Rachel Zieleniec

Yahel Social Change Program
After graduating from Ohio University, I knew I wanted to spend a year volunteering in Israel. While in college, I started Bobcats for Israel, the pro-Israel group on campus, and volunteered at Ethiopian absorption centers during an alternative spring break trip to Israel. This sparked my passion for the Ethiopian community and compelled me to enroll in Masa Israel’s Yahel Social Change, a five-month service program among the Ethiopian community in Gedera.
Though that was my fifth time in Israel, I saw a side of Israel that is completely new to me. Every week, I took part in Homework at Home, a home-based tutoring project meant to empower families to create positive learning environments for their children.
On my first day of tutoring, I entered one of my student’s homes to find it covered in trash. It was impossible to differentiate between the furniture and the floor, and there was no place to work. At my other student’s home, the situation was only slightly better—amid the blaring TV and screaming babies, at least we could find a surface to work on.
Things did not immediately improve, but I consistently showed up with pencils and paper so that we could get to work. Now, three months later, my student’s mother turns on the light when it’s tutoring time. She lowers the volume on the television and tells the babies to quiet down. A few weeks ago, the whole family joined the tutoring session, and watched their child answer question after question correctly in English. I will never forget the mother’s smile when I wrote 100 on her child’s paper.
These kids have a ton of potential, but need a safe space to grow. In weekly hangouts at the community trailer, we set up food and games, and gave them a place to blow off steam. With Chaverim b’Teva, a nonprofit that seeks to empower the Ethiopian Israeli community, we tried to empower the kids and their families to feel pride in their background.
Aside from feeling lucky that I was able to see small improvements in the children and families around me, I also felt fortunate that I was able to immerse myself in such a rich culture. Seeing another community express their Judaism in a way that is different from my own has made my Judaism so much broader. Historically, Ethiopian Jews do not celebrate Chanukah because they did not have access to the holiday’s roots, but on the last night of Chanukah, we led a celebratory camping trip for them.
In the middle of the forest, a counselor, who had set up a DJ booth, announced that it was time to light candles. Instead of saying the prayers in the quiet way that I am accustomed to, the counselor turned on a techno/reggae version of the blessings and the kids started singing them from the top of their lungs. I had never experienced such a display of Jewish pride, and it was amazing to see them not only celebrate a holiday that their ancestors never even knew about, but to see them make it their own.
In just a few months, it’s been incredible to become immersed in this community—to experience its frustrations and celebrate its successes. For a person coming right out of college, I cannot imagine a more inspiring opportunity.