Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : April 20, 2012
 
I came here with Taglit-Birthright, which is a free 10-day program for Jewish youth to come to Israel and tour around the country.
 
I've now been living in Tel Aviv for 6 months, doing a program call Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which means "repair the world" in Hebrew. I am living in a house with 7 other people: 4 Americans (2 New York, 1 Missouri (me), 1 Alabama), 1 Hungarian, 1 Israeli, 1 Brit, and 1 Danish guy whom I happily room with. 
 
The program that I am doing consists of a combination of volunteering and learning about Judaism, Israel and its people. I spend 3 days a week volunteering at 5 different places, ranging from a daycare for babies of immigrant workers to a tandem bicycling program with disabled kids. I haven't officially started every program, but the ones I've done so far have been really challenging and fun.
 
The other two days are study days. There we spend the morning in classes learning to speak Hebrew, the official language of Israel. My Hebrew now is actually pretty good considering I've been here for such a short time. The toughest part of Hebrew is that the alphabet is completely new, so I don't have an easy way to conceptualize the words and commit them to memory. Spanish, my second language, at least uses the same set of letters so I can relate to it… no luck with Hebrew. It has been fun though.  I remember vividly after our first lesson walking outside and realizing that what had been registering as pretty decorations were actually words!!
 
After our Hebrew lessons we have two 1.5 hour classes each about Israeli culture, politics, and people. These are TREMENDOUSLY interesting. I realize now that I do not have much idea about Middle Eastern or Jewish culture or history. After each lesson I've honestly felt like I'd just gone through a "Matrix-like" download of information. On the whole the education that we are getting, and the organization that our program is inside, is pretty left. I had the feeling and it has been confirmed by the Israelis who are in the program with us, almost all of whom have recently finished their military service. They tend to get a little defensive when hearing criticisms of Israel, which is something I can definitely relate to as an American living abroad. In the end it seems that they are focusing on the humanitarian side of everything which I'd like to believe is where politics ends, so I'm cool with it.
 
Finally, as part of the program we do trips each month around Israel. Last week we went to different Bedouin villages in the south in the Negev Desert. Though Bedouins have been a nomadic people for thousands of years (literally camels in tents) they are now having to cope with a modernizing country. Their seemingly antiquated ways combined with being Arab in a Jewish state has made their lives extremely difficult. I think these trips will be a big time highlight.
 
Other than all the programming, Tel Aviv is a big city where everything is pretty close together… and it's located on a beach. Now that I have a bike it has opened up to me and I have been enjoying living here so much.
 
Published : April 19, 2012
 
By Danielle Longo, participant in Masa Israel's Israel Teaching Fellows
 
Growing up as a Conservative Jew in Bloomfield Hills, I knew the basics of the religion and of Israel. I went to Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills. I celebrated holidays, went to shul and believed in God. That is, until I was 17 and my dad passed away. At that point, I pushed aside my religion.
 
Ten years later, I found myself with a master’s degree and no job, wondering what I was doing with my life. An email came from my sister about a 10-month program in Israel where I could explore the country and also gain teaching experience, something great for my resume.
 
I decided I had abandoned my roots for long enough. I packed my bags, said goodbye to my  friends and family, and left in August 2011 to participate in the Masa Israel’s Israel Teaching Fellows program.
 
Since then, I have been fortunate to experience Israel: the culture, the people, the life. It has been an amazing experience. Last weekend, I attended a Shabbaton in Arad that included repelling in the desert as well as meaningful discussions about what it means to be Jewish and about connections we share in Israel and in the Diaspora.
 
Changing Stereotypes
 
What I will remember most was a one on-one exchange. An Israeli girl came up to me and said she really liked my ring. I hadn’t spoken much to her during the trip, yet I took the ring off my finger and gave it to her. She was shocked. She said she couldn’t take it. I told her it wasn’t that expensive, and I wanted her to have it.
 
“I really can’t take this,” she said. “I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype about us … the one where it is said all Israelis do is take, take, take.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Actually, my experience here has been quite the opposite. To me, what Israelis do is “give, give, give”… and give some more.
 
Before my journey, I was warned about the aggressiveness of Israelis, their lack of patience and their rudeness. I was told this is the culture and, while they can seem “nasty,” just to go with it and enjoy myself.
 
One of my first experiences in Israel was on the bus. An elderly lady had trouble getting on and fell. Immediately, people rushed to help her: a Haredi Jew, an Arab and a person wearing everyday clothes. I discarded everything I had been told. I experienced nothing but generosity: invitations to dinner, rides home, people making sure I had a place to go on Shabbat.
 
Changing Lives
 
Thanks to Israel Teaching Fellows, I can say with 100 percent certainty that I have changed at least two lives here. The first was a fourth-grade boy. He was in one of my nonreader groups. I  as told he didn’t know English, not even the alphabet. He was silent during the lesson. I asked him in my broken Hebrew how I could help him and why he wasn’t trying. He looked at me very seriously and said, “I’m bored in class.” In perfect English. When I informed the teacher, his curriculum changed and his life did as well.
 
The second life belonged to an Ethiopian girl facing abusive behavior. Her teacher came to me for advice, as I am a licensed counselor in the U.S. After speaking with the girl (through the teacher), I came to a hard conclusion neither the student nor the teacher wanted. I told the authorities about the situation. I was not aware of laws or rules in Israel, but I knew this little girl was in trouble. And even if she harbors negative feelings about me for saying something, I know I helped change her life — if only to try and teach her that she is important, and she matters.
 
Changing Me
This Israel experience has been one of the most challenging times of my life. It has brought much sadness, feelings of hopelessness and frustration. There were times I wanted to leave, to go back to Michigan, to see my family and live the life I knew. But I was brought here for a reason.
 
Looking back at these last few months, I know I have made a difference. My relationship with Israel is similar to that of a sibling: There are defi nitely times we don’t see eye-to-eye, and days we wish the other would just disappear. But it is with unconditional love that we realize we are each providing the other with something invaluable.
 
What comes next? It’s hard to say. I may return home to Detroit, or I may stay here and see how Israel and I can further our bond and help each other grow just a little bit more.
 
Danielle Longo, 27, lives in Rishon LeZion, just south of Tel Aviv, where she is an Israel Teaching Fellow through Masa Israel Journey, teaching English to Israeli students.
 
This article was originally published in the Detroit Jewish News on April 19, 2012.

 

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