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