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Wooaaahhh, We’re Halfway There!

Today’s participant blog post comes from Adrienne Bernstein, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Adrienne’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Adrienne’s personal blog, which can be found here.

Last week I hit the halfway mark for the Yahel Social Change program. As they say, time flies when you’re working hard for social change in of the most politically complex countries in the world.

Reaching the halfway mark of the program gave me a lot to think about: am I achieving the goals that I set out to achieve? How have these goals changed? How can I work harder, better, faster, stronger?

Matnas Chicago: A joint Jewish-Arab community centre in Lod and home to two of my volunteer placements

I also thought about why I came to do the Yahel program in the first place. Coincidentally, I’ve been having this conversation quite a bit with various donors, Yahel staff members and fellow volunteers. Through these discussions, I realized that we all have different reasons behind our involvement in Yahel.

Why Yahel?

I chose Yahel as a volunteer social change program first and foremost. The fact that the program took place in Israel was one of the last things that initially attracted me to the program and almost deterred me from applying to Yahel altogether.

This time last year I was eight months fresh out of university with some ideas of how the world worked, but no real experience in that world. I had a brief encounter with oversees volunteering as a teenager (read more about it here) and the nagging desire to get out there and retry the volunteering thing was creeping up again. This time, I was going all in, balls to the wall for a totally immersive long-term project. But as I started looking for programs, nothing seemed right for me. Programs were either too expensive, lacked a supportive staff, the projects seemed vague or unrealistic for volunteers to achieve and focused too much on the volunteer’s gains instead of a lasting impact in the community.

I started talking to my family about my goal to volunteer for a year and my struggle to find a suitable program for my interests and values. My Dad, being the ever-helpful father that he is, suggested I speak with a colleague from the Jewish National Fund about a potential volunteer program in Israel. I think my response was on the lines of, “uh…no, not going to a developed country to volunteer.” But he persuaded me to give them a call anyways. That call put me in touch with a representative from Masa: a large organization that offers grants to young Jews from all over the world to study, intern and volunteer in Israel.

I was quite skeptical going into this meeting. I swear I almost started the conversation with “I don’t want to make Aliyah and have Jewish babies in Israel, OK!” But thankfully I didn’t say that and instead outlined what I was looking for in a volunteer program.

Initially, I looked at programs that were offered through Masa but took place in another country. But then they suggested Yahel – a program that worked in a small neighbourhood within Rishon LeZion with the Ethiopian community. I was intrigued but still sceptical.

Choosing the program, not the country

You see, up until this point, I had a love-hate relationship with Israel. While I’ve visited twice before and am proud of my Jewish culture and heritage, I find myself constantly wrestling with the idea that, as a Jew, my culture and heritage is tied up with a country I have a hard time getting behind 100 percent of the time.

Plus, did the high-tech capital of the world which invented seedless watermelon and WAZE need my help to clean up its problems?

As I applied for the program I thought about this question over and over again. And the more I questioned why should I volunteer in Israel of all places, the more I realized that those questions were exactly why I needed to volunteer there.

My conflicting relationship and mixed opinions about this country pointed to the fact that I do have a vested interest in Israel’s future – a future that looks different than its current state. Slowly, my notion to disengage from Israel turned into the desire to engage with grassroots movements for social change within the country.

In my first interview with Dana, Yahel’s founder and executive director, I was asked how I felt about seeing a side of Israel that wasn’t so nice. I said that’s exactly why I wanted to be part of the program. I asked her why I should volunteer in Israel. She told me that it’s important to make a change in our own backyard; the places where we have commonalities, vested interests and where we are all mishpucha (Yiddish for family).

It struck a chord with me then and, now that I’ve reached the halfway mark of the program, this value still holds true. Every day, I see aspects of this country that are upsetting. But I also meet people who are invested in creating social change within Israel. This work wouldn’t be possible without the realization that this country has problems that need to be solved from the ground up.

The Yahelnikim with Levi Lauer, executive director of ATZUM Justice Works and our biblical text social action spirit guide

Now, I previously mentioned that when I initially spoke with the Masa representative, Yahel was working with the Ethiopian community in Rishon LeZion. And they still are. But about two months before I jetted off on my volunteering adventure, I got a call from Yahel. They were opening a second program, this time in Lod – one of Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities. They told me that the volunteering projects would partner with all different communities within Lod: Eastern European, Ethiopian, and Mizrahi just to name a few. But this program would have a special focus on the Arab population and coexistence within Israel.

It took very little convincing on Yahel’s part to get me to switch from Rishon LeZion to Lod. The conflict between Arabs and Jews is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, conflicts in Israel. And to have the chance to work in partnership with Arab-Israelis and to hear their history and vision for the future through their own narratives was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Colouring a picture of Matnas Chicago at an Arab youth after school homework program.

What I know now

In reflecting on the halfway mark of this program, I’ve thought about what I’ve learned since arriving in Israel. I know that for most Arab-Israelis, English is their fourth language after spoken Arabic, written Arabic and Hebrew. I spoken with many Arab-Israelis who consider themselves Palestinians despite living within Israel’s borders. I’ve seen how racial discrimination manifests itself even within the Jewish population of this country. I know that that a city only 20 minutes from Tel Aviv can become forgotten and fall to political corruption. I now know all of these things, but would I have known them if I was still back in Canada, trolling the internet? Probably not.

It’s been quite the journey so far. I’ve learned more about grassroots activism, non-violence movements and sustainable development than I ever did in a university classroom. I’ve also learned how to listen to someone’s story and how to balance multiple perspectives of one event or place.

This is exactly what I set out to learn when I was looking for a volunteer program eight months ago. However, while the program I chose happened to be in Israel, I couldn’t imagine gaining this insight anywhere else. This tiny country, in which it only takes half a day to drive from top to bottom, is so intrinsically complex that almost every major world power is a stakeholder in its affairs. And in a way, I’m a stakeholder too. I’m not an Israeli citizen, but I could be if I wanted to, through the Right of Return policy. I haven’t donated to Israeli charities in the past, but I received Israel Bonds my whole life – many of which I used to travel to Israel in 2010. And whether I invest or divest in this country, I am engaging with Israel on some level. I just choose to engage with this country through (what I believe to be) a productive, sustainable means.

There are noble causes around the world that need urgent attention. But the issues surrounding the city of Lod in Israel are issues that I feel particularly passionate about and connected to. I may have not realized it right away, and it might have taken some self-reflection and a place ticket to spark that passion, but it’s there.

So, in the end, maybe I did choose Israel.

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