Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : February 19, 2014
By Hannah Turner, Israel Service Fellows

The first weekend of February held our second Ma’ase Bemifgash conference—an incredible coming together of all of Mercaz Ma’ase’s volunteers, this time in Jerusalem. Together with
our 600+ Israeli peers, Ma’ase Olam spent two days discussing Israeli Society in small groups. The seminar began with an opening speech by new Ma’ase CEO Yossi Malka. His speech, first summarized for us in English, emphasized the importance of recognizing the economic disparities present in Israeli society. Despite our varied backgrounds and placements, what bonds all Ma’ase volunteers together is our commitment to empowering Israel’s periphery populations. I had the personal honor of reading short welcoming remarks in English, alongside Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking volunteers, and with that the conference began!
After reacquainting ourselves with the other members of our groups and, in the case of my group, meeting a few new members from Yachad Pre-Army volunteer program, we split into smaller groups to embark on our first activity: Israeli society in pictures. This activity required each of us to choose photos from a common set to represent what we saw as Israel’s “center” and “periphery”. My group—which included two Americans, one Ukrainian-Israeli, and two Druze girls—chose a wide variety of photos to represent center and periphery, both metaphorically and literally. We enjoyed discussing the importance of nature in Israeli society, the integration of different minority groups, and the role of religion—a fruitful start to the seminar!
Our second small group activity was about belonging, and was a great opportunity for us non-Israelis to hear from various Israelis about their connections to Israeli society as a whole. In my group, we did this activity as a “social barometer”. Participants were asked to move from one end of the room or the other depending on how strongly they agreed/disagreed with given statements, i.e. “I feel Israeli” and “I feel that Israel accepts me”. I particularly enjoyed hearing from representatives of different Israeli populations, such as Arab-Israelis and Jewish immigrants. This was an important opportunity for us to hear personal narratives of how our peers related to the dominant Israeli society, and what our American role in that relationship was. The Israelis in our group said they also really appreciated hearing from Americans about their own personal connections to Israel.
Our final programmed activity of the first day was viewing the film Dolphin Boy, a beautiful documentary about an Arab-Israeli boy who, following a severe personal trauma, is gradually healed through intensive dolphin therapy at the dolphin reef in Eilat. I won’t say too much more—I don’t want to spoil the film! We were able to speak with the director before watching the film, and he shared with us his personal journey of war and water, and the story of how he found himself making this particular film. Knowing the director’s story enhanced my own viewing of the documentary and, although we didn’t have much time to debrief together, gave my Ma’ase Olam peers and I plenty of food for thought.
The night wrapped up with three incredible activities: Guinean dancing, Capoeira, and drumming. Although we were all exhausted, these activities got our hearts beating and put smiles on all of our faces. We then settled into bed for some well-deserved rest in preparation for day two, with the exception of a few football fans who woke up at 1:30 AM to watch the Super Bowl.
The second day got off to an early start with some group bonding games. Our group had several more new members from Achva, Neurim, and Mechinat Gal. It was great to have so many diverse new voices in our group, and the day’s discussions definitely benefited from them. The Americans put our Ulpan Hebrew to the test as we did a carousel-style introduction game to get to know our new group members. We then discussed the role of language in our lives, using the social barometer format again before getting into more fleshed-out conversations. Living in Akko, I rarely [if ever] get to interact with Ethiopian Jews, so getting to hear from our new group members about the dual roles of Amharic and Hebrew in their lives was especially meaningful. Our Druze peers also shared how they feel as Arabic speakers in a Hebrew-language country.
The second major activity of the day was that each sub-group split off and created skits representing their life in Israeli society. Our American/Ma’ase Olam group presented our experiences by reenacting things that people say to us regularly, i.e. “So when you are making aaliyah?”, “You’re Jewish but you don’t speak Hebrew?”, “Come, let me feed you”, etc. etc. . The Mechinat Gal/Yachad group (both pre-army programs) made themselves into an assembly line showing the necessary steps of growing up in Israeli society: school army, have kids (I think I’m forgetting a few, but it was a pretty short assembly line). The Druze girls from Neurim acted out how they get blind stares speaking to Jews in Arabic, and blind stares speaking to Arabs in Hebrew. And the Ethiopian girls from Yachad acted out getting passed over for a job because they were Ethiopian, even though they had better qualifications than the other candidate. I loved this activity because, without much language (…aka language barrier) it gave us a chance to see how each group saw themselves within Israeli society, which in itself was the purpose of the seminar.
Our last activity relied asked us to create our ideal Israeli society (in about 40 minutes, nbd…). Although each group  went about this a bit differently, we were all given the task of figuring out what our ideal Israel would look like: name, religion, language, education system, army, culture, etc. While this conversation could have easily taken a day by itself, we used the time allotted to start working through some of the toughest questions that Israel faces. My group—including four Americans, one Druze girl, and two Ethiopian Jews—spent most of the time discussing whether or not Israel should be a Jewish state or not. Although it didn’t leave us much time to discuss the other issues, this conversation proved to be the most personally challenging and rewarding of the entire seminar, and only whetted my appetite for more!
I think that for most Ma’ase Olam fellows this second seminar was both a challenging and stimulating experience. We were presented with unique and invaluable opportunities to talk with our Israeli peers from all walks of life about the way they see Israel, and how it does and does not match up with what we’ve observed over the past five months. We are so grateful to Mercaz Ma’ase for the gift of these seminars, and are anxiously awaiting the challenges and rewards of the third and final Ma’ase Bemifgash!

Hannah Turner of Chicago, IL, is spending ten months volunteering in Akko through Masa Israel's Israel Service Fellows program. Ma'ase Olam, the provider of Israel Service Fellows, holds a series of weekend retreats called Ma'ase Bemifgash, introducing their program participants to encounter Israelis from all of the country's populations. 
Published : February 12, 2014
By Camille Morliere, Israel Government Fellows
A little more than a year ago, I chose a Masa program that would give me the possibility to do an internship relevant for my medical residency in public health, and which contained an educational component that would allow me to finally learn about Israel. Let me explain: I started the Israel Government Fellows program in a state of complete ignorance. I had no knowledge about Zionism, had never heard of the debate over Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state, didn’t know what the Knesset was and my knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came mostly from the French media and from what I had heard in the Jewish community of Bordeaux, which I was a part of for six months. I knew that my knowledge was distorted and probably wrong, but had no other narrative to counter it. I also didn’t have the time or energy to read about it.
On the program I expected to learn historical facts and general knowledge about political issues concerning Israel, the geopolitics of the region, the conflict and a bit of Jewish culture. My hope was that it would enable me to present a solid case whenever I would be faced again with the same arguments I hear whenever I mention Israel to people around me: the creation of a state based on religion is fundamentally wrong and should not have been allowed, the Israelis have created a vicious cycle of violence for which they are responsible, Israel unlawfully attacks and destroys an underdeveloped Palestinian territory, whose striving inhabitants are incapable of defending themselves.
What I got went far beyond my expectations. Not that I didn’t expect to stumble into some of the complexities of the issues, quite the opposite, but the learning didn’t happen exactly how I thought it would. Instead of being a good didactic student, memorizing facts and ideas and putting them together nicely like I was always taught to do, I was hit by the wave of the different narratives that our speakers offered us. Very powerful, emotional narratives that simply knock your socks off and make you reconsider everything all over again. 
On the program we've heard from university professors, journalists, members of Knesset, directors of think tanks, NGOs and community activists. They've been secular, religious, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. They share their unique perspective, which you mostly agree with, or at least empathize with. Except that all the narratives contradict each other. It seems that the usual methodological way I organize my thoughts is not applicable in the Holy Land.  
At first you can be tempted to resist, choosing not to believe the numbers that you are being given, or some of the stories that you hear. But after a few weeks it becomes impossible to take refuge in that tactic. What you are left with is the narrative of the speaker and yourself. And you have no choice but to dive into that area of grey that you already know you are never going to get out of. Which is so exciting, but also so scary. Israel is the place for me to go beyond my fear of this grey area and to accept the challenge of thinking differently and opening my mind. It is something I feel I was prevented from doing in my native country most of my life. That is why despite all the apparent comfort and the future that I could have in France, I left it behind without any regret. Here I can finally stop expending energy on hiding what I think (or that I am thinking), so that I will not cross my superiors, and start setting my mind free.
Here I am slowly letting go of all that mental conditioning and of my wish to live in the reassuring “good guy-bad guy” world that my society sold me. I try to understand what people are so scared of that they need to blind themselves and become so hypocritical but I am not sure yet. All I can say is that they have become terrified of confrontation to the point that they would rather lose their dignity than speak their mind. It is sad and I used to see it every day before I came here. In a society working under those conditions, I think there is little potential for debate or change.
Often Israelis apologize about the balagan, how loud they are and how much they complain. I tell them I like it: I like that they are not focused on managing everyone’s ego all the time, I like that they are loud and yell at each other and are not afraid of taking a stance, instead of staying silent and holding a grudge. Messy is healthy.
Israel is helping me to grow and become a better person. It has so much to offer me, and other Jews from Diaspora. I also believe we have a lot to contribute to Israel. I can’t wait to explore that side of things when my program ends…

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