It was my first day of volunteering with Masa Israel's Tikkun Olam Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a 5-month volunteer program, and I was spending my morning at an all-boys' religious school called Ironi Het in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Yad Eliyahu. I had just finished introducing myself when the questions started to pour in.
“Do you like the Boston Celtics?” (Of course.)
“Is it cold in Boston?” (Yes, very cold and very snowy.)
“Have you been to Israel before?” (Yes, I was here this summer on Taglit-Birthright.)
“Do you like Israel?” (Very much so. That’s why I decided to come back to volunteer.)
“Are you going to make Aliyah?” (Uh.. that’s a more serious conversation for another time..)
“Do you live above the convenience store?”
This last question made me laugh out loud. One of the apartments that houses volunteers happens to be above a convenience store. Apparently, it has become known as the “American apartment” in Kiryat Shalom, an otherwise small, mostly Orthodox, neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv. Many of the students I work with at Ironi Het live in Kiryat Shalom as well.
Although I volunteer at three other places, my experience at Ironi Het has been the most interesting thus far. The best way I can describe the school is with the Hebrew word, “balagan,” meaning, chaotic. It is noisy, with kids running around everywhere, and no one listening to anyone else. While the teachers do not seem fazed by any of this, it seems impossible to get anything done. Luckily, as an English tutor, I usually take a few students to a quieter room, where we can work without distractions.
Because I'm not religious, I had to acclimate to the school's religious environment. Having only worn a kippah twice in my life—once at my friend's bar mitzvah way back when and again when I visited the Western Wall over the summer—I initially felt uncomfortable wearing one every day. But here I am now, with a nice little kippah I bought at the market for a mere ten shekels. Some of the boys have asked me if I’ve been to synagogue since I came to Israel. I haven’t. I wonder if they would have asked me this if I did not have to wear the kippah.
One of my broad goals for the year is to “make a difference,” which is a goal I share with the other volunteers. But, we have learned that the impact of our work probably will not be readily apparent to us. Though we all like to see results, this knowledge has helped us keep things in perspective. Then again, one of the students who previously showed no interest in English recently asked to work with me. I was glad to hear this and look forward to helping him improve his English over the next few months, while he helps me improve my Hebrew.
Josh Dickinson grew up in Natick, MA, received his undergraduate degree from Boston University and his law degree from Northeastern University School of Law.