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.

worthless

For the first time in my life, I am scared to be a Jew.

I don’t want to detract from the severity of Islamophobia, racism, ableism, homophobia, and anti-immigration sentiment. But there is no escaping that this is the first time in my life I am experiencing true antisemitism. And not only that, it is now coupled with anti-Zionism.

I feel worthless. I feel caught in a web of wanting to scream out for justice and safety for me and my people, but also never wanting to talk about us ever again because I have Israel, right? I have Israel and refugees don’t have anyplace safe to go. Immigrants, Muslim-Americans, African Americans – none of them have an ‘Israel’ to escape to when things get bad. The United States was supposed to be their Israel.

But – here’s the thing. I feel utterly and completely abandoned by the Israeli government. Betrayed, abandoned, and just forgotten about. I feel worthless to my own people.

There was an antisemitic incident on my campus, here at McGill, about a week ago. But it wasn’t just antisemitic, it was explicitly anti-Zionist. And in my torn heart of wanting to stand in solidarity with all the people who might not be as fortunate as I am, I was shocked to realize that I might also not be as fortunate as I always assumed. And this is something I don’t want to admit. And I was shocked to realize that this was something I was struggling to admit.

Jews are safe, after all. Jews are strong! Jews are accepted! Maybe Israel isn’t, but Jews definitely are!

I want to believe this; I am white, after all. People can’t tell I’m Jewish. People don’t care that I’m Jewish. This is what I’ve always believed. I don’t wear any obvious religious garb or speak with an accent that singles me out or have a different skin color. There are so many people out there with bigger problems than my fear of antisemitism, right? Antisemitism is something of the past that only shaped my collective history and identity. Right?

Yet, it seems … this isn’t the case anymore.

I am a Zionist.

I will say it loud and clear, and I will never downplay my love for the country and my people. (As if people couldn’t tell this already.)

But, I am a two-state solution Zionist. I am a pro-peace Zionist. Yes. We exist. We are plentiful. We are possible. We are not a contradiction.

I do not support settlements. I do not support all of the policies Israel has taken on.

But I do, and always will, support a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Anyone who says that there should not be a Jewish state in the land of Israel is attacking the Jewish people – So many of whom are themselves out there, on the frontlines, supporting movements all the way from (believe it or not) BDS to grassroots peace organizations.

So when someone says something anti-Zionist, and a debate is opened, I will be one of the first to join. And I will listen to you! And I ask that you listen to me, too. Because I have made it my personal mission in the last few years, and for as long as I live, to achieve as broad an understanding as I can from as many perspectives as I can hear.

But, what happens when I feel completely discredited and estranged as a liberal Jew? As someone supportive of human rights and peace for all?

What happens when I suddenly realize that I am in a position of illegitimacy only because my people are seen – all of us are seen – as the occupier, as the colonizer? And this all happens in seconds, in the moment we chose to speak in support of our right to a safe Jewish homeland

Yeah, this isn’t anything new. We Jews are used to this kind of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, but now we are also being faced with neo-nazis and the like. And we are being shut down when we talk about antisemitism being a factor. We are told “don’t be so sensitive. This is just politics.” We are being attacked online by trolls, we are being accused of manipulating the media and manipulating politics and manipulating the entire freaking election.

“My” president shuts down reporters when asked about the rise of antisemitism. “My” president is denying that there is even an increase in antisemitism at all. “My” president is claiming he is the least antisemitic person there is and in doing so, proving that he might just be my greatest enemy.

Antisemitism is surging alarmingly. This is not an alternative fact. This is the truth. Look it up. Fact-check it if you’re still not convinced.

I don’t feel like I will have a place in America. I don’t know if I will have a place at McGill. And I don’t know if I even want to have my place in Israel if nothing changes. Even though I know my undying love for the country will never diminish.

And, I don’t even know if I should talk about this now, in light of everything else going on.

Because why should my problems as a Jew, be more important or greater than your problems which are so much worse?

Tell me. Please, I am begging you. Answer me this, because I already feel guilty for publishing this post.

No Matter What Happens: Love Trumps Hate

No matter what happens, America was already great. America was great and America needs us to continue to be great.

To anyone who voted for Trump, I want you to congratulate you. While he might not bring me what I want and what I feel our country needs, you have your own opinion. You made your choice. This was your civil liberty. This is your right.

As Evelyn Hall said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it.” These are words I will always live by. Words my grandmother engrained in me.

This is the essence and very fabrication of our democracy.

And now, after almost two consecutive years outside of the country, I have discovered a beautiful irony inside me: I want to be back in America, home, and be active. Doing my part. Making my mark. Fighting for what I believe is right.

Unfortunately, this is not physically possible at the moment and so I watch from over the border in little old Canada as the Canadian immigration website crashes, American flags are being burned, white supremacists are vandalizing Phily with swastikas … and still, I feel there is space for unity somewhere among the fear and division. A call is being heard in the far off places of the Facebook void – we need to stand together. Now more than ever.

Yes, I am terrified. We all are. I am scared for all the strides we have only begun to take. The advancements in Black Lives Matter. Changing the way rape culture is being looked at. Taking in refugees whose very lives and humanity have been stolen. Equal pay. Equal representation. Combating bigotry all around. Universal health care. LGBTQ equality. The list goes on.

These are human rights! They should be guaranteed. They shouldn’t even need to require a war! And yet, in our society … they have.

And so we ask what now?

This question that is praying everyone’s mind.

And the more I hear it, the more I think … the more scared I become. But also the more resolved I become to make sure we never reach the point my imagination is carrying me. We have a job to stand strong and together. We have a job to ‘go high when they go low.’ Because we know, they will go low compared to our values.

We are stronger together and we have proved that together reaches all the way across the country and back! From celebrities to our neighbors. We need to stand up for minorities. We need to stand up for human rights. We need to stand for freedom and democracy.

This is the call everyone is hearing. We are seeing it unfold as the protests are hitting the cities! And if you are not hearing it yet, keep your ears open! It is beginning and if we can find a way to include even those we don’t see eye to eye with – ALL THE BETTER.

We need to remember, this country was never bad.

Our country has always been strong. We have ups and downs like any other, but we have shown ourselves that we can bounce back from anything.

And I need to remind myself, that just because this day has resolved me to devastation and tears more times in the past twenty-four hours than I care to admit, there is half of our country rejoicing.

I do not mean this in a bad way. There are genuinely millions of people out there who feel Donald Trump will save them. And while I will never agree, I must respect this. Because, no matter what happens, I do believe that Donald Trump must the become president. (maybe he will not be my president and maybe he will get impeached … but that is a different story)

But if or when we see certain groups using Trump’s rhetoric to justify terrorism – because that is how I view what has been happening, racists acts of terrorism targeting marginalized, minority groups – when this happens, it is our right to stand together and hold Trump accountable.

Not just our right, this is our duty!

We must hold Trump accountable to our pillars and foundations of democracy.

Let’s hope this won’t be necessary, but this election was never about trust and placing our faith blindly in a candidate. This election was about action and fighting our battles as a unified movement made up of passionate individuals. This election was only the beginning of our revolution.

It did not end with Bernie. It will not end with Hilary. And it will most definitely not end with the burning of American flags.

Our revolution will end with a progressed America. Because, while there will always be room for improvement, America was already great. And she does not need one person to make her great in “his image.”

So no matter what, remember that we have been entrusted with our own humanity. And we are the future. Don’t follow me to Canada, stay.

Help me fight for true democracy.

Jazlyn

Time Is Built by All the Many Moments

I could talk about a lot right now.

I could talk about how I am building a library for Asylum Seekers who are being detained at the Holot detention center that is pretty questionably legal through international law. I could talk about how I just returned from a three day navigation/army trip meant to prepare the Israelis for their upcoming recruitments. I could talk about how I have been struggling with my body image. I could talk about the latest funny thing my kids in my volunteering have done (one of them thinks she’s coming to Artzot HaBrit (US in Hebrew) with me). I could talk about how much my friends here mean to me. How lost I would be without them. I could talk about everything I have learned about myself and life and what I want to do.

I could talk and talk and talk. (What’s new?)

But I have about a month left. There are now only three Americans left as two of them left early to work before college. Everyone in my program is starting to get nostalgic. We are all going around saying “Hey…remember the time when – ” fill in memory there. It’s like we can’t quite process that we have only been here a year when it feels like a lifetime. That’s how I feel at least.

We are at a point where everyone is fed up and wants to leave and never look back, yet we also never want to close our eyes.

The time has passed in a blink of an eye and everything I want to do and savor and laugh about could truly pass me by.

This year hasn’t been easy. It has been lonely and challenging. I went from loving every small thing about what I was doing and where I am to questioning everything, including my own purpose. Perhaps like a true Jew, or maybe I just became more cynical. I do not know.

But I do know that on the last day of the trip, after a long day of running – 8 km – whilst carrying two of our friends on stretchers, who needed help finishing, and then doing our last navigation in a city, like mini soldiers, quiet and stealthy (OK. Maybe not so quiet and stealthy, but you get the idea!), I was exhausted and energized. From all the mental and physical exhertion and the feeling of being one solidified group. And then, on the train I broke down.

I wrote a post a while ago about my reality. And how my reality is just being split into two and I never know what is real. The one I have on Saratoga Lake and the one I now have in South Tel Aviv.

I think, this year, my reality was everything I could have hoped for. I have direction for college. Real life experience. I pretty much learned a new language in a year. And so much more.

And next year, I am sure that I will discover another reality. I think I have it in my mind that I can only have one reality. That if I have many, they all must mesh perfectly. But I think I am realizing now that this does not have to be the case.

So yeah, I can talk a lot. I can tell you about how I did a business deal with the Hebrew School I go to, Ulpan Bayit, to make the lessons more affordable. I could tell you about how right now I am on a bus heading off to the West Bank to learn about their situation and culture and them as a people in general. I could talk about how excited I am for the Tel Aviv Pride Parade. I could say that I am scared for my friends to go to the army. I could tell you about all the many random acts of kindness I have experienced in this country from people of all backgrounds. I could talk about how messed up the problems are here. I could tell you about how absolutely everything I do is in a language I do not fully understand. I could tell you about how I am so thankful for my eighth grade science teacher’s love of rocks and topography because it helped me with my navigation trip that just finished. I can talk about how I can speak French here way more than I could in Saratoga. Or I could simply talk about how beautiful this place is.

I can talk. And talk. And talk.

But I think I want to save the nostalgia for when I come back home and just live in the few moments I have left.

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