The opportunity to live, study, and volunteer in the heart of Jaffa, for five months through Masa Israel’s Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa program, was an unforgettable and life-changing experience.
Since Jaffa is home to a diverse population of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, I was surrounded by a multicultural prism.
I lived within a five minute walk from the Jaffa flea market, clock tower, Jaffa port, and the old city, which housed trendy souvenir shops, artist vendors, and museums.
I also lived right behind a mosque and would hear the Adhan, or call to prayer, five times a day from a speakerphone.
Freedom of religion is completely in practice in Jaffa and people truly take advantage of it.
While walking down Yefet Street, I would see different women wearing anything from the hijab to the black burqa. The religious and cultural diversity was a visible part of my every day life.
I never believed that all these people could live together in peace, in one community, until I spent time in Jaffa.
Through one of my volunteer placements with the Jaffa Institute, a child welfare agency, I volunteered and taught English in a government run school for predominately Arab students living in Jaffa.
At Hassan Araffe, a school located in the neighborhood of Ajami, I taught English to fifth and sixth graders who also studied Hebrew and Arabic daily as well.
Jewish teachers worked to instill within Muslim and Christian students a sense of pride and encouragement in developing their English skills.
Seeing a young Jewish man wearing a yarmulke lean over to a young Muslim girl to help her with an English assignment presented the epitome of coexistence.
I tutored two young Arab girls who eagerly wanted to learn English, despite their fear and shyness.
Gradually we bonded through language, and eventually they warmed up to me.
While I was happy to help them with their English skills, I was even more thankful that I was becoming a part of their memories.
Also, while in Israel, I volunteered at Kadima-Yafo, an after-school program geared toward children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
With Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Ethiopian, Arab, Armenian, and Russian children in the program, the program was a true melting pot.Though these children had vastly different cultures and ethnicities, they all, unfortunately, came from broken, poverty-stricken households.
One day, I saw a young Ethiopian girl, Jewish girl, Christian girl, and Arab girl all playing hopscotch together. In that moment, they were not defined by their differences; they were just little girls having fun together.
I returned to my volunteering completely inspired.
My responsibilities included helping with math or English homework and spending quality time with them.
While the language barrier was difficult at times, I realized that it was possible to bond and connect with the kids even without speaking.
One young Ethiopian girl, who dreamed of becoming a doctor and loved swimming, found a special place in my heart.
I learned the ways people can come together outside of my volunteer placement.
I learned from the Abouelafia Bakery that nothing brings people together better than food. Standing in line at Abouelafia, I would see young Arab youth, American tourists, and Jewish residents all waiting for their delicious food.
Not only does the bakery serve up hot and fresh toast, but it also closes during Passover in respect to their Jewish neighbors who cannot eat bread products.
Even things as small as bus rides taught me lessons.
One particular morning stands out in my mind.
While taking the bus in Jaffa, an elderly Arab woman, wearing the traditional black abaya and white hijab, sat next to me. Then, at the next bus stop, a young IDF soldier carrying an M16 got on the bus and sat right across from her, his gun lying across his lap. I assumed that the two would feel uncomfortable to be sitting in such close proximity, but it was clear that there was this unspoken understanding of their social situations.
My firsthand encounters with daily examples of coexistence during my time in Tel Aviv-Jaffa were endless.
Walking along the boardwalk of the Mediterranean Sea, I saw both Muslim and Jewish families sitting along the grassy hills, eating BBQ, flying kites, and smoking hookah together.
They were just ordinary people trying to enjoy the day and live their lives in peace.
Racial tensions exist in all societies when you have a clear minority within a community.
However, I believe that, through dialogue and meaningful interaction, fear and animosity can be overcome.
My volunteer experience in Tel Aviv-Jaffa allowed me to see that there are so many amazing people fighting for change, and to know that social harmony is not only possible, but necessary to achieve progress.