Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Chaya Cunin, participant in Masa Israel’s Machon Shoshanat Yerushalayim
Throughout the world and in Israel, terror is a horrific reality. Fortunately, being in Israel this year on a Masa Israel program has presented me with many opportunities to think, speak and most importantly, take action in support of Israel. One of my most meaningful volunteer placements enables me to spend time with victims of terror, giving them an extra dosage of love and support.
Through the Chabad Terror Victims Project, my friend, Etty Winner and I were matched up with a Persian family in Jerusalem. On August 19, 2003, the family was riding a city bus, the mother holding her baby in her lap, when a terrorist blew himself up. The whole family was injured and sent to the hospital. The baby was killed in her mother’s arms.
Before we met the family, Etty and I assumed we would spend our visits acting as social workers, listening to the family’s pain and sorrow. But we were wrong. The family has found strength amidst pain to carry on with day-to-day life and they continually inspire us. To show our support, we spend time with the children, allowing the parents a moment to rest and letting them know that they are not forgotten.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Etty and I head over to the family’s home in Jerusalem. With a special activity for the children in tow, we are as excited to see the children as the children are to see us. We bring puzzles and games, toys and arts and crafts projects, which allow them to express their individuality. Since the beginning of the year, they have crafted charity boxes and decorated star magnets to proudly display their photos on the fridge. We spend hours finding projects that would best foster the children’s talents and creativity.
Before Chanukah, we helped them get into the holiday spirit by throwing them a party complete with sufganiyot, latkes and wooden dreidel decorating. As Purim approached, they created handmade wooden groggers.
The children’s birthdays, their time to celebrate life, are very important days for survivors–and we make them as special as possible with a ‘party-in-a-bag’. Along with inviting their friends to share in the festivities, we eat delicious treats, sing ‘Yom Huledet Samayach’ and play fun games. When it is not a holiday or birthday—we still make sure the children have fun—with trips to the park, and ice cream and popcorn snacks.
By volunteering with terror victims, we show the family, the Jewish community and the world at large that terror should not be tolerated. We help them take one day at a time and carry on with life.
In the wake of the Fogel family tragedy in Itamar, and the horrific recent bombing in central Jerusalem, we are now trying to cope with the pain that this intolerable, brutal terrorism causes. Having grown so close to victims of terror, it is especially hard to digest the harsh events that have taken place. I continue to pray for the time when peace and harmony will reign, and all sadness and hostility will be replaced with joy and unity.
8.15.12 at 4:25 am | After Birthright, Meirav knew she wanted to play. . .
5.7.12 at 3:29 pm | A great job in LA just wasn't enough. I headed to. . .
4.16.12 at 1:53 pm | One year following her internship in Tel Aviv,. . .
1.26.12 at 7:56 am | After quitting her corporate job and applying to. . .
12.6.11 at 7:52 am | During her gap year in Israel, Michal taught. . .
11.23.11 at 1:11 pm | Michal took her studies out of the classroom and. . .
8.15.12 at 4:25 am | After Birthright, Meirav knew she wanted to play. . . (10)
3.11.11 at 8:34 am | The Machlis family did not know me--nor the 200. . . (5)
11.9.11 at 10:32 am | Daniel grew up thinking he knew everything there. . . (3)
March 25, 2011 | 1:14 am
Posted Merav Ceren, Masa Israel Journey Participant
We heard the news over the radio at my office in the West Bank. The initial reports were more detailed in Hebrew, but more confusing for it – a suicide attack in Jerusalem turned out to be an unattended bomb outside a bus stop across the street from the Central Bus Station. Two people dead. No one dead. Shootings in other parts of the city (which also ended up being false). Eyewitnesses had seen conflicting events and were speaking Hebrew way too fast for me to understand all of it. I sent off a quick e-mail to loved ones back home before the cell phone system crashed, which it did about 30 minutes after the attack. I couldn’t get phone calls, e-mails, gchat messages or BlackBerry messages after that. Throughout the office and on the drive home, everyone’s phones rang intermittently as a family member or friend succeeded in getting through, everyone picking up with the same line – “Ani beseder, I’m ok.” Getting back into Jerusalem proved to be slow; the checkpoint was crowded and the traffic trailed far behind in a line I’d never experienced in my 6 months of working in the West Bank. I noticed on the way in that soldiers were wearing nametags. I don’t know if I just never looked at the soldier at the checkpoint in the past, but evidently Israeli soldiers wear their names prominently on their uniforms in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The line getting out of Jerusalem was even worse; not only was the checkpoint full, but soldiers had set up another checkpoint about a mile into the same road. They were checking everyone thoroughly, regardless of license plate.
I grew up in the Inland Empire, but, with family in Israel, the Second Intifada had cured me early in life of the belief that terrorism couldn’t touch me. If anything, being in the country at the time of an attack made me feel a bit more in control of an uncontrollable situation; I experienced the attack in real-time and could get assurances of safety from friends and family much more quickly. Also, every person around me was doing the same thing. In that sense, there’s a feeling that everyone is going through this together. Thankfully, what happened yesterday at Binyanei HaUma can’t be compared to the destruction and loss of life caused by over five years of suicide attacks. The shock and lack of control you feel whenever any of these attacks happen, however, is the same. So once you hear, you start calling. And you don’t stop until you hear that your loved ones are ok. After that, the stories start to pour in.
The woman who was killed in the attack was in the ulpan of a friend’s friend. She was about the same age as the Russian bubbe in my ulpan. That’s the biggest difference of being in Israel; everyone knows everyone who knows someone else. The interconnectedness of society here is real and makes most news events much more personal. My heart goes out to her family.
A friend of mine told me she heard the explosion. She works about 10 minutes away from the site of the attack. She described feelings of helplessness, followed by anger and an even stronger commitment to make aliyah. This staunch feeling of living without allowing terrorism and fear to make your decisions is something I saw in my coworkers and those on the street throughout the city.
The bus to the center of town that afternoon, about two hours after the attack, was just as crowded as it always is, with standing room only. Jerusalem last night was definitely quieter. Ben Yehuda still had its crowd of tourists and vendors, but there were fewer locals. The unseasonably cool weather could have been to blame, but being home to talk to loved ones may also have played a factor. At the bars, I heard Israelis talking about the other attacks they’d lived through. The tractor attacks of ’08 came up regularly. But for the most part, people were taking the advice of the mayor. Nir Barkat had implored Jerusalemites to keep their eyes open to avoid future attacks, but to most importantly go about life as usual. Changing routines or living in fear allows terrorism to win, he explained. The overarching analysis I kept hearing, from taxi drivers to university students in pubs, is that these sorts of things are a part of life in Israel. Although it’s a harsh reality and one Israel cannot and will not accept, these attacks are a part of the Israeli fabric of experiences. Though in another country, the normal reaction would be to stay home on a night like Wednesday, getting a beer at the local pub downtown was the most important, and the most satisfying, thing I could have done that night.
March 17, 2011 | 10:59 am
Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Matthew Eisenberg, participant in Masa Israel’s Oranim Internship Experience
How do I explain in words who my grandfather was and what he meant to me? I guess if you took all that is right in the world and mixed it with the biggest heart, you would have my grandfather. I didn’t know it back then but he is everything I now hope to be.
My story begins nine years ago when I was in Israel. I was on a kibbutz when my grandfather got sick. At the time, my parents were on a trip in Europe and started making the necessary arrangements to return. But my grandfather told my father no, he had to continue on his trip. You see, my father’s trip was supposed to end with a visit to Israel to spend time with me, and that was more important to my grandfather.
My family believes that Israel is a very special place. Growing up I learned that if you fall off the path that you need to be on, a trip to Israel will set you right. I was in Israel trying to find meaning and purpose, and my grandfather believed that my father’s visit to Israel was more important than his return to the US to be with him. So, my dad came, we had a spectacular time and then he went home to his father.
When my grandfather took a turn for the worst, I got on the next available flight and went straight to the hospital. He was in bad shape. He had a breathing tube and was not aware of anything. Now, I don’t know if when he realized I was home it triggered something, or if it was just a coincidence, but he got better for a little while. We were able to talk to him and I remember my uncle counting how many breaths he was making on his own per minute. It was great to have our grandfather back, even for just a brief moment.
Eventually, he became sicker and passed away. At that point in my life, nobody that close to me had died. So I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions I was confronting. But I knew I had to do something to honor him.
I decided to take the book he wrote about how he and his family survived the Holocaust, and turn it into a screenplay. At the time, I didn’t know how to write a screenplay but I knew that it was what I had to do. It took almost four months but I finished it and decided to pursue a career in Hollywood. My goal was to one day make my grandfather’s movie. So I went to film school and after graduating took every job I could find until my odyssey brought me back to Israel in the winter of 2010.
I enrolled in the Masa Israel-funded program called Oranim Internship Experience, which found me an internship at the Israel Film Fund. While I was in the program, my brother came to Israel to study in Jerusalem right across from the Kotel. We met up and went to some classes—one which my brother actually taught, and had a great day. When it was time for mincha, we went to the Kotel tunnel for the most amazing moment of my life. I can be called many things, but spiritual is not one of them. Yet, while standing there at that moment, something happened.
All of a sudden I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand as an arm rested on it. When I looked to my left to see who it belonged to, I found my grandfather beside me. With his signature warm smile he said, “I’m proud of you and I love you.”
I looked at him with tears falling and closed my eyes for a second, and then, he was gone. I rushed out of the tunnel to the main part of the wall to get some air when I realized my note came true. You see, when I was ten years old, I put a note in the Wall that said, “I wish my whole family would live forever in this wall.”
Here I was in front of the wall, seeing and feeling my grandfather who had been dead for eight years. All I could do was sit down and cry. I just wanted to tell him that I missed him and loved him. I had a second chance to say these things to him, but I blew it. Then again, I’m sure he knows.
This took place this past January and since then, I have become a little more spiritual. Also, because this country was so important to him and his faith, I have kept Shabbat to a certain extent since the encounter with my grandfather. I am planning on staying in Israel because I feel my grandfather everywhere. And even though I may never see him again or have a situation remotely similar, just being here allows me to believe, like a child would, that it just might happen.
March 11, 2011 | 8:34 am
Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Gabriella Davidson, alumna of Masa Israel’s Bar Ilan Israel Experience
It was a Friday night and I was sitting in a home in Jerusalem surrounded by over two hundred different kinds of people. There were seminary girls, Asian men, hippies, black hatters, Christians, Israelis, non-practicing Jews, poor and wealthy, yet I have never before felt more united with a group of strangers.
At the time, I was studying abroad at Bar Ilan University. During the week, I engaged in studies right outside Tel Aviv and over the weekend, I liked to spend Shabbat traveling to different communities throughout country. Other international students shared the names of excellent host families, and people consistently mentioned Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis, who opened up their home to complete strangers for Shabbat meals at no cost. Apparently, there was nothing like the “Machlis Experience.” So one Friday night, I finally decided to experience it for myself and my friend and I made our way to 137/26 Maalot Dafna, Jerusalem.
It was the Friday night before Pesach, one of the busiest Shabbats of the year in Israel when we arrived at a modest apartment jam packed with guests. Not only were the guests seated against the sefarim (Jewish books)-lined walls, but they were even spilling out onto the doorstep. We were debating whether or not to leave, when suddenly a woman greeted us excitedly. “Shabbat shalom!” she said, kindly leading us through an obstacle course to their tiny kitchen where chairs and a table were set for us.
It took me a few moments to process the beautiful sight taking place before our eyes. As the diverse group of guests patiently engaged in conversations, while waiting for the meal to start, the Machlis children joyously set dishes on each table. Not only did they serve a delicious three-course meal, but they also made sure to welcome and talk to each of their guests, showing a genuine interest in their lives.
At one point during dinner, while the hot soup was being served, all of the lights went out. Sitting in a pitch-black room with complete strangers, I expected people to experience a state of panic. Instead, numerous non-Jews exclaimed that they were gentiles and would be happy to turn the lights back on. Mrs. Machlis smiled at her girls and told her guests that they were G-d sent.
Seated in the kitchen was like having a backstage pass to the “Machlis Experience” and my friend and I decided to take advantage of our VIP seating. We learned that Rabbi and Mrs. Machlis began hosting people for Shabbat when they first got married and gradually it turned into what it has become today. For 30 years, they have hosted these meals every Shabbat, with the exception of two Shabbats out of the year. I was astonished, considering the fact that they have been blessed with 14 children.
“Did you take a couple of months off after each child was born?” I asked.
Mrs. Machlis looked at me in surprise. “Why would we need to take a break? I would be with my baby for the first two Shabbats in my room…and then I’d come back out!” I felt so inspired by her continued devotion to these acts of altruism.
Not only was Mrs. Machlis an excellent cook, but she was an inspiring speaker as well. In the middle of the meal, she announced that because her husband was out of town, she would share words of Torah with everyone. She delivered a beautiful speech filled with words to which all of her guests could relate.
At the end of the night, my friend and I thanked the Machlis family and started walking back to my friend’s dorm, completely speechless for the first ten minutes. As cheesy as it may sound, I truly believe that G-d sent the Machlis family into this world to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world and touching the lives of complete strangers. EVERYONE is welcomed into their home, regardless of their race, religion, or social status. In our society, it is typical that when you invite a family over for a Shabbat meal, they will likely reciprocate. However, the Machlis family is the exception: they endlessly give and expect nothing in return.
All my life I have learned about the great mitzvot of hachnassat orachim (hospitality) and tikkun olam, as seen through Avraham. I was lucky enough to witness them firsthand in the Machlis’s home.
March 3, 2011 | 2:42 pm
Posted by Bracha Stettin, participant in Masa Israel’s Kivunim
Thirty hours ago, I left a country whose Jewish population went from 300,000 to 3,000 in the past 60 years. I walked the narrow paths between the houses where these Jews used to live, I breathed in the air of the synagogues where they prayed every day, three times a day. Over and over again I found myself asking, why have they gone?
This story may sound familiar, but this is not Poland. I left a country where snow falls only in the high Atlas Mountains and where there never was a Holocaust. In this country, the dominant religious power is neither the Pope nor constituents of the church. Rather, King Mohammed VI is the “leader of the faithful” and imams travel from mosque to mosque, teaching the words of the Koran. Arabic and French are the main languages spoken here. The landscape of this breathtaking country reflects the colors of the national flag; red and green repeat themselves in stunning variety across the entire country. I have just left Morocco.
What was a nice Jewish girl on a Masa Israel program doing in Morocco? I am a participant in Kivunim, a gap-year program based in Jerusalem that travels to 12 different countries throughout the year. In Jerusalem, we learn Arabic, improve our Hebrew, examine the Middle East from different perspectives, and learn intensively about each country to which we will be traveling.
The journeys we take fundamentally reshape my perception of Jewish history and identity. I have found that each country’s unique Jewish history develops intertwined with the history of its particular country. In Greece, I discovered the influence of Hellenism on the Jews and then visited the Parthenon.
In Bulgaria, I met amazing peers who have taken on leadership roles in a Jewish community that is still reinventing itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Communism, Bulgaria banned religion, leading to intermarriage and the loss of Jewish identity and after its fall, Judaism came out of the woodwork, shook off the dust, and looked around. Today the Bulgarian Jewish community thrives. More teens participate in Sofian Jewish life than in all the communities of Greece combined. The community celebrates chagim, hosts weekly get-togethers, participates in Jewish youth organizations, and most members would not be considered halachically Jewish. This may be a problem for some, yet they take part in keeping Judaism alive in a place where there would otherwise be no Jewish presence.
Exposure to these environments has made me realize that there is no such thing as simple. By first accepting that there are infinite layers and discussions to be had, I gain the necessary tools to deal with a whole range of situations. In understanding that things will be messy, I prepare myself to better engage with new experiences and narratives. This, I am learning, is the first step towards resolution.
I am now aware of truths that urgently need to be spread. I know now that Jews and Muslims prospered side by side for thousands of years. I know now that at Al Ahfawaken University’s Memuna Club, there are students, just like me, working to enlighten others about this Jewish-Muslim history. I know now that each year, thousands of Muslim students visit the only Jewish Museum in the Arab world, located in Casablanca. I know now that several Jewish schools in Casablanca have a 25% Muslim student body. The past two weeks in Morocco defied my notions of what an Arab Muslim country would look like. Instead, I have found complexity, nuance, and layers. I’ve learned that when anyone tells me a simple answer, I need to look closer. When I hear that things won’t change and this is how they are, I must push farther. The surface is just the beginning. It’s time to scratch deeper.