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.

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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

“No Pain, No Game”?

For all the irony lovers out there, take this one in: The nights when I’m suppose to be most happy and feel most connected to the people around me and the place I’m in, happen to be the nights when I get very much homesick. Those nights would be Friday nights when we have our special Shabbat dinner. Everyone wears white, we set tables up in a more fancy way than usual, and the dinner is pretty much always delicious (which, considering it seems like most of my dinners have consisted of only rice or pasta, tahini, and an Israeli salad, is saying something). It is really beautiful. But we also take a few moments to slow down and think about, well, everything.

Last night, before we ate, an Israeli friend of mine stood up in front of everyone to say something. Because he spoke in Hebrew, it took a few moments for me to catch up to what was going on, but a few days ago, there was an act of terrorism in the West Bank. A family of six – two parents and four children ranging from four months to nine years old – were driving in the West Bank and the two parents were shot and killed by terrorists leaving the physically unharmed children orphaned. I do not wish to turn this into a political debate. However, my friend who was speaking was so overcome by emotion because of this act of terrorism that he could not finish his talk. My heart broke twice in that moment.

In the United States, when there have been acts of terrorism – and there have been many in the recent past – I have not seen a reaction like this. I am not talking about huge massacres such as Oregon’s Umpqua Community College shooting that happened on Thursday, 9/11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, the Charles Hebdo attack, etc., just individual acts of terrorism like these. And I am not at all saying that people in the US do not care or do not know, but in Israel I think there is a situation where every life has been touched by terrorism in some way. Or the wars. Every person who is hurt by the situation, whether this person is a close friend or a stranger on the news, is held in the hearts of the entire country in a way that is more powerful than anywhere else I have seen. This is what it seems like at least. I talked with some other Israeli friends afterwards about the shooting and while they did say that many do not show anything on the outside, pretty much everyone feels. They understand. I do not and I think this is something that America has blessed me with. To know what a family who has undergone an act of terrorism is maybe feeling is quite possibly the worst thing I could ever imagine anyone feeling. And here I am, in a country of people who all know. Knowing this, seeing this pain in all my friends eyes around me, the pain for the families and for their friend who is hurting … it really has an affect. I am so lucky that I do not know this feeling. And I truly understand that America is the reason for this.

So my heart broke twice. Once for my friends and once for the family.

Thinking about these kids who are now orphaned, though, made me think about my family and how lucky I am to have such an incredible family who are safe and sound. But then, because I had time to slow down and process my feelings, I realized how much I really miss my parents. I guess it’s similar to college, but at the same time, I am not sure … The Israelis all say to me how much they admire us, gaps, for coming to a foreign country for at least five months when don’t know when we will be able to see our parents again. I do not have any quiet, private time. When I am alone, my mind is literally buzzing from the silence. So when my emotions really catch up and I realize just how much I do miss my family, and not just in the normal “oh, my friend’s parents are coming tonight, she’s really lucky. I wish my parents would be here. Oh well”-way, it consumes me. It overwhelms me.

So I am left wondering: Should I be feeling guilty for forgetting for a moment about these kids who are now orphaned because of my own problems that they reminded me of? Or should I just acknowledge that there is pain everywhere and each individuals’ pain cannot be compared because pain is not a game?

At the end of it all, hearing about these acts of terrorism in Israel, from Israelis for whom this situation is their reality, really makes it much more real.

View of Tel Aviv from Yaffo
View of Tel Aviv from Yaffo
Set up for Shabbat dinner.
Set up for Shabbat dinner.
Night of Yom Kippur when the only vehicles you see on the roads are bicycles and ambulances.
Night of Yom Kippur when the only vehicles you see on the roads are bicycles and ambulances.

Jaz

Tattoos and Clues

(Disclaimer: Don’t worry Dad, I’m not getting a tattoo.)

It is amazing how little so many Israelis think of their country. Jews from all over the world look at Israel in awe, wanderlust, and protectiveness. Well, at least some do. But Israelis cannot wait to leave. Many don’t leave, but they yearn for an easier life they see on American TV. A cheaper life, not having to live in a small country where everyone knows everyone and is always in your business, and not having to be afraid all the time. I understand this, but it is just such a different perspective than the one I have.

As I have been reconnecting with old friends, making some new ones, seeing new places, and revisiting old ones, I am at once seeing Israel through my friends’ eyes and my own. The people are loud and rude, but they are genuine and friendly. The cities can be run down and squashed together, but they are also extraordinarily making do with what they have. People come from all walks of life, just like in the United States, and just like in the US, they have their problems with racism, but everyone has community and their own customs and traditions that they have stayed true to throughout the generations and change. In the US they would be considered practicing Jews, but here they do not consider themselves Jewish at all.

Ashquelon Beach
Ashquelon Beach
Oren and me (with her little sister Leianne in the back) at the Ashquelon Beach
Oren (left) and me (with her little sister Leiame in the back) at the Ashquelon Beach
Or and me at the Ashquelon Beach
Or (right…or up?) and me at the Ashquelon Beach

The more time I spend here, “living like an Israeli,” my excitement to start my gap year program, Bina Gap Year, grows. In Israel, you are ultra-orthodox, not religious, or a tourist. There is no popular choices of Reform, Conservative, and Modern-Orthodox. (Unless you are a tourist who moved to Israel). Part of my program is to study at a secular yeshiva. This means a non-religious religious school for Jews. A bit of an oxymoron, but it’s purpose is to bring a new perspective on Judaism to the country. Slowly, as I see more and more, I am truly realizing why the work my program does is so important.

Oren, my friend I have been staying with, wants to get a tattoo on her arm that says “Perspective.” She wants to be able to look down and remind herself that there are always more options, reasons, and perspectives to consider when a problem arises. While I don’t plan on getting a tattoo, I think that if one plans to permanently engrave themselves, “Perspective” is not such a bad word to do it with.