Talking Israel with Israelis

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. 
 

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