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Life Goes On

Today’s participant blog post comes from Benji Bernstein, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Benji’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Rishon LeZion, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Benji’s personal blog.

It was a beautiful New Years Day morning in Tel Aviv. I had just left a couple friends after a delicious brunch at the famous “Benedict’s” eatery, located conveniently in the city center. I had planned to stay in Tel Aviv for the better part of the day, in order to later meet up with another friend of mine who just recently moved to Israel. As I walked the streets of central Tel Aviv alone that morning, I was delighted to see and experience the vibrancy of the city’s rich culture. The bars, cafes, and restaurants that lined each block were packed with young people, mostly sitting outdoors and enjoying the mild central-Israel winter weather. Many were laughing and sharing stories, celebrating special occasions, or even just quietly enjoying their company over hot cups of coffee. I remember thinking to myself, “How cool is this place?”, as well as about how any young New Yorker would have been truly impressed by the hipness of this Middle Eastern city.

For those familiar with the current security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, you may be able to understand why this was also a very peaceful moment for me. For much of the time that I have been here, there have been some safety concerns regarding large public gathering spaces throughout the country. Although seeing everyone out and about that morning–enjoying life and all of its simple pleasures–in one of the busiest areas of Tel Aviv, made me feel comfortable and at ease. It felt no different than walking around downtown Boston (as I had done often throughout my college years at Brandeis), and the joyful expressions on the people enjoying the leisure spots of their city looked just the same.

After meeting my friend at a quick lunch spot that afternoon, I had to rush out to the bus stop across the street to catch one of the last buses to Rishon (the city in which I’m living and volunteering for the year), before the buses stopped running for Shabbat. I luckily got to the bus stop just in time, as the bus to Rishon was just pulling up. Although as soon as I got on the bus, sirens started blaring from seemingly every direction, and immediately outside the bus’s windows, a frantic scene of machine gun-clad policemen storming through the street ensued. “Haya pigua achsav” (“there was an attack just now”), I heard the Israeli passengers telling the people on the other end of their cell phone calls. I did not know the severity of the attack, and my phone had died just before boarding the bus. Although as the sounds of the sirens gradually faded while leaving the city, I could sense the fear of my fellow passengers.

It was not until I got home that I learned from my roommates exactly what had happened, and that I had been just blocks away from the tragic event at the time. I also learned that the roads in the area were shut down for the ensuing police search just after I boarded the bus at 3pm, so I was lucky to make it to that bus stop when I did.

There has been so much going through my mind since this all happened yesterday. I am so sad that innocent people were brutally murdered, and shocked that it occurred in broad daylight, in the middle of a leisurely Tel Aviv afternoon. Although being right near where it took place, and seeing the police response in person, made it all a lot more chilling. It is so tragic that this can at times be the reality here in Israel. It is so upsetting that innocent peoples’ lives can be disrupted by terror at a moment’s notice–even in the midst of an “Upper West Side-esque” afternoon. Everyone is affected by it–whether it be by a heightened sense of fear when boarding a bus, or by simply turning on the news at night.

Although life must go on. The country must continue to function, and people must continue their daily routines. As an American, I have the opportunity to run away from this all. I talked about it yesterday with my parents, and also with my roommates. I can leave if I get too uncomfortable–I can go home if things get scary. But for many of the Israelis and Palestinians on the ground here, that is not a realistic possibility. They cannot run from this. This is their reality–the more quiet times, and the scarier times alike.

As an American Jew that cares deeply about this place–about its future, and about achieving a true and lasting peace here–I don’t want to just run away. I want to help out–even if it’s in a really small way. That’s why tomorrow, like all current residents of Israel, I am going to get up at 7am and start my work week (Sunday is a weekday here). The young students to whom I will teach English tomorrow are here in Israel for the long-haul. I want to help them and show them that I am here for them right now. They are looking forward to our “hip-hop English lesson,” where together we translate and discuss (as much as we can in English), one of their favorite American rap/R&B songs (tomorrow it’s a new Chris Brown track). The teens at the at-risk youth center I volunteer at tomorrow night are expecting me to be there, and I’m excited to hear about their weekends (which I hope consisted of more positive activities).

While Israel is an extremely complex place, it is not just a conflict. Its character is not defined solely by the terror attacks, or the occupation, or the various wars. It is also a society–a vibrant culture filled with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities–most of whom at the end of the day, just want to live their lives in peace. For us American Jews, many of them are our cousins. Their reality can often be scarier and less comfortable than ours in America, and while we may have some serious issues with their government, we should try to keep them in our minds. Their persistence and ability to go on with their daily routines, even in the midst of terror and uncertainty, are what allow this place to exist. They are the people who enable our Birthright trips to take place, and our synagogue, youth movement, and day school programs here to be so meaningful to us, and to our Jewish identities. Their collective persistence is remarkable, and I have seen it at a much closer distance since arriving here four months ago.

So tomorrow, I am going to school, and even though what I experienced this weekend was unlike anything I have ever seen, I am going to be persistent. I am going to try to give back here in the small way that I can–to show the people here that I care about them. I want to show them that I am with them through this long and challenging journey of building a flourishing, equal, and peaceful Jewish State. While I will be returning to America in June, I just want to tell them that I am there for them, and that I am invested–invested in their future success and peace–for the long-haul.

Some pictures from this past week:

This was the scene from the incredible, “Respect” hip-hop and street art festival in the Ramat Eliyahu community. This amazing event was organized by the “Tarbuta” group of community organizers in the community, who focus on bringing engaging music and cultural experiences to the neighborhood. It featured performances from up-and-coming rap artists in the community (some of whom I work with at the youth center), as well as from more well known Israeli hip-hop groups. It also showcased local graffiti artists, break dancers, and DJs throughout the night. In addition, there were some unbelievable free-style rap sessions (all in Hebrew I might add)!

These are some pictures from my weekly American football session that I teach at an after-school kindergarten program at the community center. The kids are really enjoying it so far, and some can even already throw a nice spiral! Here you can see them learning how to grip the ball, and just being genuinely mesmerized by holding a real football.

Who knows? I could be producing a young Israeli Peyton Manning! Only time will tell…

And of course, the “Israeli Jam of the Week”…“Sababa” by Nechi Nech. “Nechi Nech” literally means white boy in Hebrew slang, and this guy is an Ashkenazi Jewish rap and reggae artist (his music is actually incredible, and he is quickly becoming everything I wish I was). I think of his stuff as a mixture of Mac Miller and Sublime, and the finished product is pretty awesome. He’s also got hilarious dance moves. Check out the video at the link below to see what a boss this guy is!

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