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The past 10 days have been exhausting, fascinating, extremely hot and “heavyweight” fun. Words can’t describe the amazing time we spent with our Israeli families in Beit Shean, the excitement of free time in the shuks or even the time we spent getting to know each other during our diverse activities all over the country. But maybe our experiences can.
You Know You’re in AFU/WOFI/icnext When…
…you hope people don’t ask about your program because you don’t know how to explain its name, let alone what you do.
…”Yesh po wifi?” and “Yesh po sherutim?” (Is there wifi here? A bathroom?) are always the first two questions you ask in any new place.
…when you narrowly escape disaster in three different cities.
…when the adults in charge do a headcount after the bus starts moving.
…when adjectives are described as either “lightweight” or “heavyweight.”
…the order of activities is in the least logical order possible.
…when Taglit (Birthright) groups make you embarrassed to be an American.
…when you solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in under an hour, only to forget the solution the next day.
…your group takes selfies with Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis within 24 hours.
…when your life’s goal is to be in Naomi Grant’s Quote Book, even though you’ve come to terms with the fact that you’ll never be as quotable as Amnon.
…you become a dysfunctional family after spending almost 90 hours together without any other teens, even though you do get tired of each other, because it’s impossible not to become some sort of family.
Wow. What a trip. This past week and a half included so many different aspects from seeing a civil war over the Syrian border to playing soccer with non-English speaking Arab teens to explaining what “I.C. Next” means to total strangers. And as much as Amnon kept reminding us that this was “his trip” and NOT ours, we truly enjoyed ourselves and created new and lasting relationships. I think one of the most important parts of our trip was growing closer to “our Israelis” in Beit She’an . We built lifelong friendships and learned a lot about the daily lives of Israelis.
Each night, several of us stayed up all night with Tina writing the blogs that kept you updated on our adventures in Israel. We composed these partly to keep you parents off of our backs when we return home, and stop you from prying the information out of us. But they were also to show you how much we learned in each jam-packed day. While the blogs analyzed our educational experiences, they did not mention the “behind-the-scenes” mishaps and excitement. Our time sitting on a tour bus (yes, there was a LOT of driving) and in between activities was just as educational. We grew closer as a group and became more comfortable around each other. I definitely know everyone much better and look forward to working with them and being closer friends next year. Our time between planned activities, which was not much, was used to take in the surroundings and learn about Israeli culture and atmosphere first-hand.
One interesting fact to throw out is that our I.C. Next trip dodged dangers in the north, middle, and south (southwest) of Israel during our trip. We heard war bombs go off in Syria while looking over the border, saw an immense forest fire while viewing Hertzel’s grave in Jerusalem, and missed rockets in Sderot that flew in the day after we left. These events gave us a sense of all the dangers of Israeli everyday life and showed how society overcomes together and life goes on.
As many of you know, the theme of our trip was exploring the dynamic of Israeli families, which included Bedouin lifestyles, Arab lifestyles, and of course Jewish-Israeli lifestyles. We even interviewed random families on the streets. My group happened to interview an American family at Emek Harefaim in Jerusalem and then we saw them again near the Kotel. For those of you who have been keeping up with the blogs, you can read about some of the amazing stories. For those of you who haven’t, I encourage you to get reading! Our trip was very educational and we wish to pass on our new knowledge.
On that note, the second year of our program is all about engagement and our purpose is to return to Cleveland and engage other teens in learning about Israel. Our magazine will come out next year, as well as a mobile photo gallery which will feature pictures that we took of families in Israel. Amnon had us each taking hundreds of pictures a day, so yes, there should be a few good ones among the mix.
I had a truly moving and unique experience and learned so much these past 10 days. My Hebrew improved a bit (which isn’t saying much), I got to experience Israeli life in a “non-touristy” way, and I made so many new friends. The trip was unforgettable, and this program will always be AFU-WOFI to me.
“So Gabe, you are going to go to Israel, right?”
I was asked this question prior to my participation in the icnext/AFU-WOFI program, and frankly I was not excited. Sure, going to Israel sounded like fun, but that was most certainly not the only part. There was a somewhat large workload, and the time commitment was seemingly colossal. So, upon begrudgingly agreeing to participate I began to have very negative expectations for the program itself. But more so the mission trip involved a large workload, and I was now preparing myself for what I assumed would be a trip full of boring lectures and, most heinously, no Ben Yehuda Street. As you can see, I once again went with the pessimistic outlook about the program.
I don’t admit this often, but I was entirely incorrect. The speakers who I assumed would be unbearable were fantastic. Not only did they give great insight into The Israeli Family (the theme of our mission), they also spanned the spectrum from traditional Jew to Arab-Israeli Muslim to African immigrant Christian. This allowed the trip to be a unique and eye opening experience for me, because I was not familiar with some of the issues and opinions which were shown and discussed through the wide variety of people who talked to us.
However I’m not really writing this blog for me. I am writing it for every kid who is going to be in tenth or eleventh grade next year, who thinks this program is stupid and a waste of time. Let me tell you, I thought exactly like you. I thought this program wouldn’t be interesting or cool, and that all it would do was add more stress to my life. It took Amnon bribing me with Starbucks to get me to even talk about it. So as you might imagine I was pretty adverse to this program.
Looking back at how stubborn and unwilling I was, it’s kind of funny that I came to love the program so much. It was not a quick change, and to be honest, I only really came to appreciate it entirely on the Israel mission. I could say more about the trip, but I feel as though telling you even more about what happened is useless. The purpose of this blog is to share my experience about the program in general, to speak to each individual and tell you that you are not the only one who does not want to participate, or is nervous, or doesn’t want to waste their time. I cannot say you are wrong for thinking those things, they are your opinion. But what I can tell you is this: it is well worth your time to check out the icnext program.
In essence this was one of the most amazing experiences in my life, so take it from the rabbi’s kid, join ICNext cohort three! And if you are lucky, you might end up on Israeli national news.
When I applied for the program previously known as AFUWOFI (currently known as icnext cohort 2), I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. At first, it was hard for me to connect with everyone, as I only knew a few people. I was scared to host an Israeli my age because I only knew how to say “shalom” and “masleg.” However, as the first year of this two year program comes to a close, I have grown much closer to everyone in my cohort, and I am extremely thankful that I had the chance to become great friends with Israeli teens. I definitely encourage anyone interested in this program to go for it; it’s an amazing experience.
The first year of this two year program prepares you for the ten day Israel trip. There is a monthly Sunday seminar that lasts about six wonderful hours. During these seminars, you will learn about the history of Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, social issues in Israeli society, how to conduct an interview, and how to take the perfect photograph. After each seminar, you will have an assignment that will relate to what you’ve been learning about. For example, we all read a book by an Israeli author to grasp the culture of the country.
During the second year, you will not have as many meetings. However, this will be your year to engage other people with Israel. In addition to helping out with our major projects, I will be the president of the Israeli Culture Club at my high school. I hope to use what I’ve learned this past year to educate other high school students and make them want to understand and eventually engage themselves more in Israel. Together, our cohort will have a few projects. We will produce a traveling photo exhibit of this year’s theme, the Israeli family, and we will engage the Cleveland community with Israel on iDay, when will we mix learning with fun so that everyone can learn about Israel and have a great time doing it.
As I’m writing this blog, my first ever trip to Israel is nearing its end. I’ve always wanted to go to Israel, and the trip has definitely exceeded my expectations. Throughout our 10 day trip, I’ve learned so much about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the history of Israel, and Israeli families, all from multiple perspectives. I’ve realized how complicated the conflict truly is, how much adversity the Jews have faced to obtain a homeland in Israel, and how different and interesting Israeli families can be.
Without a doubt, my Israeli penpal, Ron Dalal, has made me feel the most connected to Israel. Tonight I had to say goodbye to Ron, not knowing if I will ever see him again. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Although I’ve only really spent about a week with Ron, I have grown extremely close to him. When I met Ron in Cleveland, the language difference was a little difficult to overcome, but thanks to staying in touch over the past two months, we’ve become much, much closer. I know that I’ll always remember how kind Ron and his family were and all the jokes we shared together.
Throughout our Israeli trip, each one of us has seen so many unique people and places. There is no way to recreate once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This afternoon, Assael Romanelli had the difficult job of teaching our group how to explain our personal stories and visits to friends and family back in America.
Our previous session with Assael was only the second day of our 10 day trip and now, our meeting on the last day shows our new knowledge and connection to Israel. Today, Assael Romanelli started by asking, “How can you portray your story?” There are four different levels of a story: hyper-conscious (the message), conscious, (the details), subconscious (the feelings), and archetype(the essence when the speaker is able to resonate with others). We created the memories and have the stories, and now we can use them to engage others and connect Israel to America.
After warm-up activities of stating our names and feelings after a long morning at Yad Vashem, we made five “teams”. These groups allowed each person to improvise and recreate another American’s story from the past few days. These planned stories are good practice, but real conversations are not prepared and not the main goal of the ICNext program.
One amazing conversation with an Israeli family at the Kotel or a smile to a child on a Kibbutz does not have as much importance as one shared with everybody. After thinking back on our trip, and most especially on the activity with Assael, I have learned to express myself more and really interact with strangers to learn more about them. Pictures capture the scene, but memories and conversations make the setting come to life with relatable ideas.
In the upcoming year, each member of our group will use the techniques learned today to share their stories and memories with people in Cleveland. Hopefully, more Americans will be able to feel a similar connection to the land everybody has come to love from our trip.
On our walking tour of South Tel Aviv, one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Israel, IC Next passed by a playground for small children. It was run down and rusting, but other than that it seemed innocent. One of our Beit Sheani friends turned to me and said, “You see that playground? Little children used to play there but now it is a home.” At a closer look, I could see the laundry hanging from the structure and that blankets and rags stuffed the tubes and slides.
While studying at the Mechina for the afternoon, we learned about the appalling poverty of South Tel Aviv. The area is known for its high crime rate and in a discussion later in the day, our Israeli peers shared their personal stories and fears of walking through South Tel Aviv alone. Many of the Americans were quick to make a connection between the poverty and the crime, but for many of the Israelis this was less obvious.
Next to the playground stands an outdoor library for both adults and children. The adults’ bookshelves are stocked with books in many different languages for the many immigrants from across Africa and elsewhere, but the children’s bookshelves contain only Hebrew books. This highlights another issue: the next generation of immigrants’ children who are born in Israel. These children must be faced with an identity crisis of a severe degree. Aaron, an Eritrean refugee, spoke about his own struggle to maintain his home culture in Israel. Because the children are born directly into Israeli society to non-Jewish immigrant parents, they will have to balance meshing into a Jewish Israeli culture and upholding the culture of their parents’ home country.
The Beit Sheanis acknowledged a very real concern that I had not fully taken into consideration. Though the refugees and foreign workers make up a significant portion of the population in these Jewish state, they are not Jewish. The social and political scene in Israel is affected by this because in order to have a Jewish state, there must remain a Jewish majority. Our Israeli friends suggested deportation of non-refugees as a viable solution to the issue, but us Americans came to a consensus that that was neither realistic nor wise. Aside from the aforementioned next generation of Israeli-born citizens, we recognized the international criticism that would arise from deportation. Israel is already portrayed in an awful light in the international media, and this would destroy whatever remains of Israel’s positive reputation.
Through this program, I observed that this social issue in Israel, like many others, will only be solved through collaboration. It requires a uniquely Israeli perspective and an international, outsiders’ perspective to find a viable plan of action that will be most beneficial to Israelis and the immigrant population.
It’s a problem in all countries. Immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, etc. Whatever name they are called, countries don’t know what to do with them. In Tel Aviv, we spent a full afternoon at a Mechina called Bina, which is built right in the middle of one of the oldest neighborhoods across from the central bus station.
Beginning in the 1990s, waves of immigrants, at first from Asia and now Africa, came to Israel and many have settled in this neighborhood. As the large number of immigrants took up residence here, their presence drove out many of the original members of the community. Today it is an immigrant neighborhood that is causing problems for Israel.
The Africans who have come to Israel are asylum seekers. So many of them have come that Israel decided to give them asylum as a group rather than as individuals, and they have become a source of conflict. For example, the government takes care of them, but they don’t contribute back by paying taxes, etc. Another source of conflict is that these immigrants take low-paying jobs away from the lower end of the working class. The challenges of immigration are familiar to Americans, since we are a country of immigrants. The issues and dilemmas have plagued us, too. On the other hand, Israel is a Jewish country and the most recent immigrants are not. Israel is faced with the issue of what to with them, without compromising Zionism.
Later that day, we sat with our Israeli friends from Beit Shean in smaller groups and discussed what actions Israel could take to try to resolve the immigrant issue. Opinions from both Israeli and American members of my smaller group varied significantly. One Israeli, Tamar, felt that Israel should help the immigrants more because as the Jewish nation it is our duty to help people in need. An American, Monica, said that while Israel should help these people, the point of Israel is to be a home for the Jews, and there is a certain line that Israel shouldn’t cross.
We debated back and forth for a long time, but in the end no solution was found.
Just like all the other problems in Israel, there is no “sound byte” solution.
Jiser Az Zarka is an Arab village located between Kibbutz Magan Michael and Cesaria along the Mediterranean Sea. A few days ago we had the pleasure of visiting the town and its picturesque beach. The serenity of the beach is beautiful, but anyone with a business eye would soon notice the lost opportunity to attract tourism to this costal town. Unlike the rest of the Israeli Mediterranean coast, the beaches of Jasar Az Zarka are undeveloped. In part this is due to the poverty present in town; yet building up the beach industry in Jiser Az Zarka could be one step in lifting the village from its poverty ridden state.
After our visit to the beach, joined by students our own age who live in the village, we were invited into the homes of 2 residents for dinner and to hear their stories. Ahmed Juha is a man who saw the potential in bringing tourism to Jiser Az Zarka and decided to take the first step. And so Juha’s Guesthouse was born. Juha’s Guesthouse is the first and currently the only hotel in Jiser Az Zarka. Slowly but surely it is beginning to draw in tourists.
When Ahmed told us his story, and his goal to build up tourism and save his village from poverty, we were all touched. ICNext is about engaging others with Israel, all parts of Israel. “Engagement” is a broad term, and our program allows us to interpret it in different ways. After our meeting with Achmed and his family several of us began to think about how we could help. Engaging with Israel means engaging with all sides of Israel, and although Jiser Az Zarka is not a Jewish village, it is still an Israeli village. Many of the people to whom we spoke in Jiser Az Zarka feel alienated from the Jewish Israeli community even though they are Israeli citizens. Ties between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis have always been strained, with animosity and racism on both sides. Improving the lives of those living in cities like Jiser Az Zarka in addition to the poverty ridden Jewish areas is only one step towards improving all of Israel, but is a step we can take.
Some of us ICNexters have decided to help Ahmed bring tourism to Jiser Az Zarka as one of our projects for next year. We aren’t sure what form this project will take, but we are excited about engaging with this other side of Israel. We want to help Achmed and his community. Not only is it a noble cause, it is also a part of our duty as Jews and as citizens of the world to help those who are in need.
If you wish to contact Juha’s Guesthouse:
Neta Hanien +972-52-8824570
Ahmed Juha 052 8622088