Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Spachtel - Repairing the World

When we first got to the school our group came to realize that we had no idea what we were doing. There was no order, no supplies and about 30 of us attempted to fix a cracked wall with a can of spachtel, yes spachtel, Hebrew for spackel and some plastic bagel knifes. It was a little disheartening, but we tried to keep our spirits high as our project sponsors promised to buy us more materials. The next few days were much more productive. Actually, considering that school was in session and the kids were all over us, I don’t know how anything got done. Nonetheless, I can honestly say we transformed the school. I think because the first day went so slowly, when we came back, we were pretty much given free range to make whatever changes we saw fit. It’s funny. If a bunch of volunteers offered to paint my elementary school, there would be months of deliberation, there would be a committee and the principal would be inclined to send a letter home to parents explaining the proposed changes. Here, we just painted their school as we saw fit. The girls would often yell at us “paint pink…more pink, more pink,” as we went about repainting light poles the standard green color. When I took a break from painting poles I found about 10 people who took it upon themselves to start painting the outside courtyard. At first, I was a little concerned with the changes, as they began painting the walls and stones in vividly bright rainbow colors. But as the work progressed, I could tell that it was going to look spectacular. Now that the work is done, I don’t think the word spectacular does the job justice. The kids reactions were more representative. When they saw the courtyard painted they flipped out. “Our school looks so happy,” exclaimed one little girl. It felt great to see the students so excited. Many of the children and teachers joined us in the courtyard to help us with the cleanup. It was a truely wonderful experience.

some of the "paint it pink" girls
The Courtyard BEFORE
The Courtyard AFTER

Paint me

We don’t have school on Election Day, because voters pose enough of a nusence to close the school. Imagine trying to paint an entire building when school is in session. Yeah. That’s what I thought. The teachers were pissed and often complained that the school stinks, which it did, it smelled awful. They also told us that their kids couldn’t concentrate in class, which they couldn’t. It didn’t help that they had no doors as someone gave the orders to remove all the doors and paint them. So as school went on as usual, there just happened to be 40 or so foreigners haphazardly painting up the whole entire school. Most of the day our service project served as nothing short of B movie third stooges humor. I would finish painting a wall when two dozen yeladeem come running through the hallway and attempt to guard the wet paint like a goalie. This was all made more difficult by the fact that the students wanted to help us. I took it upon myself to give some students a wall to paint, when a teacher came by and stopped me. They were so sad, that in an act of desperation I let them paint me. I tried to guard my sweatshirt, but it was no use. I was painted.

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got

One of the highlights of working at the school was recess. It was amazing to watch all the children play without the significant amount of supervision children are accustomed to here in the United States. For the most part, the girls and boys played separately, although they all wanted us to play with them. The school grounds were interesting. Girls played tag and parachute, while most of the boys played soccer on this super thick clay field, that if it rained enough could suck the shoes right off your feet or basketball on the oddly placed basketball hoops hanging from every wall and building. I didn’t know why these kids wanted to play on these small hoops that were attached to the school, when there was a perfect full court basketball court behind the school. When I asked one of the students about this he simply replied that it’s boring back there. I guess he was right. Crazy stuff was going on all over the place. I was playing some two on two basketball with a couple boys when I noticed these cute little Ethiopian boys slinging pebbles at each other. My teacher instincts must have kicked in because my first reaction was to get in-between them and stop the rock fight before someone got hurt. Instead I became their new target. In a desperate attempt to divert their attention, I started shoving rocks in my pants pockets in hopes that the sheer oddness would add as a further distraction. I guess it worked. At first they paused and looked at me like I was crazy, but all of a sudden, they began grabbing rocks by the handfuls which they graciously inserted into every one of my pants pockets. Since I was wearing my trusty AmeriCorps BDU cargo pants, I had a good four rock pocs going. When the bell rang to go back in, I was still struggling to empty my pockets.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mr. Twig meet Mr. Log

So a number of very funny things happened to us while we were working at the elementary school in Kiryat Shimona. I want to make sure to get some of them down before I forget. This first story I absolutely love. Often our work was sporadic and whenever we finished a project, we would walk around to see what others were doing and if they needed help. I had just reached this stage when I walked outside to see Glenn struggling to carry this enormous stump of a log with a crowd of kids around him. When I ran up to help him, I asked him where we were planning on putting this thing. He said he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know,” he said. “The kids just asked me to move it.” Suddenly one of the teachers comes running up to us in a panic, “No, no, no!” Neither of use knew what she was talking about, but the kids started pouting. After some translation, we realized that we had been duped. Some of the kids from the school had the bright idea that they wanted this enormous log in one of their classrooms and used us to do their bidding. Their classroom teacher said this was second time they tried pulling this stunt.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Evil Flags = Evil Neighbors

Although the Leading Up North trip was a wonderful learning experience, there were several things which deeply saddened me. The first was a comment that was made by a teacher at the school during an English class. I was working with a student independently, when the classroom teacher approached me and started using the students’ jacket to discuss the names of various colors in Hebrew and English. The lesson started out as nothing particularly special, but took a surprising turn when the teacher began to discuss the representation of colors in relation to the Israeli and Arabic nation flags. After the student had repeated the colors in English, she stated that the white stood for peace, love and tranquility and the blue for such concepts as hope, progress and the sky. She then asked the student what the colors of the Arabic nations flags were, red, black and green, which she quickly associated with images of blood and death.

Although I was sitting right next to her and she was speaking in English, I could not believe what she was saying. How could a schoolteacher make such a comparison! Not only was this blatantly wrong, she was conveying this information to an impressionable child who is growing up in a region divided by politics and religion. As a future education that desires peace, how could a teacher commit such a careless act?

The answer to this question became apparent when she smiled and walked away. To her, these were not colors, but life. I guess when you live so close to conflict it is enviable that you will see many issues in black and white. I don’t think the members of this community hated the Lebanese or their Arab neighbors, but often view them as a nuance that terrorized their families and way of life.

Even after the severity of this comment hit me full force I didn’t say anything. What could I have done? It was not my place and I was not in the right setting. I decided to share this experience with my trip mates after we got back from the school. A few of them were disturbed, but the majority was silent and a few attempted to rationalize the teacher’s comments. This conversation continued late into the night when a group of teachers and parents were invited to our hostel to deliver a presentation they had put together about their settlement and the effects of the war.

The pictures and stories were touching and having spent less then 2 days at the school I was already in tears. As the presentation drew to a close I started to get nervous with anticipation. I decided that it would not be appropriate to address the flag comments as a group, as it was not my desire to cause pain or difficulty for the teacher. She was a lovely woman and granted me an open invitation to her house if I came back to Israel. Instead, I decided to ask a different question, one that would hopefully highlight the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I asked the audience “have your children had any interaction with Lebanese children and if not would you like them to?”

As I expected, this question created a commotion amongst the audience. There was a heated attempt to translate. The school guidance counselor, a Canadian born lady who now lived in Kiryat Shimona with her husband and young daughter who attended the school responded to my question with several questions herself. “Why is this necessary?” “What do you hope to accomplish with this scenario and what type of setting exists for such an interaction between people, when we live in a perpetual state of uncertainty?” I tried to explain my reasoning for such an exchange when the guidance counselor began speaking once again, “If you think we teach our children to hate, we don’t!” Chatter amongst the other teachers encircled me before it was translated into English. “We don’t hate the Lebanese. During the war we offered shelter to many of them. We had numerous innocent Christian Lebanese families living here.”

Just to highlight, the key word in their comment was Christian. Although innocent Muslims were bombed, just like their own children in Israel, the notion of letting innocent Muslim Lebanese into Israel couldn’t register in their minds. That is exactly why we need programs that emphasize interaction between Jewish and Muslim populations. How can you advocate for peace, when there is such a clear distinction between the two.

Loving volunteers or firefighters from another world? You decide.

This post is a response to the article, Students Flock to Aid the North But Did They?, from the Jewish Daily Forward.

The Leading Up North Trip attracted some very high profile and influential individuals from the Jewish community one of which was Hillel President Wayne Firestone. Wayne gave a passionate speech Saturday night following our Havdallah service in the youth hostel. I was particularly taken by his passion and energy as he is a very talented speaker. A majority of his comments were directed at many of the issues we volunteers were struggling with regarding the trip's purpose. Was this work significant enough to warrant the millions of dollars being spent sending us to Israel? Would the citizens of the north be better off had this money been directly donated to the communities? He addressed these doubts by posing an even larger dilemma, should Israel need us, the United States and the Jewish community living outside Israel?

Maimonides states that there are eight levels of charity. The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen another Jew by giving him a loan to start a business, or a job to strengthen his hand so he can create a livelihood that doesn’t require charity from others. Ten years ago Israeli dignitaries told the Jewish community to keep their money, that Israel was strong and could provide for its citizens. Years later, is that attitude still relevant?

The Rabbi at my synagogue in Long Island just recently spearheaded a fund raising campaign to buy a fire truck for an Israeli settlement down south in distance to Gaza. This fire truck will be adorned with a Merrick Jewish Center placard. Everywhere you look building, forests and synagogues are plastered with the names of wealthy benefactors living comfortably halfway around the world. What message does this send to the people that live in Israel? Is it a message of love or is a message of frailty?

Maimonides’ second level of charity which falls below giving someone a job is one who gives tzedaka to the poor in a manner of anonymity. The recipient should not know the giver and the giver should not know the identity of the recipient. By ensuring both parties are anonymous, the receiver of charity escapes humiliation and the giver remains humble. In the example of the fire truck, not only will both parties know each other, but the fire truck will be outfitted with a giant sign which will serve as a constant reminder to the Americans considerate and wealthy enough to make the donation.

Although Maimonides would have something to say in regards to the gift giving and gift wrapping, one can argue that the fire truck still fits within his model as it allows for the settlement to provide for its own collective security. Instead of sending our firefighters around the world to extinguish the fires in Israel, we as a community are providing the means to achieve that goal. It is ultimately up to the people, those whose livelihood depends on it, to make use of this tool. But, can the same thing be said of our trip to Israel? Are we like firefighters sent half way around the world to fight a fire that is best fought by those in danger?

These are tough issues. It is hard and often unfair to judge good deeds and great deeds. Although from a Talmudic standpoint, other acts of kindness like subsidized volunteer trips to Israel escape Maimonides tzedaka hierarchy, it is still interesting to examine the anonymity principle. I think when it comes to community service the anonymity principle is reversed. Although acts of kindness usually necessitate contact with the person or community receiving aid, the experience usually fosters a similar humbling effect in the service provider. Community service allows you to appreciate all of g-d’s gifts, recognize your own mortality and offer something that is not easily exchanged through money, love and hope. In reality, that was the true gift we were sent to deliver. Our work was there to bridge the gap and serve as a medium of exchange, only Wayne was one of the minority that actually recognized this before we started. Many of us couldn’t fully appreciate this until after we left the north. Although money can be wired to fix a building, it can’t buy a hug or a handshake. Those things require personal delivery.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

LOST in the Galilee

Shabbas morning a couple guys from the trip got word that there was going to a hike up the mountain directly adjacent to our hostel on the Kineret. It was a significant climb and would provide a considerable amount of adventure. After grabbing some supplies we crossed the street and headed in the direction of the peak. All the hiking I have previously done in Israel has been with tour groups at major parks. I was excited by the spontaneity, which is probably why I didn’t realize that this was probably against trip security.

There wasn’t more then 10 of us and I was only familiar with about half the fellowship. The leader of the group was David, a med student slash PHD candidate for something related to biology and/or engineering. David was a tall fellow and spoke sparingly, until you asked him some science related question which would prompt a speech highlighted with scholarship and detailed analysis. David was quickly assigned the title John Locke, a reference to the knowledgeable survival character from the hit TV show LOST. It’s hot, you should watch it. That comment spurred a whole conversation regarding what characters we were most like from the show. Mike quickly laid claim to Sawyer, which was a little far fetched but given our group, I wasn’t going to question it. As for me, I was assigned the role of Charlie as I struggled to keep up with David in the front of the group.

The hike was strenuous from the beginning. The terrain was odd as there were numerous peaks and troughs to navigate. Looking back at our bungalow shacks on the after and then again as our destination, it oddly enough felt we were in an episode of LOST. No one knew where we were, no one knew where we were going and no one could say why we left in the first place. No one had any answers, just like in the show.
The farther we walked, the more we could make out the features at the top of the mountain. There was what appeared to be a building of some sorts and wiring in the distance. For all we knew this was a military post as much as a hotel. Thankfully we didn’t stop to consider these options. As long as we stayed clear from mine field signs we felt safe. Eventually we started stopping more and more frequently, until it dawned on half the group that we were in fact really doing this and sooner or later there would be no turning back. We were getting cut and caught by spiky plants and the sun was approaching high noon. It was at that point when a portion on the group realized this wasn’t happening and took off back down the mountain. The rest of us split up into two groups. Those going all the way up and those going after a cliff like peak to the right. I chose the peak. John was just too fast for me. Sawyer followed him.

As the rest of us headed for the peak, the scenery got seriously beautiful. There were some awesome trees and bushes in addition to the shimmering rock structure that jetted out above the mountain. Jason ran for the top, getting there way before the rest of us. It took me and the rest of the group to gain ground as the rocks got steeper and steeper. The top was beautiful complete with a miniature version of the familiar delicate arches that were made famous in Utah’s park. It was quit cool under the arch and the rock floor provided a nice little massage surface for your back. We hung out on the top on the structure and practiced yodeling skills ask Locke’s group slowly but surely approached the top.

Jason yodeling at us from the summit

As we descended the rock, we could hear the faint sound of running water. I was ready to head back but Jason had the brilliant idea of going to search for it. I, on the other hand had the brilliant idea of going back to eat a meal of food. Later that day, I was greeted by photos of Jason’s brilliant ravine and a large cow skull which Locke decided to take back to the hostel for further study.

Israeli Garbage Cats

Israel is filled with an interesting assortment of urban wildlife. The most prominent definitely being the cat. Cats are everywhere and always close by whenever you in the proximity of garbage. A can often serves as a nice 1 or 2 cat studio while a dumpster provides a cat condominium. Cats in Israel are the equivalent of the average city pigeon. They are ridiculed and despised by most, yet undeniably native. The major difference with the Israel cats is that they know no boundaries. It is completely common for cats to walk in and out of hotel lobbies and nest in bomb shelter ceilings.

A delightful pleasent and proper garbage cat

Although many of the dirty but adorable garbage kitties are tame, I know there are others that are ferocious, beady eyed bird killers. I definitely don’t think it’s a coincidence that you find few birds walking about in the cities plazas and promenades. Israel is not homeland for the birds. Garbage cats are also sneaky little bastards. They seem to have an almost magical ability to multiply like gremlins in water. If you spot one or two you can be confident that there are at least 6 or 7 other cats staring you down in hiding. Garbage cats, garbage cats, what is Israel feeding you.
An example of a feriocious garbage cat that has it in for me

Identity & Israel: An Unbroken Chain of Religion, Culture and Politics

As I sit and listen to Professors of International Studies speak about the current State of Israel, I can’t help but think what makes a person qualified to address an audience as an expert. To me, an expert is a person who has obtains enough skill or knowledge in a particular field that it supersedes his or her own personal affiliations and desires. But, how can you maintain an attitude of intellectual objectivity when you are only human, with thoughts and feelings that are not uniquely ours? This man standing before me who claims to be an expert is a Jew. And he is an Israeli. And he is a father. And he is probably someone’s friend, and oh yes, last but not least, he is a Professor. The way in which this person views himself, his affiliations, responsibilities, livelihood and identity are more accurate depictions of his political and ideological beliefs then his professional qualifications. It is often hard to maintain your objectivity, especially in a situation where the issue at hand is fundamentally attached to your identity.

Marvin Harris, to quote off his book “one of America’s leading anthropologists,” offers solutions to the perplexing question of why people behave the way they do. Although much of his writing focused on little hidden mysteries of societies far and near, at the essence of his work lays an unsettling paradigm. We, human beings, are mere products of our given environment. The clothes we wear and the language we speak, all serves the higher purpose of keeping us alive. The same goes for our political beliefs, our actions, and the lessons we teach our children. Our identity is at the heart of what keeps us alive. Without it, we are lost, just like the tiny speck of a planet we live on. I recognize that it this same concept of identity that connects me to the state of Israel. The never-ending search for self, acceptance and purpose is the reason why I decided to pursue this Hillel mission trip to Israel.

During my winter break, I was selected to participate in the Israel: Leading Up North mission trip sponsored by Hillel International, a large Jewish organization that operates on numerous college campuses in countries around the world. The trip offered three different tracks. Tzedek or justice, which was a community service based trip, an environmental track where students met with local leaders and environmental activists, and pluralism, which paired international Jewish students from around the world together to establish active dialogue with Jews of different backgrounds, nationalities and religious identities. I was selected for the Tzedek track along with about 80 other graduate and undergraduate to work in a community in the north that had been affected by the recent war with Hezbollah.

Until fairly recently, I have often struggled with questions regarding my Jewish identity and personal connection to Israel. Growing up in a suburban and mostly homogenous town on Long Island, NY where most of my friends were Jewish, I didn’t see Judaism or Israel as anything particularly special. To me, Judaism was commonplace and Israel was just a place Israelis lived. Since I wasn’t Israeli, Israel was of little concern to me. This attitude persisted through college until I was inspired by a local Rabbi to try something different. Rabbi Goldstein from Chabad, who was aware of my passion for history, convinced me to study the story of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. He said, “Through the study of Israel, I would learn to love Judaism and the Jewish people.” That semester I enrolled in a class in college that studied the history of Israel from King David to the modern era. The class was a spiritual and emotional awakening. Israel became a land of significance, purpose and most importantly a Jewish homeland.

Although I grew up in a fairly typical non-observant Jewish family where Judaism came second to little league and soccer practice, I still cannot deny that I am Jewish. I started to recognize this only fairly recently when a Rabbi at my local Chabad house at Hofstra University handed me a book called Why Marry Jewish. Through what seemed like insignificant little games and exercises, I learned a great deal about myself that I would have otherwise dismissed. Jewish customs and images often conger loving feelings deep inside me, while I regard similar Christian icons with indifference. I will unconsciously greet a group of Jews walking to synagogue on Shabbat, cannot help but smile when I see a little Jewish boy with long hair and side curls and associate long Chasidic beards with reverence and wisdom. These images have become part of my personal identity.

Last year was marked by Birthright, my first visit to Israel since my bar mitzvah when peace negotiations looked significantly promising. The Birthright experience touched me in many ways. I felt strong connections to the places we visited and the people we met, especially the Israeli soldiers whom we traveled with. As we laughed and cried together, I couldn’t help but think that had we been traveling with a group of American soldiers, or anyone else for that matter, these emotions would not have been the same. There was a bond from being Jewish. There was a bond of being in Israel.

The Holocaust is probably the most powerful example of inherent Jewish identity. The Holocaust was the first time in history that a Jew could not escape persecution through conversion, Judaism although a religion and an ethnic group could not be shed. Judaism was in the blood. The Nazis maintained that anyone with Jewish ancestry was a Jew, regardless of religious affiliation. Although this belief stemmed from desperation, misapplied Social Darwinism and deep seeded hatred of the Jewish people, it did hit at the heart of a major understanding; we don’t always get to choose our identity. Often it is instilled in us, by our parents, by others or by birth.

After the Holocaust, many Jews had to reevaluate their own personal identities. Human beings that up until this point had considered themselves French, Dutch and German, could no longer maintain such an identity. Zionism, the movement to establish an independent homeland for the Jewish people, was ironically, largely run and organized by people that neither practiced nor associated with the religion. If the Jews were not a people before the Holocaust, they surely became one after it.

Just as iconic images of shabbas candles and warm challah will stir feeling of joy, yellow stars and swastikas have the ability to evoke unbearable pain, anger and sadness. I will never forget the flood of emotions that surged through my body when one of my classmates adorned a Hilter’s Grand Tour t-shirt, which listed the names of the Nazi concentration camps on the back.

As human beings, we have been blessed and cursed with a large brain. This extraordinary brain of ours gives as much as it takes. Its gives us the ability to manipulate the world around us, create beautiful works of art and heal the sick, but it also takes as it requires answers to fundamental questions regarding our existence for which we do not have the answers. In addition to desiring the answer to questions such as where babies come from, how to get the clouds to rain and why we are here on this insignificant speck of planet floating aimlessly in a darkness, we have more personal needs to internal questions like who am I and what is my family history?

It is often hard to manipulate your family history to fit your identity. I believe the manner in which you perceive your family is often established at an early age while your relatives are still living and breathing souls. For me, I am the grandson of a Polish Jew who fled the poverty of Eastern Europe before the start of the Second World War. My mother’s father was lucky, because the Nazis murdered most of his family after they invaded Poland. Although I know that my grandfather viewed himself as foremost a Jew that happened to live in Poland, I don’t know if this switched after he arrived in the United States. I would be surprised if it did. My grandfather loved this country and disapproved of anyone that was overly critical of the government. Although I still have major problems with the creation of the state Israel, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

When I was developing my application to the Israel program, I often stopped to consider what the most appropriate way to refer to the recent conflict. I browsed the headlines of various Jewish publications in hopes of finding the most JPC, Jewishly politically correct way of referring to the conflict, which was also consistent with my personal feelings towards the war. The first decision I made was that it was okay to call the war a war. I wasn’t sure if that would be misinterpreted as too harsh a statement, since Israel didn’t technically declare war against anyone and many people maintain that Israel was taking a defensive position in defending itself. The second problem came when I had to decide who Israel in fact waged war against. At the time, I thought it was more appropriate to describe the war as one that was waged against Hezbollah although most of the ground fighting took place in Lebanon. Thinking back on this decision, I cannot help but think that US action in Afghanistan after 9/11 was often referred to as the war in Afghanistan, not war against Al Qaeda. Similarly, I don’t remember US journalists referring to the war in Iraq as the war against WMDS, the war against Saddam, or the war of Iraqi Freedom. It seems as Israel had waged their own War on Terror.

I was expecting, like most people to see major damage in the north similar to images of the gulf coast after hurricane Rita and Katrina. Understandably that wasn’t the case. First, although there was a significant amount of destruction in the northern settlements, most of the damage was confined to small structural damage that was reparable after the war. Although we did not help to rebuild houses, the work we did was more significant. We were granted access to a religious elementary school, where we taught English and performed painting and minor repairs around the building. Although at first the work we were performing seemed trivial, I believed it served a higher purpose. The children at the school were overjoyed to see us and our acts of kindness brought hope.

Visiting the Lebanese border was a powerful experience. For many participants on the trip, the state of Lebanon was an intangible enemy. But looking above a small fence that separates the two nations, one suddenly realizes that this land, which is so easily demonized, looks very similar to the land where you are standing. Still, it was easy for many of my fellow trip participants to show their distain. The closer we got; the more necessary it became to crack jokes, make disparaging remarks and throw up middle fingers with a sense of jubilation.

In the real world, an ID is often evidence that some of piece of information about a person is true. A driver’s license grants you permission to drive and validates your day of birth. Identity, from a physiological perspective isn’t all that different. Your personal identity often grants you the right to think, feel or act a certain way. Unfortunately some people believe their religions or nationalities grant them access to hate speech and oppression. Certain aspects of your identity you choose, some you are given and others you are just born with. When my group labeled me as a leftist, I was granted permission to ask hard questions regarding the legitimacy of the state and the success of the war with Lebanon. Thankfully, no one could take away my Judaism card.