Don | Masa Israel

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I spent months anticipating what life in Israel might be like and I never quite knew what to expect. Prior to joining my 5-month Israel Way program, I had never set foot here. But, I have friends who have been on birthright. Thanks to them, I have heard that Israel is, “like, the most beautiful country ever.”
Putting that statement to the test, Israel-Way Oranim has taken my volunteer group just about everywhere. We've seen each corner of Israel's borders, 1 pretty big mountain, a small river, an enormous desert and a number of breathtaking views. In doing so, we've been able to soak in a vast amount of Israel's civic and geological beauty. As it turns out, most of those birthright proclamations are true. But the real beauty of our program is that it affords us is the opportunity to immerse ourselves into our surroundings and glance, if only a bit deeper, into Israel. 
My life here is centered in the city of Ashdod, where I teach English in a local elementary school. In my school, I work with students in small groups of 1-4, from the ages of 7 to 12. In addition to that, I spend one day a week volunteering in a center for disabled children. But, sharing and learning are probably much better words to describe what I have been doing here. Looking back, the most meaningful moments, have been more about the kids I work with than anything else. In particular, a girl named Hila has left me with a memory I am not likely to soon forget. 
When I met her a few weeks ago, Hila only knew the first three letters of the alphabet. During our first lesson, I did not know how far she was behind her classmates, who are appropriately reading at a third grade level. Needless to say, it took me quite a bit of time to realize this, as Hila and I do not speak the same language. Since that ever-important moment of clarity, we have been making our way toward Z, two letters at a time.
We have also developed a way of communicating surprisingly complex thoughts to each other without sharing much more than 150 words in common. Smiles, facial expressions, tone, body language and an intense amount of charades has more than made up for the language barrier. We can change tasks, explain meanings and share laughs. Hila has been amazing to watch and work with. She gets immensely frustrated when she doesn't understand something or we go too fast, often to the point of giving up. But, when things go at the right pace, she works harder than any student I have had. She will l stare letters down for over half a minute and 15 tries before giving up. And, when she has the chance to learn, little else is on her mind, even when she would rather not be there.
A few days ago, she was pulled out of recess to come in for an extra lesson. Her conflict over playing and learning led to her to tears. But, she eventually came to class and tried as hard as ever. This past week, she made it all the way from A to M, perfectly. At the end, without any premeditated thought, we simultaneously broke into dance to celebrate. I can only hope that the look on my face let her know just how proud of her I am.
Of course, there is more to my life here than volunteering. I only work 4 days a week, and I use my remaining free time to become more acquainted with Ashdod and explore the rest of Israel. While in Ashdod, I have enjoyed a gorgeous beach; a clean, safe city; a short commute to Jerusalem; an even shorter commute to Tel Aviv and; a host family I would not trade for anything. So far, I have met people from 6 continents, taught students from 11 different countries and discovered countless different meanings to the words “Jewish” and “Israeli.”
What has struck me most about Israel is the untenable reality it faces in consolidating its several, often conflicting parts, into a coherent identity and purpose. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem during Pesach is hardly any different than walking through streets of Manhattan. And yet, despite all their diversity, political leanings and varying degrees of religiosity, it seems nearly every Jewish person in Israel is able to come together and, for however long, feel at home. For now, so do I.