By Lauren Zink, OTZMA, Pittsfield, MA
Today was the first day of my second volunteer job. This one will definitely consume more of my time but I also learned today the true meaning of “time is of the essence.” My second volunteer opportunity entails me traveling around Ashkelon and interviewing different organizations that are funded through the Ashkelon Foundation.
Today I sat in the passenger seat and went around town with one of the Program Directors of the Conservative Synagogue in Ashkelon. I am working for the Ashkelon Foundation through this Synagogue. It was nice being in the car for a while. Aside from taxis, (which I don’t really think give you that same feeling of being in a car) I haven’t been in one in over a month-and-a-half. This may not seem like that long but because a car is something I usually ride in more than once a day at home it feels like it has been forever.
My main goal after these two months is to have created a “Chanukah Newsletter” that will be sent out to Americans and Englanders who can donate their money or material goods to the organizations I write articles about. I interviewed one person from each organization. Three out of the four people I interviewed spoke little English so they answered in Hebrew and the Program Director of the Synagogue translated for me. I did catch onto a pretty good amount of what they were saying though which was really quite exciting!
Our first stop was at a local afternoon center. The main goal of this center is to help Ethiopian students in the area enrich their education. The center helps 85% Ethiopians, but they also help Russian children and a small percentage of other immigrants. The ages of these children range from 1st grade through 6th grade. The students get more personal attention and help with their homework and other material they may not understand in school.
The class sizes here are smaller than in their real school and sometimes they can get individual attention, which is a huge help. It is not that these children do not want to learn, but it is a lot harder for them because of the family that they come from. Many of their parents may speak little to no Hebrew and the culture of their home is that of the country they immigrated from (rather than Israeli) which can make a huge difference in how they can comprehend and understand their school material.
The goal of this afternoon center is to get the children to get 90% – 95% of their tests right, so you can only imagine how dedicated everyone is to this. There are also other programs within the afternoon center that the children can participate in such as tennis lessons or playing in a music conservatory. At some point during the next two months I will be going to watch the tennis lessons and observe the children playing so I can write a more detailed article about it.
Our second stop of the day was at a kindergarten for children with special needs. There are three classrooms here with about 5-8 children in each. They are split up by those who have Cerebral Palsy, those who are severely mentally challenged, and those who have brain damage, but are less severely mentally challenged. In each classroom there is one teacher and two teaching assistants. There are also specialists who come in and work in physio-therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, occupational therapy, etc.
Being there really made me appreciate having all of my senses and body parts in tact. Two of the children cannot even eat food through their mouth – they have a special purse that feeds them. These children do not have, and most likely will never have, the pleasure of eating food. And as I am eating my dinner right now while writing this blog I can say that I am truly treasuring every bite.
The third location we visited today was a scholarship center for students who would like to go to University but cannot afford to do so without financial help. I interviewed a councilor who goes beyond just helping these students by meeting with them a few times in his office. He has created a Facebook group, which he stays on all day so these students can chat with him whenever they have a problem, question, etc. He also has classes held in the center that are, on average, around seven months long.
These classes help prepare students for their version of our SAT’s so they can hopefully get into the University of their choice. He also opened up a special course just for Ethiopian students since their way of learning may be different than that of the average Israeli. At the end of this course the Ethiopian students can then go on to teach a new group of Ethiopians who will want to go to University.
If a student is interested in a subject to study in University but is not qualified, or does not think they will be accepted due to their lack of credentials, this councilor will help find programs for them that they can work in so they can gain experience and learn more about the field.
My final stop was, to me, the most rewarding of the day. And this doesn’t mean that this particular place does better or more Mitzvahs than the other organizations I visited. It just means that if you continue reading you will understand what I mean. It was at a family club in Ashqelon. On paper it may seem like a program center for children to go to after school.
But one step inside and I realized this was more than a place to come to after school, it was a place that many of, if not all, of these children call home. This is because all of these children come from family environments that are not ‘healthy’ to say the least. Due to privacy restrictions I can’t delve much further into what these family environments are like, but if you can imagine the worst then you are probably not imagining up too far-fetched of scenarios. For example, one girl has come almost every day to this place and has not spoken a word in a year.
When I first stepped into the room all the children were eating and they immediately stood up and waved. They then sat back down and continued to eat but kept looking at me with curiosity.
After interviewing the teacher and being shown around, all of the children sat and told me their names, their age, and anything else they wanted to share. After the introductions we were able to get more personal and they immediately took a liking to me. One girl came up to me and gave me a giant hug, and this was not a typical hug, it was a hard squeeze like she was just so thankful she had someone to hug. Another told me I was “yafeh!” (beautiful) – she really did, but I may or may not have been sure to add this part in to this entry heh heh heh.
They were so excited just to have a new person who wanted to be with them, and they also liked that I spoke English. They were absolutely enthralled with all the notes I had taken with these weird-looking English letters and symbols.
One of the biggest problems for these kids is that many of their parents don’t know Hebrew, so while they have to learn their native tongue and Hebrew, in this day and age it is also crucial they learn English. The teacher would love some extra help even if it is only a few hours once a week. Even more, these children would love to have consistent visitors. I know I am busy but the feelings I got being with them today was unlike anything I have ever experienced.
I realized that it is worth dedicating some time to these children, even if it is only for two hours once a week. I told Ariel and Vanessa all about it and they agreed, so hopefully we will have created for ourselves our own volunteer opportunity. Plus I can only imagine how passionate and real my words will come across when I write about this organization in the Chanukah newsletter.
When I had decided to go on OTZMA I did not do it to enhance my resume, I did it to carve out time in my life where I can help others. In part three of this program I will have a volunteer-internship at an organization doing public relations and marketing work. This to me was enough for helping to enhance my resume and give me international experience in my field.
So when the Synagogue told us of the newsletter that had to be written for the Ashkelon Foundation about a month ago I told myself that, although I knew it would be beneficial for me, I didn’t want to do it. This was because I wanted to volunteer my time in things that, due to time constraints, I may not get to do once I start working in the real world.
However, when I was told again of the opportunity I realized that of the 35 Otzmanikim I am more than likely the most qualified for this position given I studied public relations and marketing in college. I told myself that because I was the most qualified it was ok and at least I was working at the thrift store, which was something different. However, my opinion on all of this took a complete 360 today. I realized that I am using my talents to help ‘persuade’ people to donate their money or material goods to organizations who truly NEED these things.
I could not be more proud to be working for an organization that helps so many people do such a wide variety of things. Although this will end up consuming a lot of my time, it is something that I want to consume my time. In December when the money starts to reel its way in I want to say to myself that it was through my words that this child get a new book to read. Or that these children, who live in Israel, get to go to Jerusalem on a field trip – a place they have never been to (even though they’re only an hour-and-a-half away) because they cannot afford it. I am hoping to create my own Chanukah miracle.