Friday, May 6, 2011

The Fine Line Between Light and Dark

Today was just about the most intense day of Year Course thus far. I know that the experience of Yom Ha'Zikaron (Israeli memorial day) and Yom Ha'Atsmaut (Independence day) will undoubtedly top today's experiences, but I feel as though I got a real taste of it, and in a context that was inadvertently drew parallels to unexpected issues.

We began with a trip to South Tel Aviv. Now, before I explain this aspect of the day, let it be known that this whole week, in my two favorite classes, we've been speaking about Asylum seekers/foreign workers in Israel. In my Zionism course, we briefly examined it from a critical standpoint (critical of the government, that is). In my 'Israeli society through film' course, we watch "Noodle" (strongly recommended), which is an Israeli fictional film about a foreign worker's son. Today, we took a trip to South Tel Aviv where Noodle takes place. South Tel Aviv is an area that is mostly non-citizen foreign works. Many of them are here legally, bound by a contract with their employer. If they lose their job by means of quitting, being fired, layed off, ANYTHING, they are no longer here legally. Thus, many of the foreign workers reside in S. Tel Aviv illegally. Let me tell you, its not pretty. Immigration police raid homes and work places, asking for papers and passports, all of which are in the possession of the employers. Sex trafficking has a strong presence - women will come with the promise of having a job as a masseuse, but end up being forced into prostitution. And to describe the vibe of this area, about a five minute bus ride from wealthy clubs, beaches, bars, parties, vacation homes --in three words - Poverty, poverty, poverty.

We, of course, proceeded to the group discussion of Asylum seekers. The guide, myself, and Alexis explained the story of Refugees from South Sudan, and talked about our experiences working with them, leading to the oh-so-complex-bang-your-head-against-the-wall-because-everyone-is-correct debate of the governments political and financial obligations to its statehood vs the moral obligations on which the state was founded (Judaism, Holocaust Asylum). Where do I stand on that debate? I simply don't know. I thought that after living here for what has been over 8 months I would have my answer, but I don't. All I know is that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with and these are people who suffered our grandparents' fate and deserve rights.

The next part of the day was a part of YC's leadership track, where we learned about Michael Levin, the first American-Israeli lone soldier to die at war. He spent his whole life planning to join the IDF and eventually did. During the one month break that he's entitled to as a lone soldier, he went home. During his trip home, however (2006) the 2nd Lebanon war began, and Michael chose to go back. He rejoined his paratrooper unit a week early, eager to fight for his country that he loved. But he was shot and killed during his invasion in Lebanon. He's famous all over Israel and the Diaspora community for his heroism, determination, and Zionism. Today, we met his Mom and sister at Har Herzl (mt. Herzl), the mountain in which all soldiers lost at battle are entitled to be buried at, with honor. We spent two hours asking questions and speaking to them about their loss.

When I began writing this, I was hoping that I'd find some sort of parallel along the way between the two experiences I had today. Really, there isn't a parallel. They were just two very emotional hands on experiences that I wanted to share, and if you can find one, let me know.

There's something beautiful that happens in Judaism - a transition between negative and positive; somber and excited, painful and celebratory. We see this phenomenon in Judaism all the time - Shabbat into Havdallah, Yom ha'Zikaron into Yom Ha'Atsmaut, Yom Kippur, Peasach, Independence and the War of Independence, its everywhere, this fine line between positive and negative - perhaps to show us that one cannot exist without the other. Would Israel exist without the Holocaust? Would South Sudan be a free nation without suffering a genocide? I guess its the pursuit of balance between the two that we're ultimately striving for in our mission here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Strangers No More

The Israeli Film Strangers No More ( has garnered a lot of attention this week after winning the Oscar award for best short documentary. The film explores the Bialik-Rogozin, a public school in South Tel Aviv that has students from an astounding 48 countries, including Sudan and the community that the school creates. A number of articles linked below discuss the film and the potential impact of the award.

Unfortunately, I mostly read Ha'aretz, but if you find articles from other sites, please feel free to post them as well.

I haven't yet found the film for sale Amazon or other websites, but if you do find it, please post below.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Have we Forgotten? - A Ha'aretz article from 2009.

Have we forgotten our values? Does human life not come above all in Judaism? Are we not taught to love our neighbor? Is our Jewish Nation not meant to be "a light unto nations"?

Have we forgotten our history? Are children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors literally spitting in the Sudaneses' faces? I can respect; even find a great deal of truth in the opinion that the Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel cause a burden to our Jewish society. But these are PEOPLE, people escaping acts of Genocide, mass persecution and systematic killing. Does this sound familiar? Have we forgotten?

This is beyond the politics. This is personal. These are people in the streets personally verbally abusing ten year old asylum seekers. So I ask you: What does your ideal Israel look like? What values does it embody? Does this article about Arad, the city that was my home three months ago, sound like that Israel to you?

Please, responses and opinions on this article.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Return to Arad

Last week, Joel, Jimmy and I drove to Arad with the Director of Young Judaea Israel, Dan Krakow. We took a route none of us except Dan had taken before, and it was a little surprising to be reminded that we haven't seen all of Israel yet. Similarly, every time I meet a Sudanese refugee, I am reminded that I will never understand exactly the pain suffered by the refugees of Sudan, or any refugees from that matter.

We entered a creepy, abandoned-looking warehouse, led by UN program assistant, Alex Brookes, to find four Sudanese men, two college students, two people from the UN, and one woman from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who incidentally had gone on Year Course when Dan was a Madrich, all waiting to begin a meeting, all determined to make life better for the Sudanese refugees living here.

The meeting began with the Sudanese men explaining exactly how they arrived in Israel.

Tony left South Sudan three years ago. After traveling through Egypt, he arrived in Israel as a safe haven. I can assume he acquired legal refugee status because he now works as a manager of a McDonalds. Tony was a veterinarian when he lived in Sudan. He spoke fluent, perfect Hebrew, with an accent I will envy for the rest of my life. He works hard to provide for his family, and the majority of the Arad community still looks down at him.

There are five different Sudanese tribes that have all settled in Arad, and most of them work under-the-table jobs or clean bathrooms at the Dead Sea.

At the meeting, we came up with ideas to integrate the Sudanese into the Arad and greater Israeli community. The list included events for children, events for teens (educational and sports), cultural festivals and celebrations, and rallies and information. We’ve already started working with the people we met at the meeting to make these things happen and are excited to be implementing them soon.

After two hours of chatting and everyone exchanging stories, one man tried to say goodbye, and had a bit of trouble speaking.

He said, "Thank you so much for coming and listening here to our stories. I feel, for the first time, like I am welcomed here and wanted. Thank you."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crunch Time

We have about a week left in Arad, and tomorrow is technically the last day of compulsory attendance at volunteering. After waiting for some final logistics that went a little slow since it was our first time going through the process of getting the necessary money (from what was fund raised last year), we got moving. The plans that were mentioned before of renovating the Gan are now translating into action.

The back of the Gan is an outdoor area closed in by walls, partially covered by a glass awning, and cluttered with what appears to be donated dusty, dirty chairs and tables. There are random wooden boards, signs, and nails thrown about. There are weeds growing around the perimeter of the partially brick tiled ground. The walls have eroded over the years, resulting in large gaps in the plaster. It all sounds lovely, I know, but when we're done, it will be entirely child proof. So, getting started, today and yesterday, Joel and Jimmy cleared out the heavy, random boards, signs and nails and brought them to the dumpster. We pulled the brick tiles around the perimeter, pulled the weeds, dug up the sand a little bit, and will be putting down mulch to plant a simple garden around the perimeter. Year Course's ever so capable Arad manager of logistics, Erez, came in and fixed the broken hose in the back yesterday, which was leaking water and wasting a huge amount, as it would not turn off. Today, we bought plaster and necessary tools and began fixing the huge gaps in the wall outside. This will be complete by tomorrow, as well as painted white. Once the wall is safe and painted, we will clean and organize the tables and chairs in such a way that the kids can play safely outside.

And all of that is only the outside. The inside is mostly child proof, but the nearly empty white walls give the Gan, a kindergarten, an almost hospital feel. It makes one go a little crazy to spend entire days in a completely white room. Kids, we believe, need an environment with color and texture. So, with what was upward of our 5th trip to the hardware store in the past 24 hours, we got two colors - a cream and a pale green that compliment each other well and are good, stimulating but calming colors for the kids. Before this trip, however, we made sure to ask Peter (the Sudanese community leader) and Abova (the caretaker at the Gan) permission. They welcomed the idea, telling us that what we think is good for the Gan, they think is good for the Gan. We also placed child safety power outlet covers on the power outlets that the children love to stick their fingers into. A 220 volt shock would be, I can imagine, less fun/safe than an American 120 volt. We will also plaster the small portion of the inside wall that has somehow come off, as the children LOVE to eat it. Yes, eat the wall.

With our team of Garin Tzedekers and random Year Coursers getting to work every day this week, we will be done before our bittersweet move to Jerusalem. This is what we've been up to. We will post before and after pictures as we go.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Clarification

In no way was the previous post meant to demean any values that Garin Arevim is functioning based on or create any implications about moral or ideological superiority. Maybe it wasn't the best example to use as a potential for a split - the split occurs mostly within Israel and Garin Tzedek, and it was unfair to make a generalization about Garin Arevim.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Split

After weeks, maybe a month, of trying to chase down a leader in the Sudanese community (turns out that two people had two different wrong numbers), Alexis, Joel and I were finally able to sit down with Peter, the Sudanese community president of Arad. Peter speaks a descent amount of English compared to others we've encountered and has a good idea of certain aspects of the community, though there seems to be a split in leadership/opinions of the community which is still unclear to me. We asked Peter what the Sudanese community needs - how we can help in Arad. He asked us to teach English/Hebrew to adults on various nights of the week. He also requested specific help from Joel with his English on his computer at home, which Joel did yesterday. We want to paint the entirely white Gan as well, and he welcomed us to do so. As of now, we're working on setting a date and getting materials.

What nineteen year old do you know that doesn't want cookies? Exactly. Directly after volunteering at the Gan today, Alexis and I spent four hours in a minimally equipped Year Course apartment baking cookies which we then sold before and during the break at Ulpan, our Hebrew class. We raised well over 200 nis which is about $60 for our Gan renovating plans.

While most Americans (particularly young Jewish activists as myself) are struck somewhere in their soul and memory by the idea of helping genocide/civil war stricken Africans, its not quite as simple in the democratic and theocratic Israel. So let's ask the question that many are too scared to ask: Do we as Jews have more of a responsibility to help each other than non Jews? If this is the case, does a Jewish life, thus, have a higher value than a non Jewish life? When push comes to shove, how do I, we, as young, American and British human rights activists, but also Jews and Zionists come to a balance? Can one's ideals be right winged and simultaneously be an active member of Garin Tzedek? While most people in the Garin, myself included, have developed personal answers to all these questions, most would have trouble convincing the average Israeli. To me, it seems unreasonable that I'd have to justify to ANY Jew helping a fellow human, particularly one who has been suffering the same fate that we did. These same people who's grandparents hid in the floorboards of Christian homes in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust will ask me how I could possibly spend my year in Israel working with Sudanese people. Maybe there are potentially those who value a Jewish life more. Maybe there are those who feel that as a chanich on a gap year in Israel, that we should be working with Jews. These are all valid arguments and a wide ranged controversy that has kept Garin Tzedek a safe distance from a specific political stance in the past. So there's a struggle, a split. PLEASE, Jews, activists, Zionists, comment. Bring the struggle home, discuss it, post it, tell us what you think.