Saturday, February 13, 2016

Time for an update!

It's February 13 and we’re already halfway through our program! So many things have happened since I've been here that I haven't shared yet; experiences, holidays, conversations and relationships. In honour of mine and Israel’s 5 month anniversary (and my family nudging me to keep them updated) I thought I would write about my best (and hardest) moments so far. 

I'm going to start at the beginning, when I arrived in Israel. We arrived during the holidays, and my first community experience was observing Yom Kippur with my neighbours at the Ethiopian Synagogue down the street from my house. The synagogue service was separated into two languages, one in Hebrew and one in Ge’ez. The Kess (Ethiopian Spritual Leader) of my community and leader of the prayer services in the Ethiopian Synagogue not only lives in my apartment building, but also owns the apartment that I'm living in. Now I can finally say that I've had an Ethiopian Spiritual Leader as a landlord! (Cross that one of my bucket list). Anyway, back to Yom Kippur, the most important holiday of the year, was definitely a meaningful experience. The whole country shut down for one day. Kids played in the streets while their parents were praying, and people filled the synagogue until there were people lining up outside the doors. Back home in Ottawa, Yom Kippur was always a struggle. I either had work to take off or midterms to postpone just in order to get to Synagogue for an hour or two. Now, I walked in the middle of the street, no cars were in sight, as we all headed to Synagogue. 

The next big moment was meeting my host family. We were all given host families to “host” us a few times a week as well as to work with with the “homework at home” program. “Homework at home” involves us going into the homes of families to help the children with homework. The goal of this is to not only help the child with their homework but to also be positive influences in the family home. Many of the parents of the children in this community were not able to receive formal education within their communities in Ethiopia, therefore it can be difficult for them to know how to help their children with school work – especially when learning English. Our goals are mutual and we need them as much as they need us. We help the parents by showing them consistent and important homework helping skills and they help us by providing a home for us to feel at home in. My host family is awesomely cool – if that even makes sense. In the grand scheme of life, they are so unique and wonderful in their own way – their story of leaving Ethiopia in 2003 to come to Israel is fascinating, the parents are welcoming and inviting, and their daughters are so motivated and feisty, it's amazing. Reminds me of my own sister! Despite all of that, their story is very similar to those within this community – of love and hardships, family and culture. I was honoured to be invited into their home for a holiday party shortly before Hannukah and right after Sigd (I’ll get to that). The whole family came together to celebrate with Buna (Ethiopian coffee) and Injera (pure Ethiopian deliciousness). For the first time I felt like I belonged in this community. We sat and played cards, drank and ate the night away. 

That brings me to the holiday of Sigd. We were lucky to be able to attend the Sigd celebration in Jerusalem which was incredible. Sigd is a holiday celebrated by Ethiopian Jews or Beta Israel which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Sinai. All of the Kess’ came together to lead the services as hundreds of people gathered around. This was particularly meaningful because Sigd was only recently recognized by the Israeli government as an official holiday, so to be a part of the celebration in Jerusalem was exciting. 

My best moments have also happened within my placements. Ok, here goes - I work at an elementary school teaching 4th, 5th, and 6th graders English, two after school programs (one for kindergarten aged children in the community centre and one for 1st through 3rd graders at another school), two Atzmaut (community development organization) family placements, the library in the community centre through the Learning Centre program, and homework at home. To break it down, I teach during the day at the elementary school, after school I work at either of the after school placements, and in the evenings I tutor in family homes in the community and at the library. Lots of work comes with lots of experiences, which create amazing memories. Where do I even start? 

My school is great, and the kids are hilarious. Of course there can be difficult times, but there are also funny and happy moments that happen everyday. For example, my personal favourite – One day at school I was told that it was picture day so I had to bring my 6th grade class down to the basement to get their pictures taken for their yearbook. Low and behold, nearly the whole school is there so we sit and chat while they wait their turn. Finally they finish up and it's time to head back to class, when all of the students (not just mine) start yelling my name! As I'm trying to hide behind the other teachers because I have no idea what's going on, the students tell them that they wanted me to get my picture taken so that they could have me in their yearbook. I was so shocked in the moment that I didn't even know how to react. I sat down to get my picture taken as the kids cheered for me and chanted my name, and that will probably be the closest I ever get to fame. I was on the verge of tears so that picture is probably of me crying, but we'll worry about that later. My students made me feel so important, I hope I can return the love. 

I have so many funny stories from just my school that I could go on for hours. The other day two of my female students approached me in the hallway (keep in mind that it's a religious school so the religious attire of modesty is mandatory and many of my students live in my neighbourhood so I see them around all the time). They seemed confused as they walked up to me and said “Morah Brittany, we saw you the other day at the market, and you were wearing… PANTS!” Since I'm always wearing a long skirt at school, my students were apparently horrified to see me in anything else, even though these specific girls weren't religious either. We laughed and joked about it for days after that. Morah Brittany wears pants. 

Another great memory comes from the after school program that I work at. Since the kids are young, they aren't yet able to read, which actually works out pretty well for me because my Hebrew reading is far from fantastic – so story time is fun. It basically consists of me opening up a book and making up the story according to the pictures that I see. The kids have no idea. I seem so smart. Everyone wins. 

It's moments like these that keep me grounded because when the reality of where I am kicks in, it can get heavy. There are hardships that we see that remind us of where we come from. It can be hard to come into an underprivileged community from North America and see how people live without feeling guilty. I know that back home I will have hot water and heat. That is something that my privileged upbringing has kept me from worrying about. Here, it's not just an issue of families not having incomes. People in this neighbourhood are hardworking, sincere, deserving, and good people. It's the buildings that hundreds of families were given to live in. Buildings that are falling down, and don't have enough electricity for everyone to have hot water or heat. Those are things that I will never take for granted ever again. I feel like I continuously ask the question of why bad things happen to good people. Hopefully I can bring happiness to one child, one family or one parent – and make all of this worth it. 

Even though there are so many more sad things that I could talk about, I want to spread positivity and love because these wonderful people deserve it. They've all taught me so much about life and love, I already have a different outlook on life and I've only been here for 5 months. 4 ½ months left to go, and I promise I will learn how to make injera before I come home. 

לילה טוב! 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Seeing the big picture in the small picture

Deciding to pick up and move to Israel for a year was an easy decision. This was the next step in my life after graduating from university (Carleton - Go Ravens!). I knew that after finishing school, I had a responsibility to myself and the world to give back. Nonetheless, I had huge expectations. I was going to change the world! Based on my background in social justice, I was lucky to have found a program such as Yahel, which incorporated assisting community leaders with major social initiatives, and giving my thoughts and (Canadian!) perspective towards creating sustainable and positive change. I was excited to embark on this incredible and challenging journey with 15 other motivated young adults from around North America.

On September 20, 2015, (after being jet lagged for three days!) our bus arrived in Ramat Eliyahu, the neighbourhood that would become our home for the next 9 months. As we arrived in the middle of holiday season, we had plenty of time to explore the neighbourhood in its most beautiful state. The warmth of the Ethiopian elders and the delicious smell of Injera greeted us. Parks with children playing football, and fruit and vegetable markets lined the streets. It was incredible, what a warm neighbourhood, I thought.

Nearly a month after beginning the program, we began our placements. I started working in an elementary school, teaching 4th, 5th, and 6th graders English, as well as after school programming, and tutoring. I was busy everyday, delving into the complexities within this specific neighbourhood; talking to the children, teachers, parents and staff about life as Ethiopian-Israelis in Ramat Eliyahu. My fascination about culture, language, customs and history of the Ethiopian Jews grew everyday.

As I began to understand life here in Ramat Eliyahu and the history of the Ethiopian Jews, my heart slowly broke. I learned the hardships and unbearable struggles of individuals who traveled from Ethiopia to Israel. I learned about their strength, courage and determination to make a Jewish life for themselves and their families. We had discussions with specific individuals within the community that would tell us their memories in refugee camps, or their memories of the family members that they lost along the way. We heard stories that humbled us to the core. I was determined to dig deep into this neighbourhood's identity to help me understand how I could be the most useful to the people within this community.

That's when reality kicked in. Racism, unequal opportunities, prejudice - I could go on forever. I couldn't believe it. It became more obvious once I was aware of it - lack of education led to racism; unfair treatment at schools and workplaces led to unequal opportunities; and ignorance led to prejudice. As a group we discussed different ways to empower the younger generation of Ramat Eliyahu to take pride in their history, and all that their beautiful culture has to offer. Local initiatives within the community showed us the enormity of these tasks. Taking on the entire community, family by family, child by child; every person deserved a voice.

Up until now, I have purposely left out discussion on a major part of this equation. We're in Israel. As stressful, happy, sad, exciting, and positive as Ramat Eliyahu can be, we're still in Israel, and the complexities here are a stress load of their own. With the growing influence of terror, it became difficult to know where to disperse my energy. I found myself lost in negativity. How can I help this community if I can't help this country? How am I making an impact on issues that are so much bigger than myself? I'm just one person!

And that's where the title fits into the story. A few days ago my roommates and I discussed our roles here in Israel, and their purposes. We can't see ourselves as the small picture in the big picture of things, but rather the big picture in the small picture. We're not just volunteers in Israel. We're the teachers for the students at our schools, we're the positive relationships for our host siblings, we're the source of empowerment to the young people in Ramat Eliyahu - because for us, Ramat Eliyahu is our picture. Instead of being a small presence in Israel, we're a big presence in Ramat Eliyahu.

Just today, Dana (Director of Yahel) reminded all of us why we're here. There are umpteen injustices that happen here and everywhere, everyday. But we as leaders have to start somewhere, and we chose here. Thank you Dana, for that much needed encouragement.