Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mo’adon No’ar Bet Shemesh: Day Two (Dispatches from an American Volunteer)

What's up, Internet!

Adi again, reporting back from the trenches of the Beit Shemesh Youth Center. The center was relatively quiet this Tuesday; half the kids who usually come were on a school trip, and a significant minority were at a town-wide cultural event called "the shuuk," which to me sounded more like a street fair than an open-air market. Hailu, the center's director, explained that students go to the shuuk both to hang out and to help their parents, many of whom man stalls or booths.

There were two girls at the center this week, one of whom (let's call her "Devorah") solicited my help with her English homework. She didn't have any of her school things with her, but promised to bring a week's worth of homework next Tuesday; I'm excited for our study date. I think I will call Hailu on Monday and ask him to remind her--I actually miss English homework!

I had a tiny mission to carry out on Tuesday, which totally failed. An extremely mature and giving girl in the States has made ENP her Bat Mitzvah charity, and requested that all her Bat Mitzvah gifts go to us. I was supposed to film the kids saying Mazal Tov and Thank You so she could feel the personal impact of her (wonderful) choices--but none of them were interested. Maybe it's because I'm new and they don't feel comfortable "performing" (in a sense) in front of someone they don't know. Or maybe it's just that they're normal thirteen-year-olds who aren't totally comfortable in their own skins--I certainly hated being photographed when I was a teenager. Whatever it is, I'm a little disappointed about the lack of enthusiasm, though I understand it.

I spent a good amount of time talking to Hailu about his vision for the center; he showed me a bunch of lesson plans about cultural identity, Ethiopian history, Amharic...really impressive stuff that the kids will definitely appreciate. (I tried my best to learn an Amharic proverb about the importance of patience, but I've forgotten it now. What a beautiful language--it sounds rich and evocative, even when I don't know what's being said.) He also told me a little bit about his background, which was fascinating. One of the best things about going to the center is the personal interactions and stories that I hear; the kids aren't particularly forthcoming, but sometimes they'll share bits and pieces of their stories, for which I'm grateful.

That's all for this week. I'll update again next week; hopefully my English tutoring will have yielded some fruit!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mo’adon No’ar Bet Shemesh: Day One (Dispatches from an American Volunteer)

Hello, Internet!

I’m Adi, a new ENP volunteer who will be blogging about my time in the Beit Shemesh youth center once weekly. I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland—in fact, Baltimore is both my inspiration for volunteering with ENP, and my paradigm for what it means to work with an underserved community. Three and a half years living in Charles Village—located a hop, skip, and a jump away from urban neighborhoods that inspired the emotionally gripping and highly disturbing HBO cult hit, The Wire—impelled me to seek out a similar experience for my five months in Israel. I’ve been teaching English and Language Arts to Baltimore City Public School kids since my sophomore year, and firmly believe that English literacy is one of the most important tools for/indicators of future academic and professional success, in any country.

Hence: armed with goodwill, some teaching experience, and…well, little else but jumpy nerves, I venture to the Bet Shemesh youth center where I plan to teach English, mentally steeling myself for Dangerous Minds-style pandemonium. The statistics are disheartening: roughly 20% of Ethiopian men aged 18-35 are unemployed, and 68% of the community lives below the poverty line. This particular youth center has been open for less than a month, but has already attracted a sizeable crowd of high school boys, who arrive promptly at five and stay until the center closes at nine.

Hailu, the youth center’s new director, arrives at twenty to five, and I can see right away that despite the center’s informal hang-out vibe, he exerts a strong and positive influence. Though he greets the boys with high fives-—like a friend-—he is also firm with them, admonishing them gently when they get too rowdy. He steers me around the room introducing me to clusters of boys. One boy, a seventeen-year-old who I will call Avi, takes a shine to me and patiently answers my questions about life as an Ethiopian immigrant. When I’m done with my gentle inquisition, he turns the tables on me, asking about my university experience (the words “best years of my life” may have been uttered—I’ve officially turned into an Old Person), life in America, and—as I half-expected—the state of the African-American community there.

"Avi" is the most outgoing of the kids in the center; the rest are busy playing foosball or pool. I’m content just to hang out, posing as an anthropological oddity—The American Jew—answering questions about America and why Jews continue living there despite the miracle of our very own (snow-free) homeland. Avi especially was concerned, grilling me about my Zionist credentials: “but why don’t you live here?” Despite the American rap blasting from their mp3 players, the boys are unimpressed with the US; numerous times, I was asked “what does America have that we don’t?”, a good question that I can’t answer comfortably or easily. Mostly, I was impressed with the hardcore patriotism the boys evinced; despite the mistakes—to put it kindly—of the Israeli government and society, Ethiopian immigrants still see the country both as home and Homeland (small h for familiarity, everyday life, big H for the two-thousand-year-old dream, nurtured despite millennia of isolation.)

Okay, Internet! That’s all from the front. Over and out until Tuesday!