Tasha is a current Yahel Social Change Fellow living and volunteering in Lod.
I have lived in many countries, but have never questioned my intentions of exploring a place as much as I have in this one. It was easy for others to understand why I wanted to move to Europe to study languages and teach English, but coming here required a more comprehensive explanation. I still struggle to rationalize my desire to be here, of all places, to learn about social change. The draw I feel to this place seems unwarranted because I have no historical or religious ties to it, but the attraction is undeniable. The people in my life think I am crazy for wanting to be in a place so complex, so contested, so hot. Why would I want to live in conflicts that do not belong to me and to advocate for social change in a society that I am not a part of?
When telling people from home of my plans to go to Lod for a social change fellowship, I was met with a multitude of reactions--many curious, some critical, others congratulating me or even thanking me. I didn’t come here with the notion that I’d contribute to solving “The Conflict.” I did not come here to fix or find anything, including myself. I came here to be uncomfortable, to stretch my mind as far as it can go while simultaneously being crushed by the weight of holding so many contradicting narratives. Every day I am pushed to challenge my own ideas of what society is and should be and what role I want to play in it.
Living in Lod has proven to be one of the most challenging and rich experiences of my life thus far. Volunteering here is wonderful. It feels meaningful to teach children from lower socio-economic statuses a skill as valuable as English. I love working with kids from varying linguistic and religious backgrounds and finding ways to make learning English fun and interesting for them. I feel valuable and effective in my position doing resource development for a non-profit organization that serves the Ethiopian community throughout the country. Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t thank me for my contribution, my time, or my effort, but existing here feels so heavy most days and I struggle to explain why to those elsewhere.
In addition to the expected difficulties that come with living in a foreign country (language barriers, bureaucracy, social norms, etc.), I struggle to translate the nuance that comes with day to day interactions here to those at home: How it feels eating injera with both Ethiopians and Eritreans, people of two nations in Eastern Africa who were part of the same country until the late 90’s, and who share so many similarities to me but appear so different to each other; the way the Jewish Ethiopians describe coming to Israel as arriving home to the holy land while the Eritreans, mostly Christian, are considered asylum seekers and deemed unwanted by both the government and much of society here. Or how do I convey the disturbance I felt when one of the 4th graders at the Orthodox Jewish school where I volunteer, after explaining that she was half German and half Moroccan and that her grandfather was in the Shoah, was met with a reply from her classmate that she wasn’t Ashkenazi like him because his family was 100% “ashkenazim levanim” (white Ashkenazis, Jews of mostly Eastern European descent). Or how 30% of the population of Lod is Arab but I have little to no contact with that community, similarly to many of the Jewish students here, and how problematic that is for us both. In addition to what I’m learning about society here, I am also learning more about the Jewish faith than I ever imagined there was to know. Some days I’m even surprised by the vocabulary that comes out of my mouth. Just the other day, I was telling my roommates that I learned the reason the letter ש is on all of the mezuzot is to signify Shaddai (another word for G-d meaning “Almighty”) but is also an acronym in Hebrew (שדי) for “Shomer Daltot Israel”: Guardian of the Doors of Israel. These are all things that few people back home envision when I mention Israel. They often imagine war, rocket sirens, and the land of Jesus- not the complex and contradicting narratives that I’ve experienced here.
At the beginning of this fellowship, I struggled to articulate that these kinds of interactions are exactly what I came here looking for. I used to attempt to validate my reasons for being here by explaining to those who asked that any hardship in the world belongs to us all as members of the human race; however, I refrain from that response these days. That reply didn’t acknowledge all of the other hardships happening around the world, not to mention those in my own backyard that I haven’t taken responsibility for. My home state of Ohio has the second highest rate of opioid-related deaths1 and the fourth highest number of human-trafficking cases reported in the country2. Just this summer, we had a visit from members of the KKK and a tragic shooting where 9 people were killed in Dayton, just 25km from my hometown of Xenia. There is plenty of social change work to be done there, so why did I need to go all the way to the Middle East?
In one of our recent learning sessions, Rabbi Levi Lauer taught us that, “comfort is not a Jewish value, finding meaning is.” As much as I am learning to expand my mind here and embrace all the meaning that there is to be found in discomfort, I recognize that I am only uncomfortable to a certain extent here. If I really wanted to test my limits, I could have stayed in the U.S. and served my own community. Even though I have lived outside of the U.S. on and off for the last few years, the issues affecting my community in Ohio feel too sensitive for me to think about logically.
All of the problems our country faces appear so much bigger and insurmountable to me because they are much more personal. My body reacts physically when I hear American politicians speak about American society. I have difficulty empathizing with people in my community who continue to vote based on religious values for politicians who support policies that deny them access to healthcare. Or the people who insist that global warming is a farce because it was promised in Genesis that G-d would never destroy the earth with a flood again. Or those who adamantly oppose gun regulations even after they’ve seen blood spilled on their own streets by a man who was shot down by police 32 seconds after he open-fired with a legally-obtained semi-automatic pistol.3,4 The burden of progress in American society is too difficult for me to bear for the time being. What I am learning now, which I didn’t know four months ago, is how valuable it can be to step away and look at something from afar before you try to improve it. I do feel some level of guilt for leaving, but I am also learning to acknowledge and respect my limits with the hope that doing so might allow me to do more good in the future. As much as I want to give back to the community that I am from, I haven’t learned enough outside of it yet to be effective there now. Somehow, I have more hope here and because of that, I think I am of much greater use here for the time being.
In many ways, my experience in Lod has been everything I wanted it to be. In my application to Yahel I wrote, “I think this fellowship will challenge me emotionally in ways that I can’t anticipate. I don’t expect them all to be pleasant, but I do expect them to change me.” That has undoubtedly proven to be true. This fellowship challenges me to face my relationship with the place that I am from by encouraging me to analyze my relationship with the place that I am in. Maybe through learning to balance the weight of others’ problems I’ll learn tactics for how to bear my own. In the future, my hope is that my work here may prepare me to serve my community no matter where I find myself, including my own community in Ohio.