first impressions of schools

Thus far my first impression of the school system is exactly what I was expecting. The students are loud, disrespectful, talk back to the teacher alot and someties even fight violently with each other. Every class I have sat in, except one where the Teacher is a bit of a badass, takes somewhere between 20-30 minutes to start the lesson. I’m not entirely sure how much of the delay comes from my obvious presence, one that all the students are facinated with or how much is the regular grind of starting the day. I do however, have a hard time to understand how students learn in this type of environment.
Contradictory to my memories of a “Dangerous Minds” inner-city education, learning here is not just simplified into overcoming extreme poverty with lack of government funding. It is more than the transfer of information. It requires serious discipline, dedication and involvement with the students. Even with memories of broken glass, blood and weave on the floor, my school had a structured environment and a zero tolerance policy for “poor attitudes and violence.” Although, I do recognize that I have my own pre-determined idea of learning that is based on my own experiences and upbringing, I am not here to judge as merely just making observations. The honest truth is that just like Spanish class in the U.S. needs native speakers to teach, so does English class in Israel and my presence is filling a void, whether or not I agree with the structure of the school.
I am not seen as a teacher of any kind but more as a friend, the “cool” American in the class. Melissa and I have already had several students persistantly ask for our phone numbers and address. It really is a matter of time before the facebook friend requests start to filter in. It is obvious to me that I will have to work hard to gain respect because these things are given out easily here. Teachers are called by their first name which creates a close personal connection to the students, however it closes the gap between the student and the teacher which means that one must work hard for respect. By observation few of the teachers truely have respect from the students and I am frequently told how bad the are, etc…
Yet, through it all there is a glimmer of light. This community, these kids and the staff are thankful for us to be here. The love has definately been felt. I could not be more grateful to be in a small town who sincerely is working hard to improve the quality of life and quality of the education. As those before me and those that will come after, there is no easy way to accomplish the tasks set forth. I am part of a bigger picture and am in a place to affect change at least one student’s life. Even after one week, I have caught small sparkles in some student’s eyes and know that is just a sign of the what is to come.


The nastiest bathroom in Israel

On my last day in Ashedod, the group was broken up into several small projects thoroughout a lower income neighborhood. I was part of a group of ten, all four of us Otzma, and the rest Israelis. We went to clean out a bomb shelter, that has unofficially become the teenager hangout. Apparently this is not uncommon, as there are few centers and areas for teens to hangout,coupled with a need to keep these shelters maintained for the “just in case” event that could occur at any moment.
When you walked in, there was just a bathroom immediately in front of you. To the left and down a flight of stairs, were the two main living spaces, both equipped with two small ladders side by side to exit the shelter if needed. The second room was empty, after an electrical fire destroyed the walls and left a disguisting burnt smell and black residue. The first room was filled with old broken furniture, a table, reminants of nargilla and snacks, a bed frame with random throw pillows to cover the space and a t.v. with a working dvd player. There was garbage spread across the floor, mixed in with dust and rat poo on a hard cement floor. Of course there were no drains to make it easy to clean. Next to the garbage can, which was overflowing, were several small water bottles filled with urine and cigarette butts. Amazingly this was the cleanest of the rooms.
The bathroom was a long hallway with two stalls, or more like nooks with a porcelan floor, ridges for your feet and a hole to squat over. There were two sinks, one in front of each stall and a small storage space inbetween. The bathroom had been filled with junk, for god knows how long. The floors were covered with a inch of wet dirt matted with desecrated objects and rust residue. As you can imagine, the dirt was filled with all sorts of fun living creatures, including a rather large family of cockroaches. In every area possible, junk was pilled up high. I saw broken bikes, tubes, tools, crates, garbage, old tires, pipes, parts of sinks, kitchens, window frames and many other unidentified objects. All were covered in a layer of filth, only to be assumed a combination of dirt, garbage and rat poo. The walls had driblets of poo spalttered across it to put Jack Pollack to shame. I even found an entact bone structure of a rat under all the rubble. It looked like he got trapped and decayed in the rubble.
We cleaned out that entire room, washed the the floors and poured an acid on the porcelean to scrub the crusted grim off to make it habitable. Although some more progress is needed in the bathroom, overall we made a huge improvement to it’s condition. Including scrubbing the poo off the walls with a scotch pad and water. I wore double gloves for most cleaning that day. The black grime was cleaned off somewhat and we painted the walls with fresh coats of baby blue, sea green and white. No one really noticed the fumes until we went upstairs to get fresh air and felt the effects of the high. We were also slighlty lightheaded from the continuous play of the only five American booty shakking songs that the Israelis knew. Ja-Rule and paint fumes may seem like a good idea at first, but after a while, trust me, it can become dangerous. LOL
All in all, we did a long eight hours of work and completed our job. The kids were happy to have a clean and safe place to hangout, and the parents were happy that we were investing in their communities. Afterwards I recieved several invitations to smoke nargilla and a basket of fresh fruit was brought out to snack on. It was a fulfilling experience, butone i hope never to replicate, especially the rat poo part!

Life will still grow through the cracks

It is now Sukkot vacation in Israel and school is closed. Things stop on the first two days, the actual chag, but the rest of the time is a nice relaxing break with life semi-functioning. It is tradition during this time that a group of University students, from all over Israel get together to volunteer and participate in various work opportunites for three to four days. It varies from year to year, and of course in recent years, this group has worked outside war zones with Lebanon and Gaza and functioned as a way to show solidarity and support for Israel. These past years had many participants compared to the relate quiet “war free” climate now.
This year the event has been hosted in Ashdod and although it is smaller than years past, it is filled with more exuberance and life. The students here genuinely want to be here and are commited to the inglorious work set forth. As a participant of a Masa sponsored program, Otzma ITC was invited to join. Four of the ten decided to go, myself included.
It has been thus far been an interesting and fulfilling experience for me. Observing the climate and the way the activites function, I find myself slowly becoming more comfortable with an “Israeli standard.” Things tend to get done in their own way. The process is not necessarily timely or what I would consider well developed and just evolves to meet the needs/available resources. It is definately not like the specific laid out activites that I am used to when volunteering in the States. There is often little room for change and more time dedicated to reflection and critism to improve in the future. Rarely do we, Americans, allow the time to be flexible in our daily lives, much less any volunteer experience.
Over the last few days, I have had the opportunity to not only practice my Hebrew (seriously I have been) but I have also had the opportunity to really talk with young Israelis my age, and see a fraction of the world through their eyes. I have found that most of these young Israelis are worldly people, speaking a minimum of three languages, done with military service and frequently traveling. They are privy to the flaws of their society and have no qualms in discussing their opinions. The problems here can seem so overwhelming, especially to an outsider like me, yet admist it all, there is no lack of their loyality or faith in Israel. Quite the contrary, events like this are popular and often times government supported. Any person participating in organized communal service is provided with health insurance and typically speaking free food and a place to stay. Although most of these students did not sign up for any of those reasons, it none the less makes community service and volunteering accessible to everyone and breeds a set of social standards that as an Israeli, you support Israel and therefore do a certain amount of community service.
In almost any town, you can find the newly painted buildings, beautiful gardens or young folks at the senior center. There never seems to be a shortage of volunteer projects happening at any given time or in any given community. The concept of Tikkun Olam and Tzedek run thick here and make small weekend get-aways like this an amazing experience for someone like me. I see this dedication paralelled with the image of a pile of dirt and rubble. Through the cracks of it all, under the rubble and diaster, life still grows, adapts and maintains. A fragment of sunlight shines through and allows life to form and evolve. Against all odds you can find a glimmer of hope and sparkle of life. This weekend, I have found many Israelis I consider to be beacones of light and feel inspired that will give the necessary light to bring forth positive change and hope for the future.