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A How-To Guide for Responding to the Unceasing Questions About Your Year in Israel

This blog post is written by Caylie Tuerack, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in the Lod.

Inevitably, in every young Yahel Social Change Fellowship fellow’s life, there comes a time in which they are asked a series of questions related to their being in Israel. And then that time comes again. And again. And again. The best part is that each time, people expect a thorough and deep answer to just roll out, all wrapped and ready for consumption. They do not expect you to be exhausted from having answered all of these questions hundreds of times previously. Therefore, I thought it prudent to lay out what these common questions are, speculate as to how best to understand and answer them, and provide my answers all in one place. Maybe, as opposed to answering people next time I am hit with a round of these questions, I’ll just refer them to this blog post instead.

1. How did you get here? or Why are you here?

This is by far the most in-depth question a fellow will be asked. It calls for reflection on not only why you picked Yahel, but how the Fellowship fits into the larger scheme of your life. It is not merely a matter of how you ended up in Israel, but how the path you have traversed from birth through today has led you to exactly where you are now. Oh, and you have maybe one minute to answer. I will take this opportunity, however, to provide as comprehensive an answer as I can instead of just my elevator pitch.

Sitting in the second Masa Hillel Fellowship session on Zoom, criss-cross applesauce on my bed, one of the coordinators asked us a simple yet simultaneously complex question of, “How did you get here?” While I knew that she did not mean how we literally and physically arrived in Israel or logged onto the Zoom call, I couldn’t help but recollect about the day I left New York to begin this journey. Tears streaming down my face at the airport, I turned to my parents and asked, “What kind of an idiot would let me do something like this?” [Just to clarify, I have an extremely close relationship with my parents and made this remark in the most loving and joking of ways.] In this parting moment, I had a profound realization of the fact that I would be living an ocean away from my family, and suddenly my excitement and anticipation receded into the background as fear became all-consuming. My head and my heart were raging at war, one pulling me towards my flight and the other pushing me back into the car with my parents.

Reflecting on that experience during the Zoom in light of my past three months working as a Yahel fellow, it hit me just how crazy of a decision it was to do this program. It also struck me that given the choice, there is no doubt in my mind that I would choose to do it all over again. This program is an amalgamation of experiences that aligns precisely with the trajectory I hope for for my future. While I knew this fact going into the program, I think after my time in Lod thus far it has become that much more evident that my rationale for doing this fellowship was even more accurate than I at first presumed.

As to my decision to come to Israel on a program in the first place, my dream from the time I was in third grade was to join the Peace Corps after college. However, reconciling that dream with my developing Jewish identity was something I did not think was possible, and one day I realized that there would be something even more valuable and personal in working in Israel after college. [To give credit where credit is due, it may have been slightly at my mom’s behest that I began to consider this as an option.] They say that charity begins at home, and for me home is the Jewish people and the land of Israel. How fitting of a start to my post-college life that I should spend it working in a place that feels like home and surrounded by strangers who feel like extended family.

[Note: That is also why, when it comes to discussions relating to why I chose to come to Israel as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, I am often reticent to provide any answer that even remotely touches on a form of personal gain. I am not here for self-indulgence or self-importance, and I am not here to discover or learn more about myself. While these are undoubtedly meaningful byproducts of my time here, my main impetus for coming to Israel for nine months to a city perceived as dangerous by most Americans and Israelis alike is to give of myself to a country that has always meant so much to me in a city that desperately requires it.]

Each of the threads that make up the fabric of my life have woven themselves together into one cohesive carpet for me to follow towards a life of social change and social justice. The most prominent of these threads are my family and my Judaism. It is my fundamental belief that Judaism entails an ethos of compassion and empathy, of kindness to neighbors and strangers alike, of fighting against injustice of all kinds. I was inculcated with this belief by my parents, who tirelessly took me and my siblings to any volunteer opportunity they could find and who discussed with us what it means to be a good person any chance they had. My aspiration to participate in this fellowship and to ultimately attend law school and pursue a career within the intersection of Judaism, advocacy, policy, and social change is inextricably intertwined with my family and the Jewish household in which I was raised. These are the reasons at the heart of why I am here.

2. Why did you pick Lod?

Lod is not exactly a prime destination to live or work in Israel. Before coming to Lod, all of what I heard about the city related to drugs, crime, and May 2021. I even had a close family friend beg me to choose Rishon LeZion instead, and someone else drew my attention to a stabbing that had recently occurred in Lod. Upon arrival in this infamous city, I was struck by the smells emanating from the garbage lining the sidewalk and the dirt particles permeating the air. I was walking on dusty paths next to the road because of construction sites it seemed were never active. I was told not to venture into the neighborhood near the train station, because it is dangerous. Doesn’t exactly sound like the most picturesque of places to intentionally choose to live in, huh?

What people never seem to understand at first is that all those reasons were part of why I decided to live in Lod in the first place. I have been to Israel eight times prior to this fellowship and have never been to Lod, except for landing in Ben Gurion Airport. I thought that the best way to become immersed in the Arab and Jewish conflict and to learn the perspectives of both sides was from people who are living in an area that erupted in conflict not long ago. It is of utmost importance to me that I formulate my thoughts not only through one people’s lens, but rather through listening to all parties involved.

As part of this mindset, I also set out to live in Lod to either confirm or debunk some of the horrible things I had heard. Since the only things I knew about the city came from the news or from other people, I felt that I was being socialized to only expect negative elements from Lod, such as those that I noticed upon first arrival. This made properly acclimating to Lod difficult at first, because I was reluctant to really wander and explore the city, but it made it all the more fulfilling when I began to see positive aspects of living in Lod. I have been welcomed with open arms in the Jewish community here. I have met with individuals and organizations who are setting out to change the status quo within the city. I have found friends in children and teens alike at my placements. I have seen a beautiful Roman mosaic discovered within the city. I celebrated the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd for the first time. I have grown to love this place I now call home.

Roman mosaic discovered in Lod
Roman mosaic discovered in Lod; Photo taken by author

3. What do you do in Israel anyway? Just teach?

This question can come in two forms. One way comes from a lack of understanding the ethos and impetus behind doing a program like this. I have spent a great deal of time defending my position and decision to others, and it is exhausting. People want to know why I am not doing something more to advance my career or why I am not working a conventional job before law school. In these situations, I feel isolated and alone in my passion for volunteer work and in my understanding that it is indeed advancing my career and, more importantly, it is helping me to become a better person. It is often after these encounters that the doubts slowly creep in and begin to root themselves inside my mind, causing me to second guess. However, I then flip the switch and weed out the doubts by reminding myself that at each of my placements, I am granted the opportunity to make full use of a skill set that I have spent years cultivating. Sometimes it bears repeating to myself that the truly fulfilling aspect of what I am doing is that I am using my skills for a cause I deem important.

The other way that someone can ask this question is from a place of genuine interest in the day-to-day of what it means to be a Yahel fellow. The people who ask the question in this way want to know the placements we go to and what our role is at each one. In these cases, I provide a detailed answer to the best of my ability. I outline my six different placements and expand upon how I have chosen to serve each one. I work at a Jewish religious school, the Abraham Initiatives, a coffee shop for teens connected to a community center (Melodica), an at-risk youth center (Moadonit), an NGO helping Ethiopians acquire high-tech skills after army service (Tech Career), and a Yahel created activity called Library on Wheels in which we bring books and games to a park to engage the local community. Also, on Thursdays we have joint learning days together as the whole Yahel cohort, and we get to learn from a variety of speakers and organizations about life in Israel. My days are very busy and involved, but there is no sense of monotony, no feeling of just trudging along through the motions until I’m done and in bed at night. Each day is an adventure different from the one before, full of new successes and new challenges, and I would not have it any other way.

4. Do you like it here? Do you like your program?

A simple yes to this question will not suffice, but rather here it is expected that one expound upon why they do or do not enjoy the fellowship and being in Israel.

My simple answer is yes. I love being a Yahel fellow and I think it is one of the best decisions I ever made. I was deciding between a few programs before committing to Yahel, and in addition to all of the placements and the work I would be doing, it was really the structure of the fellowship that essentially made my decision for me.

Having roommates and other fellows in my city that are around the same age as me was a top priority. Coming to a foreign country to live there for nine months is scary enough as it is, and being alone or with people completely unaffiliated with what I am doing here would have made for an ever harder path. I love the relationships that I am building with other fellows on the program, in Lod as well as in Rishon and Haifa. I love my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend watching nights in my apartment, having all of us in Lod come together to cook dinner each Monday night after Library on Wheels, going to movies in Rishon, and so much more. The people are unequivocally the largest piece of the puzzle of my life here in Lod that has made it feel so much like home.

A picture of all of the Lod fellows at the President's Residence in Jerusalem
The whole Yahel Lod gang at the President’s Residence <3

I also get to experience new places in Israel as part of the Fellowship, places I have shamefully never visited or heard of before on any of my previous trips to Israel. These include cities in which there is a sizable Arab population, such as in Umm al Fahem, Peki’in and Lod, and Druze cities, such as Rameh. Observing these cities, learning from their leaders in both a political and social change orientation, tasting their local cuisine - these are all elements of Yahel that have served to deepen my exposure to and understanding of different minority communities within Israel. I will always be grateful for these experiences and for the educational component of being a Yahel fellow.

This is a picture overlooking the city of Umm al Fahem - an Arab city in the north of Israel.
Photo of Umm al Fahem; Photo taken by author

Being a Yahel fellow feels like having the dreams of third-grade Caylie coming to fruition, and I cannot wait to see what the next six months have in store.


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