Today's blogpost was written by Anna Brilliant, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Lod
Teaching my students about ice-hockey via videos!
I’m stopped at airport security again, being questioned and my bags are being thoroughly searched. This is not the first time I’ve been picked out for an extra security check when coming in and out of Israel. In fact, it has been almost every time. I am not sure what about me warrants the extra searches but when they ask me what I am doing in Israel, I admittedly try to give them the nice version; I work in Lod teaching English and work with at a non-profit, a story that will not draw attention to me. The truth - the answer that draws curiosity - is I work with Jewish Israelis and I work with the Arab community in Lod. This particular time, the security women asked me a question I have been asked many times, “What is it like to work with them?”
Though initially shocking and offensive, I realize this is a justifiable question. Coming from Israelis, I now understand the limited opportunities available to truly interact with their Arab neighbors. Though my city Lod is “mixed”, I have come to the realization that it is a separated city with different neighborhoods, schools and times to be in shared spaces.
Coming from my Americans peers (who have never been to Israel), their opinions come from the image of Israel being portrayed by different organizations and media sources. Being so far away, it is hard to have a complete understanding of the complexity that comes with living in such a place. I definitely did not understand before coming here and I won’t claim to understand it now.
Those who have visited Israel, in my experience, have not had the opportunity or interest in learning and experiencing the various cultures present in Israel; within the Jewish community, you have different religious sects and ethnic backgrounds. In the Arab community, you have the sects of Muslim, Christian, Bedouin and Druze, which can be divided into smaller, more succinct communities and cultures. Additionally, you have Sudanese and Eritrean refugees.
So before I answer the question, “what is it like to work with them?”, I want to ask you to think for a moment.
Think about what activities you enjoyed doing as a kid. Were you someone who played sports? Did you enjoy gym class and rough house at recess? Were you a child who liked to draw? Paint? Sing? Play music? Were you someone who found joy reading a book by themselves or telling stories to their friends? Did you like to dress up and pretend you were in a different world? Maybe you played with Barbies or GI-Joes.
Now, try to remember your favorite tv show? A song you sang over and over again. Did you and your friends ever create a dance, or imitate the dance moves from your favorite celebrities?
You may think these activities and interests are unique to you. Perhaps some of them are, but in general, you made friends, formed relationships and created some of your favorite memories through these shared interests.
Just as you and I, children in Israel bond with their peers through sports, video games, shows, movies, books, art and music. Through my work with children in New Jersey, Boston and Lod, these activities have proven to be universal.
In the religious elementary school where I work, we connect through common interests. The students love to play bingo, hangman has become a must and if it’s nice out- forget it, class is outside. We play a lot of football (soccer) and dodgeball. Lately, our food unit has led to several baking sessions because what kid doesn’t love cookies?
Christmas cookies I baked with my students in our English food unit.
In the afternoons I work at an Arab after school community center and despite the substantial language barrier, I feel that I have made meaningful connections with many of the children. How? We spend our time playing checkers, monkey in the middle, football (soccer), and I attempt to assist in their gymnastic activities. Sometimes we do arts and crafts, make paper airplanes or spend an hour dancing and singing. We even spent a night baking cookies.
To further my point, I spend my mornings and afternoons discussing video games like Fortnite and Minecraft. I’m often asked if I like Drake, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. To say the “Fortnite” dance or signing “Kiki do you love me” isn’t universal is laughable. (Anyone who has talked with kids in the past 6 months knows what I mean.)
Young girls in the Arab and religious Jewish community have asked my relationship status (a topic for another day). My hair gets commented on weekly. The consensus between both my Jewish students and Arab students, is my hair looks better down then in a ponytail but braids are okay.
In America, when I volunteered at a homeless shelter with young children, we spent time drawing, having dance parties or playing tag and football (soccer). Almost every week our kids would ask us for a snack, can you guess what they always wanted? Yep-cookies.
So again, you ask, “what is it like to work with them?”.
My response is simple: kids are kids. Israeli, Jewish, Arab, Ethiopian, White, Mizrachi, and American, privileged, homeless, boy and girl, it does not matter.
When you ask me what it is like to work with them, you are perpetuating the idea that kids of different nationality, race and religion MUST be fundamentally different. They are not. Maybe you think, since these kids are in Israel, living with the conflict, they could never interact in a similar way. You are wrong.
I will not overlook the complexity of human development but there is one concept that I feel is simple. We are all humans. We are not born with prejudice, hate or intolerance for others. We learn from our environment, from what we hear and see. We follow the lead of those surrounding us. So when you are talking about children, in Israel or throughout the world, remember they are not an initiate part of the conflict, they are children following your lead.
As an outsider, I am cognisant of the differences in the children I work with. I am not ignoring the disparity in their quality of life, living conditions and opportunities. I am choosing to put that aside and remember that my 10 year old religious student and my 10 year old Arab child both have the desire to play and connect with their peers. So let this be clear, it may be hard but you do not need a shared background, religion or language to work with kids. Further, you do not need to be from the same place, have the same race, ethnicity or religion to be friends with another child. What matters, or should matter, is the shared love for sports, or art, or music, or movies or, youtube channels, or dance or any one of the many things you loved as a kid.
So to the security officer at the airport, or to the teacher in school and my peers at home, you ask what is it like to work with them? It’s great. Everyday I get to teach, play games and connect to young children in my community. I am not blind to their differences but what’s the harm in focusing on our similarities?
I want to leave you with a list of activities, games, topics you can use when interacting with children. Keep in mind, this list is inclusive for ALL children, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, social-economic status or family life.
Bingo Go fish
Monkey in the middle
Throwing balls at a target
Funny cat videos
Justin Bieber - Baby
Drake- In my feelings (Kiki do you love me)
Ed Sheeran - Shape of you
Fake mice/ snakes
Missing a handshake to dab
Playing dress up