Posted by Michal Meyers, alumna of Masa Israel’s Midreshet Harova
We learned from the wee hours of the morning until late at night, but Torah study is incomplete without chessed, or acts of kindness. This was a lesson I learned while a student at Midreshet Harova, a Masa Israel-accredited seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Coming from LA, there was no shortage of interesting experiences happening right in my backyard—like that night when I was walking through the corridor-like streets and saw a guy carrying a live sheep on his shoulders because, as he said, “I have the strength, so why not?”
Still, I chose to fill my Tuesday afternoon elective slot by leaving the Jewish Quarter behind to get my dose of chessed. My first volunteer spot was Lifta, which got its name, my friends and I joked, because we had to “lifta lot of rocks.” The six of us took a bus to the entrance of Jerusalem and then stumbled down a dirt road to reach our site: a neglected building that we were renovating to turn into a drug rehabilitation center for teens. We painted doors, removed stones and debris, and generally tried to make it look more presentable. It wasn’t quite as vigorous as digging out the Kotel tunnels, but we definitely earned the falafel dinner that awaited us back at seminary.
Later in the year, I volunteered at the soup kitchen, Chazon Yeshaya on Rashi Street, near the Machaneh Yehuda shuk (outdoor market). From my first day of volunteering until the day I sadly told them I wouldn’t be back the next week, I felt like they were doing chessed for me instead of vice versa. Tamir, the head of the kitchen, referred to me as tzadika, saint, and the other senior volunteers always asked me about school, how things were going, and when I was planning on making aliyah. Mostly, I followed the directions they fired off in rapid Hebrew to hand out trays to the people who came for lunch, pack food for them to take home, and clean up the lunch room afterwards.
It was so fulfilling to take part in such beautiful service that I was unsure if I was really doing it for them or for myself. Tuesdays soon became my favorite day of the week, and of course it didn’t hurt that afterward I often moseyed over to the shuk to pick up dried dates and other delectable treats.
Now, back in the US, there’s a lot about Israel that I long for, but one of the main things I miss is that sincere concern that each Israeli I met had for me and every Jew. While volunteering, I not only learned the importance of tikkun olam, doing our part to fix the world, but I also grasped the importance of being united with the community and truly caring for the well-being of one another.
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November 16, 2011 | 3:32 pm
Posted by Ashley Berns, alumna of Masa Israel's Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience
“Ashley, if you weren’t here with me today I would have spent the day in the shower, crying.” These words, uttered through tears of relief, have remained with me during the last two years.
Four weeks after graduating from the University of Southern California, I was on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv, unaware of the impact the next five months would have on my life. While living in the heart of Tel Aviv as a participant in Masa Israel’s Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience, I spent my days volunteering with the Israeli charitable organization Save A Child’s Heart (SACH). SACH brings children, at no cost to the children’s family, from developing countries to Israel for life-saving heart surgery. Once they are brought to Israel—sometimes with a relative, other times alone—they live in the SACH house before and after surgery. This house is no ordinary house. It is filled with children and relatives of diverse cultures who speak various languages. During my first visit to the house, I watched as women who spoke all different languages stood side by side, cooking their children’s favorite meals. For the children, language was not a barrier. A little boy from Angola, who spoke Portuguese, played the board game ‘concentration’ with a boy his own age from Kenya, who spoke English. They talked to each other in their native tongue, without concern for the fact that the other one did not understand him.
In addition to helping out at the SACH house, I also visited Wolfson Medical Center to entertain the children who were both preparing for surgery and recovering. At the Wolfson Medical Center, doctors volunteer their time to save children who would not have a chance at living a full life without their help. But even more amazing is the fact that 49% of the children come from the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Iraq.
My life changed the day I met 11-year-old Ian and 8-month-old Brian, both from Kenya. Ian’s mother was pregnant and unable to travel so his Aunt Rose accompanied him to Israel. From the moment I entered this house, Ian and I instantly connected. We both missed our families and began sharing stories of our homes. In the weeks leading up to his surgery, Ian and I played games, ran around the playground and colored. He even taught me how to whistle. I spent days in the waiting room as he had two surgeries to correct his heart defect. I walked the colorful hallways of the hospital with him as he gained his strength back. And I was with him when he was given the news that he was healthy and strong enough to return home to Kenya. But I dreaded the day we would have to say goodbye. What do you say to someone who has come to mean so much to you, and who you may never see again? As my final visit came to an end, just days before his departure, I told him to take care of himself and that I was going to miss him. We hugged and I walked away, tears streaming down my face.
Another adorable little boy I got to know was Brian. Full of life, he was always smiling and laughing. I quickly became close with Brian’s mother, Meredith, who like me, was 22 years old. Meredith is a courageous woman who felt guilty that her son was born with a heart deformity. I spent 8 hours with her in the hospital the day of Brian’s surgery. We paced the waiting room, took short naps on each other’s shoulders and prayed for the best. We talked about the wonderful things that Brian would be able to do as a healthy little boy. Minutes after the surgery, we held each other as we visited Brian in the neonatal ICU. Practically speechless, Meredith thanked me the only way she could—by telling me that she would have spent the day crying in the shower had I not been there.
Over the next weeks, I was with Brian and Meredith through the ups and the downs as Brian’s body adjusted to the improvement. Meredith showed me an inner strength that I have never seen before. It was an unlikely friendship that taught me that one can get through any obstacle as long as there is someone by your side. To this day, Meredith and I still correspond by email.
Even though two years have passed since my time at Save A Child’s Heart, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Ian, Brian and Meredith. I imagine how much they have grown and matured. I wonder what their futures hold; maybe one day they will become doctors who save the lives of others.
I am currently in my second year of rabbinical school at The Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The lessons I learned at the SACH house and my experiences in Tel Aviv prior to rabbinical school will undoubtedly have a positive impact on my rabbinate and the way in which I interact with others. My time at SACH taught me the power of one person—I have the ability to change the lives of others, just as my life has been changed by my interaction with these incredible children.
When I first walked into the SACH house, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After my first visit, I realized that the SACH house was exactly where I was supposed to be. I went to Save A Child’s Heart with the intention of having an impact on others and in the end they impacted me.
November 9, 2011 | 11:32 am
Posted Daniel Dokhanian, alumnus of the Masa Israel-accredited Tel Aviv University
“Do not go where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Jewish day school. Jewish high school. Jewish summer camp. Jewish family. Jewish friends. Jewish student groups in college. Jewish Studies 10. Jewish fraternity. It may go without saying that my upbringing could be called, well… biased. That bias had unfortunately fostered arrogance, an arrogance that would be humbled and, truthfully, shattered during my semester abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Tel Aviv University. While at the time, I was no novice to the Arab-Israeli conflict, having visited the region on three separate occasions, there is one experience that has and will always stand out to me as one of the most memorable, life-changing experiences I have ever had.
Wait… is that a (gasp) Keffiyah???
That’s right. This is a picture of me (grey coat) in the city of Bethlehem with my friend Alex (white sweater). Between us, you are looking at one of our good friends, Fadi, a Palestinian living in the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, Palestine… whatever you call it, who invited us to stay over his house in a Palestinian refugee camp. That night was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. A small anecdote might help explain:
“Fernbach?” asked Fadi, looking at my friend Alex’s passport. “Isn’t that a Jewish name?” My heart dropped as I looked around the open-roofed (or should I say, no-roofed) house with cracked walls showcasing paintings with foreign Arabic script.
“Yes,” answered Alex quite confidently—in sharp contrast to the way I felt.
“You are Jewish?” Fadi asked with his thick accent and broken, hesitant English. My heart began to pound faster. The outdoor air must have grown colder, I thought, shaking.
“Yes,” he said again. A look of bewilderment – not hostility – crossed Fadi’s face. “Is that a problem?” Alex asked.
“Of course not. I guess I am just a bit surprised,” said Fadi, as though hurt that he’d been left out.
Manning up, I cut through the tension: “You have to understand—we did not feel safe telling you at first, but we came here to put ourselves out of our comfort zone and to see a different point of view,” I heard myself saying.
“Yes, I understand,” said Fadi.
My uneasiness suddenly began to evaporate. I continued, “Perhaps after tonight, you can tell your friends here that you had two Jews stay over your house, and that you’re now friends with them.”
“Absolutely,” Fadi said. He seemed to be having an epiphany. “You know, I hope you will tell the same to your friends.” He smiled.
“No doubt that we will.”
Israel, to me, is not just Birthright, the Dead Sea, the clubbing and beaching in Tel Aviv, nor the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Israel, to me, signifies tolerance. This anecdote breathes life into my convictions: progress can be achieved through understanding and tolerance. In this picture you find two Jews together with a Palestinian Muslim standing next to the Church of Nativity (where Jesus is said to have been born). What this picture means to me, is what Israel means to me: it is the heart of the movement toward religious, cultural, and ethnic tolerance in the Middle East.
Ever since my return from the Holy Land, I have had a deep yearning to spread these beliefs to my surrounding Jewish friends and family in an attempt to help them recognize that stubbornness holds you back, hostility begets division, and hatred can only breed more hatred. It is through the acceptance and understanding of others’ differences that we see progress.
November 1, 2011 | 10:48 am
Posted Leeor Brahms, alumna of the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University of Jerusalem's International School
Eight months is a very long time to be away from home, and it seems even longer when you’re in country like Israel. Most of what I remember are mere flashes of images or sounds shuffled together like the Mizrachit music on my ipod. Like many students studying abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I came to Israel for a break from my normal routine.
I spent much of my time on the back of my Israeli boyfriend’s motorcycle. It was my first time riding one, and I wrapped my arms tightly around his stomach as he drove me down the arteries of Jerusalem. No one knew me. Often I worried about feeling accepted and how I sounded in Hebrew, but when I was on that bike I stopped caring. It was the only time when I could see the world without anyone seeing me back. I spent a lot of time on the back of that bike, and to put it simply, I fell in love in Jerusalem.
When I met him the summer before, he told me that he was a commander in the Israeli air force. He didn’t have to say more. I was taken almost immediately by his natural charm, good looks, and cute accent—or maybe I was just allured by his foreignness. Regardless, he was new and exciting, and for a girl traveling from the outskirts of Hollywood, he was the perfect start to my Israel experience.
I lived with four Israelis in a small apartment near Hebrew University’s campus. One of them, Matan, and I became very close. We talked about many things, and when I started to get homesick, he was there to make me feel better. Living in Israel wasn’t as easy for me as I originally thought. Fears of growing up and not being good enough started to surface. When I complained, Matan simply looked at me and said, “Yihiye beseder. It will be okay. I’m 25, I’m only in my first year of school, and I still don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t have the luxury to go to university after high school.” He was right. I was worrying about things that hadn’t even happened yet. I had friends in Israel my age still serving in the army. While I had the freedom to go out on the weekends, they were stuck on a base smoking cigarettes in a pair of army boots.
On the Mount Scopus campus at Hebrew University there’s an amazing view of East Jerusalem. One time I was standing with a girlfriend and a security guard while heavy protesting picked up at the bottom of the valley. We could hear the firecrackers and even the faint echo of shoes hitting the pavement. The guard lit a cigarette and told us stories, detailing his time in the army, and how things like this happen every year. He told us how he’s used to it, and how he can’t sympathize with people who would kill in the name of God. I couldn’t relate to him because I only knew Israel from TV. Even within Israel’s borders, I felt like a spectator and as I watched, I started crying as tear gas blew in our direction. To the left of us were two Palestinians sitting on a bench watching the same scene. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if they hated me.
The last month of my trip is still vivid in my mind. “Don’t take the buses,” my boyfriend called to tell me. I was on the other side of the city and I needed to get back home. “Don’t leave.” The sun was dipping into the horizon, and hesitantly I set off for the bus station. I took two different buses to avoid the city center. I sat in the back so I could keep tabs on the people entering and exiting. There was word going around of a possible attack in Jerusalem. I told myself nothing would happen. Yet, for some reason images of crying babies trickled into the forefront of my mind. I knew I was imagining things. But I also knew that I wasn’t. A few days earlier a bomb blew up a bus in Eilat. There were shootings in Ramallah. Perhaps today there would be an explosion in Jerusalem.
On my last day in Israel, I went to a free concert on the beach. I sat with some girlfriends drinking frozen mojitos while singing along to the band’s rendition of Beatles’ songs. For me, that single night alone epitomized everything I had experienced during those past eight months. I thought to myself, “This is life in Israel.” It’s a life where uncertainty hangs in the balance, and where futures are shelved for a more convenient date. It’s a life where you enjoy the moments riding on a motorcycle. It’s a life where what you and I agree to be normal is very much skewed.
I chose to come to Israel because I wanted to leave a routine that I thought was, for lack of a better word, boring. I didn’t think that when I returned I would bring with me a more realistic view of life and an appreciation for people in other parts of the world. What began as an innocent exploration turned into a conflicted yet loving relationship with Israel.