Spenser Solis (Spring 2010)

Spenser was a 5-month participant in the Community Service track in the Kiryat Shalom neighborhood of South Tel Aviv during the Spring 2010 semester.

Volunteering and Zionism

My first month of volunteering is dying down as we move into Passover break in Israel, so I can finally begin to shed light on my experiences as a Tikkun Olam participant in and around Tel Aviv.

The Hila Project at Giv’On Prison in Ramla

The refugee kids at Giv’On prison are adorable. Mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, they are full of energy and life and just yearn to have a good time. Moochu, one of the refugee kids from Eritrea continued to crack me up all morning, between his break dancing and handstands. At one point, the ball with which the 15 of us, crammed into a yard the size of my kitchen, were playing got stuck on barbed wire. Moochu didn’t hesitate to crawl up the wall like a spider and grab it so we could keep playing.

It is amazing to get to hang out with these kids, knowing that so many of them are fleeing harrowing situations, ranging from forced conscription of child soldiers to genocide. Keeping a positive attitude and forgetting that you are crammed into a prison with unaccompanied refugees is a challenge but it becomes infinitely easier when you realize that these kids, regardless of their experiences, are still innocent. They deserve to have fun and get an education, just like any other child in the world.

Ironi Chet (Religious Boys School in Tel Aviv)

Israeli schools…what can I say? Learning that this country has only a 40 percent graduation rate and that the school system is essentially immersed in chaos has been especially shocking to me. I and another volunteer have been teaching a Spanish class at Ironi Chet. I’ve also been helping the boys with their English discussion skills. The experience is giving us a look into the vast education gap between the north and the south of the city. They are overall good boys, but they are rowdy. Few of them have the privilege of learning English of home (essential for success on the Israeli equivalent of the SAT, the bagrut). Our job as Spanish teachers is to help them break the monotony of their studies and inspire them to push themselves harder as students, a lofty goal but one that I feel the principal, Sefi, has been very successful at achieving. Ironi Chet’s students often surpass their wealthier peers in the north on tests and college admissions.

The question continues to come up in discussions with other volunteers, peers, friends and Israelis: Can I still call myself a Zionist when I shamelessly discuss such gritty aspects of Israeli society? Why did I come here to dig through Israel’s dirty laundry? Why not just ignore these problems and sugar coat life in Israel for those who don’t live here?

For me, I feel more connected to Israel than I ever have before because I have finally been able to take an honest look at this country. When I work with Israeli children, whether Arab or Jewish, I realize that I’m staring the future of Israel in the face. Ideologies begin to blur, black and white ceases to exist. It’s easy to say you feel one way or another about Israel when you aren’t interacting with the people who live here, especially the children. They are the ones who will ultimately decide what Israel will look like. To me, finally accepting the inevitability of understanding that so much in Israel is a gray area has been extremely profound and has only strengthened my identity as a Zionist.

Every time I see a challenge that Israel (which, at only 60 years, is a young country) experiences, it just makes me want to do more. I knew that seeing Israel in such a raw manner would inevitably alter my views. In a way, I was worried what the implications of encountering these issues head on would have for my long-held beliefs. To me, what is most inspiring is the knowledge that most of the organizations that are helping make Israel a better place were founded by Israelis, without the help of their government. What could be more Zionist than taking personal initiative to improve Israel?

So yes, Israel has problems. Is Israel doing a better job than most other countries in the world to overcome those challenges? Most definitely.