations that we need to hold up. It is rewarding to no end, but you need to be prepared. Maybe it is the program I chose, maybe it is the people who run it, maybe it is my personality, maybe it is all of those combined. But this has been exhausting.

So I am excited for the end of the year to come. The air is starting to have that feeling of when things are winding down in classes and the weather is nice but then you need to work extra hard to study for finals. Things are busy here and I have so many projects that I want to attack with a vengeance. Even though I do have three months left and that is a lot of time, truly, I am stuck between wanting to clock out and wanting to never leave. I can’t decide if I should try to prepare myself mentally, now, for when I am back home or if I should not think about it because I am so scared of not being with the friends I made this year.

(Congratulations! You made it all the way through!)

(Skip to here. I can’t believe you didn’t read everything … )

In a nutshell: I want to go to college and I want to be with my family and see my friends and a small part of me wants to be out of Bina as well. Not be in a culture I need to figure out all the time. But I also am scared of how the transition back to life in America will be. Now Bina is starting to not feel like reality and eventually dreams need to end. I am scared of loosing touch with everyone I have grown close to and after June comes and I go back home, I really am not sure when I will be able to come here next.

This year has been an experience of a life time. An adventure, as my father likes to always remind me when I complain about things. And he is right. I hope I can tell you all sometime about all of my adventures. From almost getting hypothermia while sleeping outside in the rain to almost missing my plane back home and begging a taxi driver at 3 AM to take me to the airport for half the price because I didn’t have enough cash. I have learned so much and, for the moment, thank god I still have three more months left.

Surprise! I Was Converted Yesterday

I love my kids that I work with (yeah, I call them my kids). A little background: they are about twenty total and come from the Philippines, Eritrea, Congo, Sudan, Ghana, and many more. I am with them in the afternoon two to three days a week and do things like helping the teacher in the class, helping the kids with their homework, planning activities, drawing with and for them (so. much. drawing.) and just playing with them. Almost all of them speak some level of English and I really practice my Hebrew there. Its a challenge, no doubt, but one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. My kids give so much love and attention and us volunteers are more than happy to provide more than that in return.

My class is from the ages of seven to nine and I believe all of them are Christian. A few months ago, one of the girls in my class – lets call her Dox – found out that I was a “yehudit!” This means Jewish in Hebrew. Her and a lot of the other kids in my class were shocked and began asking me why I didn’t believe in Jesus. I pacified them by nodding my head and listening to them talk about Christianity and when the day ended, I assumed they would go home and forget about it – they are little kids after all.

But Dox is the daughter of a pastor from the Congo and it seems that my religious choices were bothering her a lot because this past Wednesday, when I was at the school, Dox pulled me aside and said she really had to talk with me.

(This entire interaction happened in English. The English skills of each individual child depend on what country their family came from. Because Dox is from the Congo, her English is pretty much fluent as that, in addition to French, is what she speaks at home with her mom. And then she learns and speaks Hebrew at school.)

Not knowing what could be wrong, I followed happily. She sat me down and said “Why don’t you believe in Jesus!” Wagging her finger in my face in a very nine year old-like fashion. I just gave her a slightly bemused smile in return.

“Why are you smiling! This is important! You have to believe in Jesus! Because if you don’t … if you don’t then you won’t go to heaven. And then you will be sad and die. And even though you are yehudit, and he doesn’t love you right now, if you just believe in him, you will be safe and you will go to heaven and he will love you!”

Not quite knowing what to say, because it was obviously upsetting her immensely that I wasn’t Christian, I just sat there quietly, nodding my head and smiling. When she finished, she asked me, “Do you see why you need to believe now? Do you believe now?” And again, I simply nodded my head.

In my mind, I was wondering if it was my place to try and teach her about tolerance, after all, that is part of my job with them: to mentor and guide them. My official Hebrew title is called madricha, which directly translates into a guide.

Before I could make a decision, a friend of my from the mechina sat down with us and Dox proceeded to ask him if he believed in Christ. He shook his head no and Dox went at it again. She looked at me and said “I’m testing you now! Tell him why he needs to believe in Christ.”

I tried to be serious about it, I really did, but the irony of the situation was too much for me to handle and, regretfully, I couldn’t get past saying “You need to believe…” without laughing. Multiple “You need to believe…”‘s later, Dox, frustrated with me, took over and explained to my friend why he had to believe in Jesus, saying exactly what she told me, and at the end, asked him, just like she asked me, “Do you believe now?”

And my friend just shook his head no.

Dox became so angry. She started to cry and looked like she wanted to hit my friend so I figured then would be a good time to try to teach about tolerance.

It didn’t go so well. I started, “Dox, sometimes, even though we try to help people make the best choices, they will not make the choice that we want them to make. But we have to be OK with this. We can’t get mad at their choices because that isn’t fair. And it’s great that you want to help people so badly, but we need to respect them (I had my friend translate respect into Hebrew just to be safe). OK?”

Apparently it wasn’t OK… She just responded with “NO! They won’t go to heaven!” And then she ran away. It was rough, but maybe later in life that conversation will come back to her and she can learn from it then.

The beauty of kids is they never stay mad for a very long time and by the final few minutes we were together, she was laughing and playing with me and the other kids again.

So while I wasn’t actually converted to Christianity, I think this story exemplifies a lot of what I am experiencing in my volunteering. The kids are not easy to mentor. They get angry easily and hurt even more so, they don’t like to listen and, particularly for me, their English is not always good. Or they will not even know English at all. But despite all the challenges and them questioning my religion, when I see my kids inside the school and out of it, my heart is so full. I love them and with all my being cannot fathom how I will be able to say good bye to them in four months. I am truly lucky to be able to have the opportunity to work with such amazing children.

Struggle

“When one is in an act of struggle, they may feel as if their  very essence is being torn in two. Stretched and worn, like an aged tapestry – held together only by its weary threads. Together, but almost not. Left to ponder its choices; hoping beyond hope that pondering will not be the very act that severs it. That action will not over-stress it. That this impasse within itself will come to pass, because even the impasse can tear at those threads. And so the threads continue to fray as time trudges on. They cannot be fixed, for fear of breaking, and they do not want to fracture, for this sacrifices their beauty. And so time weighs its heavy hands; resting, taunting. Causing our hearts to pound. Our writing to become unsteady. It eats and gnaws. Until all we are left with is doubt. Doubt in ourselves. Doubt in our actions. Doubt in our choices. All because of this one, very internal –

struggle.”

I wrote this about a week ago in my creative writing class. The class is in Hebrew. I couldn’t understand most of it. My Hebrew skills are improving, but mostly just to understanding basic, light conversations. From what I got between the translations and this writing exercise, it was about what different words mean to us and the many different ways we can describe each, individual word.

I was sitting in the class, feeling so … torn. I wanted to walk out, I didn’t want to walk out. It was my first class in Hebrew without a friend who could tell me exactly what was going on or to put me completely at ease even if I didn’t want the translations. (I did have a friend, Kineret, trying to help me. It just wasn’t enough, but thank you so much for doing what you could Kin!) And for the first time, I really, truly questioned my choice in staying. I felt like I didn’t belong there. And so when we finally got a writing exercise (write a list of six words that are me and six words that are not me, then take one from each column and write our interpretation of the definition for the word), I went a bit overboard. I wasn’t expecting to, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to share it out loud in a different language than the one the class was conducted in. (Doing this is usually a nerve wrecking experience because I never know if what I’m saying is relevant or an intelligent addition, but I just go for it anyways) But, anyways, I just started writing and the words started flowing.

I’ve never talked before about what it’s like to write this blog for me, but, to be frank about it, I really enjoy it. It has become therapeutic. I didn’t think this would happen, but I have become crazy about keeping this up. So when I started thinking of the words as something … magical, I felt … powerful. I felt like I was controlling the language. I don’t know how. I don’t even know if it’s normal. But I just approached the exercise from a different mindset than any writing I have done before and since then, I have become obsessed. I have written a bunch more passages. I don’t know if I’ll be publishing those, though. We’ll see.

I shared a section of my passage in class (it was the longest by far); I knew that it was different from all the other definitions that everyone read from the mood of people’s voices and their body language. I guess because I couldn’t follow the lesson I could take it where ever my brain and heart wanted me to take it. And I definitely was not expecting the reaction I got – as soon as I finished reading, everyone was silent. I’ve changed a few words here and there since then, but I knew I used some words that some people in the room would not know. I was worried for a few moments that they were silent because they didn’t understand. And I was worried that I would have to explain what I wrote – I really apologize, my friends, because this was not the case at all. After the moments of silence drew to a close, I began receiving compliments. Some of the nicest I have ever received. Or maybe I was just in dire need of acceptance at the moment. Either way, the feelings that caused me to write this passage in the first place started to dissolve. Just like that…

I came on this gap year partly because I want to get more experience in … well, in everything before I go to college and choose what direction I want my life continue in. And I have had experience in everything from being a teacher, Judaic learning, philosophy, social activism, to now creative writing (among much, much more that I’m blanking on at the moment); I have just found something else to consider. Who knows. I used to want to write for National Geographic as a child. Like a super brief phase in my childhood. But maybe I’ll find a way back to this path somehow.

Only time will be able to tell. Until next time!

Jaz

Sidrat Daroum (The Southern Trip)

If you ever want to become a leader overnight (and do a difficult, detail-orriented task), lead and plan a four day trip for 55 people. In a nutshell, the trip was four days in the south of the country – otherwise known as the Negev. In Hebrew, it is called Sidrat Daroum or Southern Series. A team of ten mechinistim (two from each group), guided by one madricha, planned everything from when we leave the appartment to where we sleep each night, the entire menu, and all the activities. All of this is guided by goals we set for ourselves to achieve through the sidra.

We were split into pairs, with each pair leading a day, and then one pair was head logistics and the other was the head of the team. For about a month, the entire team worked endessly, sometimes meeting a few times a week, sometimes working for hours with your partner, to make the sidra happen. For the day I was responsible for, my partner, Zohar, and I decided we want make our day an allday hike in the desert. (How can you go to the south and not hike?)

I am so glad I took the oportunity to head this sidra. I learned so much about managment and leadership in general. When I began to think about planning a hike, for some reason, it didn’t occur to me that I would be the one actually leading fifty people into the desert. And then, when the madrich who was helping me said that I would need to go down to Sde Boker, where the hike would be, and do the hike with one or two other people, alone, before the actually sidra – I was a bit taken by surprise (this basically meant that I needed to plan two separate hikes and lead both of them). Always up for a challenge, I didn’t let any of this stop me. Even when we experienced many, many … many … challenges along the way (Everything from not having the preparation hike planned the day before we hike it to not having a medic until about eight hours before the hike took place with no finalized Plan B schedule. Feel free to ask me more questions about any of this privately or in the comments, it is actually quite humorus now when I look back on it.), I wasn’t swayed.

The hike was amazing. Astoundingly magnificent. For anyone in the Negev/Sde Boker region, I highly recommend it, we hiked up to Chod Akev and then down and around to Ein Akev and finished the day at our outside campsite. About seventeen kilometers total (a little under ten miles).

When I came back from the preparation hike, everyone who enjoys hiking started asking about it, I of course told them how at some points the climb was so incredibly and beautiful, that at some points it felt like I was flying.  This then, of course, got around to everyone and people started to get worried: Is it too hard? Will I fall and die? I won’t be able to finish at all so maybe I should just not try, right?

I have to say it was difficult to keep people’s morale up. A few I knew wouldn’t be able to do the hike because of health and physical complications, but everyone else would be able to do it – that I knew.

So when the night before the actual hike came, and I was preparing to tell everyone that they would need to be up by 5 AM and out by 5:45 AM, I was really worried about how people would take it. As everyone in our mechina knows, sometimes we have tendency to give up before we even try and I didn’t want that to happen this time. When I expressed my concerns to my madrich about how to make everyone understand the importance of getting up and out on time and keeping up a fast past (to fight the sun) and still enjoy the day, he told me that I would need to give a pep talk – the most epic pep talk ever.

For anyone who knows me, pep talks are not usually my forte. I can talk in front of groups alright, but I’ve never been the kind to give master pep talks to a big group of people who actually really need one. It is just out of character for me to be, well, peppy. My madrich ran through some ideas on how to give an encouraging speach and said that if I believe what I am saying , then I can be so convincing that everyone else will, too (I still don’t know if I believe that…).

So we got everyone together and I went for it. I pretty much completely winged it. So I don’t have a written out copy or anything, but it pretty much went how you would expect a pep talk to go – with the necessary Obama “Yes, we can!” reference, of course! That part wasn’t planned, but I definitely learned that I have a lot more in me than I thought I did in terms of being a public speaker and gaining support. I don’t even know how to put it into words, but suddenly people who had been complaining to me about getting up early and doing physical exercise all day were now cheering with everyone else and kind of excited (it looked like it at least).

But I couldn’t know if it had actually worked, yet. I could only be sure if I was successful or not when it would be time to leave the next day.

We didn’t leave by 5:45, we left at 6:15. But it was OK. My group did so amazingly! They all worked so hard during the hike to stay together, to help the people in the back, to have fun, to hurry up when I said it was time to hurry up – I am still, almost a month later, so incredibly proud of my mechina, everyone in it, and even myself. I know it might be a bit superficial to be proud of myself, but I really wasn’t sure if I would be any good at leading a hike. There is so much more to it than knowing the trail. I really had my doubts, but I really think I actually did pretty well. I felt I did well, at least, and I received positive feedback. I was, and am, so amazed at what we accomplished. That hike was pretty difficult and everyone really did just such an indredible job at challenging themselves.

At the end of the day, when we were at the campsite, a friend of mine came over to me and said “Jaz, when you said that we would have to wake up at 5 and be ready in half an hour, I wasn’t sure I coud do it. But then you said that you believed that we can do and when I woke up, I wanted to go back to sleep. But I thought to myself ‘No! I can’t let Jaz down!’ and I got up and ready in time! Thank you for leading such an amazing day.”

That one exchange was worth all the hardships I encountered in making that day happen.

The moral of this story: if you get the opportunity, I really recommend being on a team to plan an important trip. It is really worthwhile, incredibly meaningful, and a great learning experience to see the direct results of what your sweat and tears can bring to others.

Update: I know what apartment I will be in. It was my top choice, so now I just need to move in and start the next semester. But first, enjoying my last moments with my gap group all together and then a week vacation at home. Yes, I do mean home-home. As in New York. I have a busy few weeks ahead of me, but a lot to look forward to!

Jaz