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, which can be found here.
In Hebrew, the word "B'yachad" means together (or togetherness), and when my fellow Yahel volunteers and I decided that this would be the name, and theme, for our major community event at the end of March, we had a loose idea of what this night would look like: performances from the various groups of youth we work with in the community, food, speeches, music--all of which would be tied to this broad idea of communal unity.
The main idea was to bring the community together, and to shift gears for a much-needed, uplifting communal moment. Instead of just talking about what the difficult neighborhood of Ramat Eliyahu has to improve, and achieve in its future (the topic of seemingly constant discussion around the neighborhood and city municipality), this event was about celebrating the incredible unity, and vibrant culture that the different groups in the neighborhood bring to the table. The goal was to do this mainly through the local kids, with whom many of us work in several different capacities (for me, these include teaching at two different schools, working as a guide or "madrich" for multiple groups within the community youth centers, and tutoring English after school). On the invitation for the event, we wrote that we would come together to celebrate the strength of Ramat Eliyahu through the incredible accomplishments of the youth.
With one of my groups of students at the local elementary school, I presented the idea of performing at the event, and was met with much excitement. Myself and the two other volunteers at the school decided to have some of the students that we teach put on a play, in which they would be using their English skills to "travel the world." Three students that I had been working with since the beginning of the year, would be the main characters.
Just to provide some context, when these same three kids were sent to me by their teacher in early October, she told me that, "These guys are all very behind. One of them doesn't study or care at all. They have been learning English for three years already but they are really at the beginning." Since then, I have made it one of my missions to get these guys excited about learning. I know that as a volunteer here for just nine months (only three more now), I realistically can't make these kids English superstars, but my goal with them from day one was to just get them enthused about going further and learning more. One of the main ways I tried to make the subject appealing to them was through music--particularly hip-hop. Over time, I started to see that they were more excited to come to class, to hear music, and to learn English in these more intrinsically motivating ways. As a result, when it came to presenting the event to them a few months ago, I knew that music would also need to be involved. Thus, we decided, that as the stars of the play, these three sixth-graders would "travel" around the world to six different countries, where some of their classmates would serve as representatives for each one, relaying information about their home to the three Ramat Eliyahu-based travelers. At the end of the play, as a way to say goodbye to their new friends from around the world, I decided that we could incorporate one of their favorite songs, "See You Again," by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, as a music video performed by the three boys (the song also focuses on a similar theme of saying farewell to a close friend).
As we progressed with the preparation for the play, the boys had a blast meticulously learning and translating the song's heartfelt lyrics, and getting their lines (a very basic conversation with a couple little jokes interspersed) memorized. My dad even got to help out with this process for a day, as he came to school with me one morning during his visit to Israel a couple weeks ago (if we ever take this play anywhere, he can definitely get a credit in its production).
All of the other preparations for the event went smoothly, although it definitely was a great deal of hard work. We wanted to make sure that we filled the local community center's auditorium for the evening, which holds upwards of 160 people, and so we marketed the heck out of this thing (even taking a night to employ an Israeli adaptation of my college fraternity's traditional "dorm-storming" practice, in which we distributed invitations to locals throughout the streets of the neighborhood). We also solidified the lineup with a mixture of musical performances, presentations, speeches, and video clips from kids and adults that we work with throughout Ramat Eliyahu. Each of the performances featured its own unique flavor--from a recitation of Maya Angelou's, "Phenomenal Woman" to a vivacious performance of Katy Perry's, "Roar," to empowering speeches by local teens and community figures on the leadership of the youth, and scope of the many projects within the neighborhood. While many of the performances were a showcase of the progress that our students have made in English over the last six months, we also wanted to be sure that some of them stuck to the overall theme of communal strength and unity.
While all of the final details were being confirmed, I was facing a difficult struggle with one of my students--one of the three main characters in the "Around the World" play. On the night before our event, we scheduled a dress rehearsal of the entire show. We told the kids that in order to be in it, they would have to show up to the rehearsal. Since all of the students had been working so hard for several weeks to get ready for the big night, I didn't think it would be a problem. Although that night, only two of the three main performers showed up, and the one that was missing had been so enthusiastic about it at school just hours before. I started calling him. If he wasn't going to be in the play, then everything would have to be changed--he was one of the stars. He had been working on this so passionately for such a long time, and I just didn't understand what happened to him.
When I was finally able to reach him, he told me that he was completely done with the event. He sounded distraught, and could barely even tell me why. Ramat Eliyahu is a tough place, and often times there is a lot that the kids are going through that we don't always know about. This child, for one, has a very difficult story, and it turned out that he suddenly became incredibly scared to perform for such a large audience (possibly due to factors surrounding his home life). While I was very disappointed (along with all of the kids that he had been preparing this with for months), I understood. Getting up in front of almost 200 people is hard, no matter how old you are, or how much you have prepared (as one of the MCs for this event, I could definitely relate to his nerves). I finally told him that evening, after persistently trying to convince him to give it one more try, that I understood, and that he was still the man.
The next day in school, we had our final few classes to rehearse the play, before the event that night. When I saw this boy upon arrival at school that day, he still looked upset. I asked him, "why don't you come with us right now, at least to just support your friends that you've been working with these past couple months--just to still be a part of it all?" After weighing the options, he agreed to join, and eventually after further deliberation, decided to jump back in. I was so happy about his decision, and after having a few great last rehearsals, he was ready, along with his friends, for what they had been practicing so long to perform.
Before the end of the school day, I took the three boys aside, and told them how proud I was of them--that they had worked so persistently together and were speaking English in this play in a way that none of us could have imagined just months ago. Although in light of what had happened the night before, I also told them that a lot of people were counting on them, and that the only way they could realize all of the growth, incredible discipline, and perseverance that they showed over the past few months was by showing up. It would only happen if they supported one another, and did this together--"b'yachad."
That night, when I saw the boys walk into the community center before the show, I was ecstatic. They were ready, and were encouraging one another through all of their nerves. When the time came for their show, they went up with pride, spoke their lines clearly, and sang with swaggering style in their hilarious music video--quickly becoming the celebrities of the entire neighborhood in front of the packed house. The community loved it, and cheered loudly and passionately for them, as they did for all of the amazing performers that night.
After the show, the guys were ecstatic. "How was I?!" They all asked--smiling from ear to ear. I told them they were phenomenal, and how I could not have been prouder. But they already knew. The boy who hadn't shown up the night before was now strutting around like a superstar, and he had made his dad in the audience extremely proud. Their teachers at school, who were also there, were amazed and overjoyed to see their confidence and ability, as were their community leaders, friends, and various other connections throughout the audience.
As has been the case with many of my experiences here over these past 6+ months, I feel that I have learned more from this story than I could have ever imagined. These are kids that some people in the "system" may have otherwise given up on, and I don't mean that to point any blame. I see these tough schools in this neighborhood, I work in them everyday. Many of the teachers here work very hard, and sometimes the tasks and gaps in the classroom are too vast for any one educator to handle.
If there is one thing that I have learned from my volunteer work this year, and specifically from preparing for this event, it's that confidence for these kids is the number one most crucial factor for success. When I hear what some of my students have gone through in their lives, and see how little support they may have for their studies at home, I understand how easy it is for them to feel that they can't achieve. I realize how lucky I was to always have my parents pushing me to work hard, from a very young age, helping me to succeed through their love and support. They helped build, and give me, my confidence--something that not all of the kids I work with are fortunate enough to have always consistently had in their homes.
So when I looked at my student that night after the event, a boy who just the day before was sure that he couldn't do it, I couldn't help but reflect his same glowing smile. He had put his teachers in shock ("ani b'shock"--one of them told me in Hebrew), the same teachers who just months before could not have even imagined his potential. He made them see it though, but even more importantly, he made himself see it as well.
Building confidence is a joint effort. Many are lucky enough to have more help from their support systems than others, but some are not. Although the aid in discovering confidence can come from many different people and places, and I strongly believe that it is always possible to help people think more highly of themselves. It might not be easy, and is certainly more difficult than simply adopting the dismissive attitudes circulated around these types of communities (i.e. "he doesn't try," "don't bother with that kid," "he doesn't learn or study," etc.). But when we think about how far confidence can take someone--how it can truly be the prime difference-maker in their future--it should make us more willing to try.
When I saw this kid that next day, along with his two local co-stars, their newfound self-assurance was illuminating. So far, over these past two weeks since "B'yachad," it's been making them more excited to learn English, and I think that's because they saw what they are capable of achieving--both within the language, and beyond. Whether this confidence will last remains to be seen, but one thing I do know is that it is more intrinsically motivating than any one teacher or curriculum could ever be. Having more confidence can help anyone, and I hope that it will take these kids to new heights.
Check out some pictures from the event below!
(From the top and descending): The "Around the World" play, with the three boys reciting their opening lines; a selfie of us with the crowd filing in; two youth leaders that I work with who are part of the Youth Council of Ramat Eliyahu, delivering a speech about the strength of their community and the projects they are a part of; the deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion addressing the crowd about our nonprofit's projects in Ramat Eliyahu; the head of Ramat Eliyahu's youth centers and activities discussing communal unity; our "Welcome to B'Yachad" banner; the host sisters of one of my fellow volunteers, reciting Maya Angelou's, "Phenomenal Woman," and a beautiful poem they wrote in Hebrew for their mother; and finally, the three MCs getting the evening started!