Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pros and Questions of International Service Learning

As the end of my time in the Yahel Social Change Program is starting to near (far more quickly than I would like to think about), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pros and “questions”  of international service learning for the community that hosts the volunteers. The benefits for a volunteer participating in a service-learning program are numerous: a chance to live abroad, a sense of adventure and learning about different cultures, organized learning on a range of issues, a feeling of giving and fulfilling the Jewish value of tikkun olam (healing the world), and for some, resume-building.  There are a good number of challenges for the volunteer as well, but I think it’s a personal choice to take these on, generally with the belief that the benefits outweigh the challenges. 

Some of the “pros” or benefits to the community that I see in our work in Ramat Eliyahu are:
·         Nine native English speakers are working with many children and adults through individual and group tutoring. This is a big resource for under-resourced schools and one-to-one tutoring can make the difference between being behind and at or ahead of grade-level for many children.  In Israel, proficiency in English has a long-term impact on educational tracking, army service placements, and future employment opportunities.  Teaching English meets a significant need in Ramat Eliyahu.
·         At this stage in my career, I probably would not have been willing to volunteer for a year in the U.S., but I was willing to work for free for a year in exchange for a relatively low-cost year living abroad.  Since I have a lot of professional experience in resource development, both Tebeka (non-profit legal aid organization for Ethiopian community) and Garin Ehud (Ethiopian neighborhood organization) are getting a level of resource development support, that they would not normally receive for free. Additionally, because I am a native English speaker and familiar with the American philanthropic sector, I am able to act as a bridge for these organizations.
·         Both for the volunteer and the community, our presence here is an interesting cultural exchange and opportunity for learning.  In a community that has often been segregated and stigmatized, it is often mentioned how our acceptance and commitment to working here can make people feel validated. Sometimes I can’t decide if this sounds patronizing or if it is the beauty of fostering multiculturalism, but it is mentioned by the staff and community leaders frequently.
·         One advantage of entering the community from outside the “system” is that we’re not so entrenched in a program model and therefore are open to making adjustments when needed.  Additionally, because we work with several different community programs and organizations, we’re also able to see what’s working in other settings and suggest improvements or make connections between complementary programs.  For example, after struggling for months with a group volunteer placement in a learning center that just wasn’t working all that well, we were able to work with the staff to switch to tutoring the children at home, modeled after the Homework at Home program in which many of us also volunteer.  Hopefully, the connection between these two independent programs will grow – I’ve heard some talk of them beginning a collaboration!

There are broad range of service learning approaches and I chose Yahel specifically because of its approach to the community.  Yahel believes in developing community partners and respectfully supporting the existing projects of community organizations rather than creating their own and imposing them on community.  While we can always search for more ways to better engage the community, I think Yahel is on the right side of this spectrum. Nonetheless, I have questions about the impact of international service learning, which I think is normal for anyone trying to engage in community work conscientiously. My questions mostly boil down to the fact that by its very nature volunteers are in a community for a finite period of time.  What is the impact of this departure and turnover?
·         We’ve spent a year getting to know the community and I’m finally starting to really understand it.  We also engage in intensive learning multiple times per week about the many populations and issues, some of which are general social justice or Jewish learning topics, but many are specific to Israel, the Ethiopian Israeli community, and Ramat Eliyahu.  Then, after a year, most people leave.  Is this wasted knowledge from the community’s perspective? Imagine how powerful a group of people could be if they engaged in all of this learning and then stayed to work in those communities longer-term.  We’ve joked about Yahel+ or the Yahel Super-Stars team, but seriously…
·         The local organizations invest time and energy in our learning, but their return on investment is short-term.  Then they have to start again with a new group the next year. Some of the challenges along the way are smoothed out and are one-time issues, but for most of their contributions, they will be committing staff resources to every cohort. Is this a strain on resources?  Now is probably a good time to say thank you, thank you, thank you! to the wonderful community organizations who invest in us at the same time that we volunteer for them.
·         There are some limitations to the type of work we can do in the community due to the language barrier.  Would we be able to better serve in a community where this was not a limitation?
·         Is it sustainable?  How do you build sustainability when volunteers come and go each year?  What happens if the program closes or relocates to another community?
·         We build a lot of relationships, particularly with youth in the community.  Is the relationship long enough that the benefits of mentorship outweigh us leaving them? Do they feel abandoned?  I’ve developed a great relationship with a child I tutor and her family this year.  In addition to tutoring we have amazing conversations about song content and messages, her family’s aliya and experiences in Israel, and the Ethiopian community. I’m starting to understand her little sister’s great ideas for improving their community and her passion and want to connect her to people who can foster that. But now I’m getting ready to leave that and realistically it’s not a relationship that can easily be maintained with distance. Is it long enough to have an impact?  I tutor one child, in which after switching to an at-home one-to-one model, I finally understand her English level and learning style…after 6 months of working with her! Also, will these same children have the opportunity to form new connections with the next Yahel group or was this a one-time thing?  Some organizations will choose to connect the Yahelnikim with the same cohort of kids over several years while others will aim to maximize the number of kids receiving support from Yahelnikim.

Many of you have experience in service learning programs, either as participants, facilitators, or both.  What do you think?

(This was a long one without photos! My mind is still filled with songs from the beautiful Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service at the kotel this morning.  Maybe I'll write another post about that experience soon.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Thoughts on the Recent Protests Led by Ethiopian Israelis

I'm sure many of you have heard about the recent protests led by Ethiopian Israelis which were sparked by police discrimination and violence against an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier a few weeks ago. Earlier this week Masa, the main funder for Israel service-learning and education programs for young adults, asked Yahel staff and participants to write about our experiences working with the Ethiopian-Israeli community and our take on the protests.  Below is a piece that I wrote, which was also posted on the Yahel blog and an update sent out to Yahel supporters. You should also check out the two posts written by a few of my fellow Yahelnikim and Yahel staff on the Yahel blog. One thing I'd like to add is that I asked the 14-year old who I tutor yesterday what she thought about the protests.  She told me "Proud and supporting it every step."  I then asked her what she would like all Israelis and Jews to know about the Ethiopian Israeli community, a question I've been asking a lot of people this week.  She asked her younger sister for some help with this one.  12-year old B, who is full of fire, spirit, and ideas for improving Ramat Eliyahu, didn't miss a beat before replying "That we are strong and we are not afraid."

There seems to be a broad consensus that the protests over the last few weeks are not only about police violence, but rather that police violence against an Ethiopian Israeli soldier was simply the catalyst for protests against broader discrimination against and disparities experienced by the Ethiopian community.  Indeed, during my time in Israel and the Yahel Social Change program I have often become angry when learning about these disparities. While volunteering at Tebeka, a legal aid organization serving the Ethiopian community, I’ve been appalled by both individual and systemic forms of discrimination experienced by the community.  I’ve been frustrated by the ways in which Israel’s absorption of the Ethiopian community failed to respect a strong Ethiopian Jewish culture, with strong leaders and community social systems.  I’ve wanted to shake some sense in to the people who have claimed the primarily Ethiopian neighborhood in which I live and have been warmly embraced is “dangerous.” I believe the anger and frustration that is fueling the protests is well justified.  Both the news media and a few of my Yahel peers have written about these social disparities and discrimination, and about the challenges in the Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, so I’d like to offer a complementary perspective.

In a way, I believe that this fight against discrimination and injustice is also a fight for recognition of the assets and contributions of this incredible community.  I think in a truly just and equal society each community and individual must understand each other’s strengths, and work with these to complement their own.  Throughout my time in Israel in the Yahel Social Change Program, I’ve also learned about the incredible strengths of Ethiopian culture and community members.  I’ve been touched by the number of Ethiopian families who welcome me into their homes, week after week, by the mothers who always send me on my way with a belly full of delicious injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread).  I’ve been inspired by the Garin Ehud, a group of Ethiopian community members and activists living in Ramat Eliyahu who tirelessly organize programs and projects to support the neighborhood, all while working full-time and raising their families. I’ve been empowered by the incredible group of lawyers and staff of Tebeka who are fighting for a more just and equal Israeli society for all.

Israel’s initial absorption of the Ethiopian community did a poor job of capitalizing on the assets of the Ethiopian community.  I’d like to recognize just a few of the many strengths now.
  • Ethiopian Judaism is pre-rabbinic.  Kesim are the highly learned traditional spiritual leaders who are trained and mentored not only in Judaism and torah, but also to mediate community and familial conflict and serve as community leaders.  Unfortunately they face an on-going struggle to be fully recognized and legitimized by the State of Israel in the way rabbis are recognized and financially supported. I believe Israel should be embracing these natural leaders and utilizing this traditional role of kesim to best analyze and support the needs of the community.
  • Ethiopian Jews are deeply devoted to Israel and Judaism.  Most Israelis have probably never heard their aliyah stories, and the veracity of their Judaism has been questioned by some authorities repeatedly since their aliyah.  However, they are a people who have maintained their Judaism through centuries of oppression and isolation from the global Jewish community.  A people whose yearning for the land of Israel was so strong that they risked their lives crossing Ethiopia and Sudan, thousands dying during the journey. While various social factors may have catalyzed their decision, every individual who has told me their aliyah story has emphasized an intense and pervasive community belief that they were always meant to return to Israel and participate in a Jewish society. A people so committed to the state of Israel should be given more opportunities to participate in its growth and improvement.  Like all Israelis, they are working towards a better Israel for their children. Their journey should be celebrated by Israel and recognized as a source of national strength and pride.
  • Traditional Ethiopian culture, and especially Ethiopian food culture is very communal. Traditionally food is eaten off communal platters and cultural practices such as eating at the pace of your neighbors ensure everyone gets their share.  A young neighbor recently described how before her wedding the entire community was called upon to make the injera and other Ethiopian dishes, with everyone doing their part to ensure a successful wedding meal.  Traditional communal culture and support systems should be incorporated into programs and initiatives to address socio-economic disparities.

This year I have only just begun to learn from the beautiful individuals and institutions of this strong, warm community of Ethiopian Israelis.  I hope that as Israel continues to examine the social and economic factors leading to the recent protests, that Israelis and Jews across the world will also recognize all that we have to learn and gain from this community.