Thursday, January 27, 2011

Aviv and College4All

Today is my last day of volunteering, but yesterday was my last day at my favorite site, College4All. College4All is a program throughout Israel to help high achieving kids from low income areas succeed and make it to college (after the army for the kids who will serve.) I work at a local high school, Ironi Zayin (which is the letter 'z,' but also slang for penis?) in their College4All program. All the kids in the program have an 85 or better average, and have good behavior and motivation. They stay at school sometimes as late as 6 or 7pm, and the building the program is centered out of is as much a community center as an office. The kids get tutoring in English and other subjects, as well as lessons in other things, like guitar and video editing. It is really a privilege for them to be in the program, and they know it. They are getting so much help and support from being it, and their academics show it.

The woman who runs the program at Ironi Zaying (Ironi Z) is Aviv, and she sort of changed my life. I basically want to be her when I grow up.

In Israel in general, teachers are able to show greater extremes with their emotions to/about the children. As I've mentioned before, there is much more yelling and aggression towards the kids than you see in the states, but there is also much more physical affection. In preschools states, you have to be careful how much you hug or touch your kids, and be very careful to give each kid the same amount of physical affection. Here, not so much the case. In high schools in the states, you have to be very careful, and probably never touch your kids, and try to maintain a professional distance to them. Here, again, not so much.

Aviv loves her kids. She loves them, and they know it, and I know it, and everyone knows it. She calls them all "mami," which is the generic ungendered term of endearment most common here, and will hug and kiss them goodbye if she's near the door when they're leaving. She helps them with their projects, teaches them guitar in her downtime, and knows everything about their lives. She is also very strict with them, and they know not to cross her. If they are late for tutoring session, or cancel without notice, she will come down on them. Hard. I don't understand what she says to them, but that tone of voice transcends language. They have to get good grades, they have to show up, they have to have good behavior, and if they don't they know they're in for it. But they also know that if they do all those things, or even if they slip up sometimes, she is there to be a fount of love and affection, a stable source of support, and a tutor/guide/teacher/mentor for them.

The kids could just come in for their lessons and leave when they are over, but they don't. Many of them come into the "office" (which is just a room with the tables in middle where Aviv works) right after school and stay there, doing homework and hanging out, before and after their lessons, and don't go home until Aviv leaves. Aviv, and the other guy who runs the progam, Itay, has created an enviorment that is fun, safe, stable, and supportive, where the kids can causally get help with any homework problem that is giving them trouble (yesterday Roi, the English coordinator, taught a girl about the circulatory system in Hebrew, and then made her explain it to me in English) and have a place where they won't get shit from their friends for trying to do well on their homework or studying for a test.

One of the great things is that it's not just all academics in the office. On Sunday, as I was waiting for a student to arrive, two of the kids in the guitar class pulled out their guitars and started to play. Aviv and Itay took the guitars and started playing a few songs, which Aviv sang to. Then she gave the guitars back to the kids, hopped up on the table, and taught them both the chords to the song. Within five minutes, she had one kid finger picking and one kid strumming, with Itay drumming on the table and her conducting, counting, and singing. It was a full-out jam session, just created in the moments before these kids had their tutoring.

Aviv is so busy running this program - it would be really easy for her to just make the kids quietly do their homework in her office, no eating, talking, laughing, or jamming allowed. Instead, it is this fun, free, loving environment full of structure and academic exellence, but with a lot of wiggle room.

I want to take that vibe, and that energy, and try and recreate it with my own work. In my fantasty future, when I have my dialogue center, I now want it to also be like a community center. I want it to be somewhere kids can come and hang out after school, young adults can hang out between shifts at work, where it will be fun and chill but structured and safe. Where kids can make posterboards about Salvador Dali (hilariously done yesterday by two of my favorite girls) and then go into a dialogue about race and class, where adults can bring their kids to play or hang out while they are in dialogue...that's what I want now. I want it to be more free, more open to what is happening, not just a space for dialogue but a space for living. And I really want it to have the aura and energy Aviv has infused into her space. The moment you walk into her office you feel surrounded by love and support and comfort, and I don't know quite know how to recreate that, but at least know I know what I'm aiming for.

Also, Aviv doesn't watch or read the news, she doesn't follow politics at all, and she doesn't vote. She said she used to care a lot about that, and she was just upset and mad all the time. Now she doesn't do anything, she just lives her life, and she is much happier. She is doing this amazing coexistence work; some of the kids in her program are Arab, some are Jewish, and that makes no difference to her. She just takes them in, teaches them, loves them, and demands excellence from them. She is improving their lives so much, statistically and everything, making such a huge difference in their lives. All of these kids live in Yafo or South Tel Aviv, none of them have enough or would have a good chance of success without her or this program. She is changing their lives, and she is doing it all apolitically. I honestly didn't even know that was an option. I never thought that apolitical people, with absolutely no interest in following the news, could be the forerunners of such wonderful social justice work.
Even though I am not an apolitical person, and never expect to be, I am really inspired by that part of her. It's sort of even more impressive in way, because she isn't doing this work for the movement or the larger political implications of teaching Jewish and Arab kids together. She is doing it because these kids need help and she is helping them. No ulterior motive, no "higher purpose," just really really helping these kids.
I doubt she would consider herself a social justice activist, but I really see her that way, and she has made me see a whole new kind of activist, mentor, and person.

Also, she brings her dog to work with her every day, and even though it is a male dog, she keeps his long hair away from his eyes with a barrette or girly clip.
And she knew my red jacket was from H&M.
And the second time I ever met she quoted Seinfeld to me (NO SOUP FOR YOU.)

So, basically, she's just amazing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


January 23, 2011

This weekend we went on our last trip of the program to Eilat. It was longer than our other trips, three full days, and it was pretty awesome.

On Thursday we left early and drove to a kibbutz to hear from a friend of Tiffany’s about desalination and other ways that Israeli scientists are trying to save water. It was pretty scientific, and we’d heard a lot about the water issues from other people, so I wasn’t all that fascinated. I think the best solution is for there to be fewer people in the world and for those people not to live in place without resources. Geez, whose idea was it to have this many people live in a desert? Spoiler alert: people need water.

After that we went on a hike in the desert and we saw some incredible views, first from Ben-Gurion’s grave and then from the hike itself. The hike was long but good. The best part was that Moshe, the head of our program, was leading us. He was wearing a white veil thing over his head, so he looked like an old Bedouin woman. He also lost the trail a few times, and we all decided it was a bad idea to follow someone named Moshe, which is Hebrew for Moses, in the desert. Luckily we were lost for only a few minutes, not 40 years, so he did much better than his predecessor.

After the hike we returned to Kibbutz Ketura, the place we had our orientation week, which was really exciting. It was really strange to drive through that gate again and see everything we had gotten to know so well. It was quite a full circle thing, and I was glad to be able to be back there. Unfortunately, I came down with a cold, so after dinner I went and crashed.

Friday morning we woke up early and went on another hike, this time through the desert lead by an American who made Aliya (after going to Brandeis, surprise). We ended up at these ruins which had once been a fort on the incense road from Africa into the Middle East. We frolicked around the ruins for quite a while and climbed in some tiny caves, which was delightful. We are basically a whole group of small children, so it was good. After the hike we went to the beach in Eilat and went snorkeling. Eilat is known for being one of the best diving spots in the world, not to mention in Israel, so I was eager to go out. The coral was really beautiful, although not as bright as the stuff you see in Maui. There were some really impressive fish, including some giant ones and ones shaped like pencils that we really wanted to fence with. Also, I SWEAR TO GOD I saw a humuhumu. For those of you who don’t know, the humuhumunukunukua’pua’a is the state fish of Hawaii, and my favorite thing ever. I saw it swimming around the coral and I accidentally swallowed a lot of salt water in my excitement. No one else was around me, but when we were swimming back to the beach Hannah saw another one (the same one) and we followed it for a few minutes. I need to do some internet research and see it humuhumus actually live in the Red Sea, but if not, there is a fish that is identical just chilling in Eilat. [UPDATE: yes, they do live in the red sea! I TOTALLY SAW A HUMUHUMU. AWESOME.]

After the hike went to our hotel, which is called Malony (the word for hotel in Hebrew is “malon”) and was one LOS ANGELES STREET. No kidding. What? We were going to grill hot dogs and hamburgers for dinner, but according to the kosher rules of the hotel we were going to have to go to a park to grill them. But the skeezy guy who ran the hotel let us squat in the parking lot to do it instead. We used the little portable charcoal grills that we used for our beach bbq at the beginning of the semester, which, while not my instrument of choice, did the job well enough. I obviously grilled, along with Benji and Nate, and we ended up making some pretty good stuff. The best part was that all the stuff hadn’t defrosted all the way, so Hannah decided to sit on all these packages of hamburgers to warm them up. It was quite effective, until we realized that they worked better frozen. Nice try, Hannah.

Saturday morning we woke up and had Israeli hotel breakfast, which was not awesome. I don’t know why they have decided you should have veggies for breakfast instead of fruit, but I’m not a huge fan. I don’t want a salad first thing in the morning, thanks anyway. We drove to this geological wonderland, and watched a 15 minute multimedia SPECTACULAR. THE CHAIRS ROTATED. It was possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. It was so creepy, and so nonsensical, and OUR CHAIRS MOVED, it was amazing. After that we drove around to a few of the sites mentioned in the video, which have some really amazing rock formations. On top of Soloman’s pillars Benji made henna and we all painted ourselves and Katie and Nate in honor of their upcoming wedding. The henna didn’t stick, but the three hours I had a dinosaur on my forearm were some of the best hours of my life.

After that we went to a kibbutz that is known for being ecological and doing some great recycling and reusing work. They get trash and tires from Eilat brought in, and they use them to make benches, play structures, and all sorts of things for their kibbutz. They let us run wild in the area called “eco-kef” (kef means fun!), which is a playground totally made out of reused trash, clay, and sand. We were worse than kindergarteners, and the guy was really amused at our immense enthusiasm. They have a permanent Twister court painted on the ground, and we were all over that.

After the kibbutz we got back on the bus and drove the four hours back to Tel Aviv. Tired, stinky, and sunburned, plus sick with a cold, but pretty happy. Worked well.

It’s going to be very strange to leave these people. Like any program where you rely almost entirely on each other, we’ve become very close, and I’m really going to miss them. I mean, yes, sometimes in a group of 25 people the drama becomes overwhelming, but we really are a great group with a good mix of people, and I have a lot of fun when we’re all together. I’m glad to be going on the Grand Adventure, of course, but I am really going to miss these people. At least we’ll mostly all be in the states next year, so we can do some visiting.

Settlement Tour

January 23, 2011

This past week we went on a tour of settlements. Settlements are Jewish communities established across the Green Line in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is separated from the rest of Israel by this thing that is called “the separation fence” (if you’re more right wing), “the separation wall” (if you’re more left wing), or “the apartheid wall” (if you’re super left wing.) We drove in an armored bus, which looks to the naked eye just like other buses except with double windows, across a checkpoint and into the West Bank.

Before we crossed the line we visited was Arab village just on the Israeli side. We met with a linguistic sociologist from Canada whose first language was Yiddish, named David. We sat outside in a park in the bitter wind as he told us about living so close to the green line, some about the sociology of Arabic in Israel/Palestine, and what it’s like to be both a researcher and friend to the people who live there. We then went up to the house of a friend of his and heard about how he is campaigning to get street names and addresses for the Arab villages. Many of the villages, this one included, have no street names or numbers because they are built by clans, and the people who live there all know where everyone lives. But in terms of living in the modern world – getting mail, paying taxes, being distinguished from the 12 other Ahmad Farams in your same village – you really need an address. He has encountered quite a bit of resistance from within the community and is seen as quite a rebel, but he really believes in what he is doing. He gave us coffee and fruit and pastries, and we all said how much we love Arab hospitality.

After that we went across the green line and met with this man, Baruch, who was born and raised in St. Louis and now lives in a settlement called Bet El. He has seven children, an untamed beard, and carried a pocket sized bible with him. He took us around to several sites in Bet El to tell us about how they can prove that those sites are mentioned in the Bible. There was a clearing where he swears that Joseph (of Technicolor dreamcoat fame) lay down to sleep, and a wine press where something else important and biblical happened. He was incredibly invested in proving these things to be truths to us, because without this indisputable biblical connection, he has no reason for being there. He made it very clear that Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the areas that are now the West Bank, are actually the heart of biblical Israel and, thus, are the most important part of Israel.

We went for lunch at his house (hamburgers, hot dogs, and goldstar?) and he told us some very interesting things. Someone asked him if he would ever compromise on the West Bank. His answer was basically: “if someone asked if they could spend one night a week laying with my wife, what would I say? Of course not. She is my wife, she is mine, you can’t have her. It’s the same with the land. I love my wife, I love this land. You can’t have her/it.” Someone else asked what he would do if Palestine became a recognized state. He, in essence, said: “God forbid Israel should abandon us to the dogs, but if they did we would live here. And if the Palestinians tried to ethnically cleans us, we would be ethnically cleansed.” He also used the phrase “when peace broke out” to describe the situation of the Oslo accords and the ends of the Entifadas.

His connection to this land, based in the bible, seemed to border on fanaticism. He went to lengths to tell us that he has Arab friends, or he did until “peace broke out” and he wasn’t allowed to see them anymore, but when he tried to say something in Arabic to us, he actually said “good morning, fava bean” instead of “good morning to you too,” which was also not what he meant to say, we think. He did not seem to care one bit about peace, about compromise, about any of the shades of gray that are involved with settlements. In his opinion, the land is integral to being Jewish, and this land was given by God to him and it is his destiny and his duty to hold it for the Jewish people.

The last settlement we went to was a very small settlement a few hills away from Bet El. We met with a woman grew up in Bet El, and then went out with some other families to settle a new hill for the land of Israel. Her settlement is famous for having had nine houses destroyed by the Israeli army during the disengagement from Gaza. In the settlements before houses and permanent buildings are constructed, everyone lives in RVs. Her settlement is entirely RVs now, and was entirely RVs except for these nine houses until 2005. One of the houses was her family’s home (she has 5 children), and she was clearly greatly traumatized by this event. She showed us a video created by and for settlers to give them hope, which had footage of the destruction at the beginning of it. It showed huge crowds of settlers, from all over Judea and Samaria, and probably from the rest of Israel as well, crying, praying, and trying to stop the bulldozers. The army charged in with horses and billy clubs, and over 300 protestors were injured. She feels betrayed by the Israeli government and army, which makes her situation even more difficult.

She, raised in the West Bank, really has no connection to the rest of Israel. She lived in Israel proper for a year but it didn’t feel right to her, so she moved back to the settlements. She doesn’t belong in Israel, with the government and army who have so traumatized her, but can she stay in Palestine forever? All the political people say that the two-state solution is coming, and it is only a matter of time before Palestine declares independence. What will happen to the settlements and the settlers? As we know from the disengagement from Gaza, they will not leave willingly or peacefully. It was incredibly traumatizing for the men and women in the army who had to pull people out of their homes in Gaza, and for the people who were being removed. Would the government do that in the West Bank if Palestine declared independence? I don’t see these people leaving willingly, or staying away. As far as I know, there is not the biblical connection to Gaza that there is to Judea and Samaria, so it seems like disengagement from the West Bank could be even harder than from Gaza. These settlers really believe they are doing God’s work, living in the land God promised to them, and they are not going to leave it.

I have no idea what the solution is. I feel much less ambiguous about the settlers than about other Israeli issues – I don’t think they should be there now, and I really don’t think they should be there after Palestine is a state. But I think I better understand the challenges and complexities and why these people are living there now that I’ve been in them.

There are so many facets to this conflict, I don’t know how it’s ever going to end.