As I was nearing the end of my Masters in Social Work at New York University, I decided that I wanted to come live and work in Israel. Having grown up in a Jewish home in Owings Mills, Maryland and fallen in love with Israel on a Birthright trip two years earlier, I wanted to experience another side of Israel and grow and develop my skills as a social worker in another country.
I enrolled in Masa Israel Journey's Yahel Social Change, a five-month service-learning program that enables individuals to live in the community where they volunteer with the goal of helping to strengthen the community from within. Two and a half months into the program, my new residence in Gadera, a fast-growing city 40 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv with a large immigrant population, feels like home. Neighbors greet me by name as I walk along the street, and I feel at ease in the neighborhood where I live.
My comfort in Gadera was not instantaneous. In a community where most people speak Hebrew, my neighbors first viewed me as a strange outsider. The children and families living in the Shapira neighborhood, a single street of twenty-four-story cement apartment buildings, did not know who we were or understand why we were in Gadera. My group was known literally as “the Americans.” It was challenging to stay patient and build trust. But gradually things changed. People realized that we not only made promises, but that we followed through.
Two mornings a week, I went to the local elementary school to tutor students in English and in the afternoons, I worked alongside Ethiopian-Israeli volunteers from Chaverim B'Teva, a local not-for-profit organization that seeks to empower the Ethiopian community in Israel. As a part of one of Chaverim B’Teva’s programs, I tutored two different pairs of Ethiopian-Israeli teenagers in their homes twice a week. The purpose of the program is to spend an hour and a half tutoring and then spend the last half hour with the family. Lacking Hebrew fluency, I first worried about how we would communicate. But through the openness of the family and our shared willingness to use whatever Hebrew, English and Amharic we could to connect, our relationship had grown exponentially.
With our grassroots efforts, we cannot have expected to fully see the impact of our work during our stay, but we can plant seeds and help to create new and innovative sustainable projects. Having worked in a Jewish camp in the U.S. for the past three summers, I have seen firsthand the positive impact that Israeli counselors have on campers. As a result, I have teamed up with Chaverim B’Teva to launch a program to help prepare Ethiopian-Israeli young adults to take the Suchnoot exam, which makes them eligible for these positions. The test requires that young adults be able to express their passionate views about Israel in English and plan programs for American kids in English. We are currently in the process of creating the training.
Though I attended a Jewish elementary school, I knew little about the rich culture and traditions of the Ethiopian Jews before living in Gadera. I believe it is important that American Jewish youth gain exposure to Jewish diversity in order to explore similarities and differences within widespread Jewish communities.
Living among people whose descendents are from all over the world, I have never found it easier to live a Jewish life. I have spent Shabbat relaxing, exploring the country, and visiting numerous different synagogues and kabbalat Shabbat services. My Hebrew is getting stronger everyday.
In the future, I hope to receive my clinical license, lead individual and group therapy with adolescents and their families, and create and implement after-school programming for at-risk adolescents in the Maryland area. Yahel Social Change is giving me very valuable experience in the social work field not only in meeting a community’s needs of today but also in helping them cultivate dreams and give them the resources to plan for their future. It's been wonderful to realize that the more I immerse myself in Israel, the more invested I feel in my work and the more confident I feel about my contribution.