It was October of 2015, and Jerusalem was pulsating with a dangerous tension. There were near daily stabbing attacks of Hasidic Jews and members of the I.D.F. Members of the far right held numerous rallies in my neighborhood. The Pride Parade had been scheduled to go through Jerusalem and the far right was constantly badgering, demeaning, and dehumanizing the LGBTQ community. To say that Jerusalem was divided, dangerous, and confusing would be an understatement.
I landed at Ben Gurion airport on September 28th, 2015. I stepped off the plane, cleared customs, somehow finagled a sim card, and ended up in a Sheirut (a shared discount taxi that runs between major Israeli cities) on the way to Jerusalem, my new home for the next eight months. At this point I was living a dream. At 21, I had moved to a foreign country, and was blissfully ignorant., and I was happy with this ignorance. I fell asleep excited by the thoughts of a party fueled eight months in my future. I dreamed of dancing in the Old City, having late night falafel, and falling in love with an Israeli woman. These fantasies were all short lived. (Minus the late night falafel, I ate enough falafel after the hours of 10:00 P.M. to feed an entire basketball team)
The program that I participated in, Achvat Amim, consisted of myself and eight other people ranging in age from 21 to 30. We all lived in an amazing apartment right in the heart of Jerusalem. It was an old Hashomer Hatzair travel house, so it had plenty of rooms, kitchen space, bathrooms, and of course years of misanthropic socialist adolescents. It was not luxurious by any means, but it felt like home. Achvat Amim brought together a diverse group of people at a critical juncture in their lives. Something was always being cooked in the kitchen, my roommate Sophie would sing to us in Dutch, and Ben and Ian would be arguing about 19th century Supreme Court Justices.
The numerous internships that I worked at while on Achvat Amim fundamentally changed who I was. Each emphasized grassroots activism and self determination for all. I worked at Rabbi’s for Human Rights, did some work with Breaking the Silence, and I taught fourth graders Yad B’ Yad (the Hand in Hand School). The work that I found most meaningful was with Yad B’ Yad.
Yad B’ Yad is a bi-lingual school (Arabic and Hebrew is used and taught in the classroom). More importantly, the schools are fully integrated. There is just about an even mix of both Israeli and Palestinian students. The school starts in kindergarten and continues through high school. The younger grades have a two-teacher classroom. Arab and Jewish instructors teach at the same time and use the same material. I was always so surprised at how well it worked. Although it was loud at times, the teachers gave each other the respect to finish their sentences, explain something in a simplified manner, and allow students to ask questions in their non-native tongue. So much of the success at Yad B’ Yad is due to the teachers’ patience and ability to adapt to a non-conventional classroom.
Living in Israel at the time I did was stressful and tiring. No matter how many non-violent protests I went to, how many signs I made, the numerous grant applications I wrote for Rabbis for Human Rights, or how many panels I attended, it felt like nothing was being accomplished. Most of the work I did, lectures I went to, or activists I spoke with thought on such a macro level. What was the next step? Are we looking for one state or a two state solution? How do we deal with years of oppression? What is the Palestinians’ right of return?
When I stepped into the Yad B’ Yad classroom none of this mattered. The only place that I felt truly grounded while living in Israel was at the school. Although it was a stressful environment with constant complaining of ten-year olds and their never-ending need for attention, it felt normal. I was able to connect with them. I felt like I was able to be a tangible helper and make a real difference in people's lives. Instead of being distracted by all of the massive inequalities and intractable problems within Israel, I had to figure out how to connect with students whose language I did not speak. Spoiler: it involved a lot of balI games, American movies, and popcorn. There was something so relaxing about the days spent at Yad B’ Yad. It felt like I was experiencing “normal problems.” They were similar problems to the ones I had while teaching Hebrew school to American toddlers and young kids. It re-energized me and made me realize that no matter the outside world and how big problems may seem, there are always small everyday things that need to be dealt with in order for change to happen.
I spent just about eight months living in Jerusalem. During my stay I very rarely felt helpful. In actuality, this was not true. I supported grassroots leaders on both sides of the conflict, reached out to international organizations, and learned about both Palestinian and Israeli history. Although in hindsight these things were all important, I did not connect with them on a spiritual level. Yad B’ Yad changed that for me. I was able to experience the conflict through children’s eyes. And, when not in a hectic or crisis mode, I saw what it was like for these kids, on both sides, to live with the conflict on an everyday basis. It grounded me to know that life goes on and kids will be kids. Furthermore, I was reassured by the fact no matter what, ice cream, candy, and pizza are always the best bribes for ten-year olds, regardless of religion or race.