Volunteering With Ethiopian Israeli Communities
I haven’t forgotten the faces of the children and families who looked me in the eye with the deepest gratitude I have ever witnessed and thanked me for what myself and my group had done for their community.
We were about to set out on a 10-day service program to work with Ethiopian Israeli Communities in Gedera and Rishon Le’Tzion, made possible through JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and UMASS Hillel.
While we were there doing community service, we stayed in a beautiful, religious kibbutz in southern Israel, called Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. The kibbutz was founded in 1946 and is about 10 miles from Kiryat Gat.
It is largely dependent upon agriculture, farming, production of lemons and artichokes and the rearing of cows and turkeys for their revenue and income. The kibbutz also acts as a motel and hosts guests at a very reasonable price, similar to the cost of a hostel.
We spent our first days working in a community called Gedera, about 17 miles south east of Tel-Aviv. Our goal and mission for the time we were there, was to renovate and repair the Gar’in Community and Youth Center. Over the past 15 years, Ethiopian Jews have steadily moved to Gedera, attempting to assimilate to the best of their ability.
They now make up 16% of the population (3,200 people). Their economic condition is improving, as the younger generation has adapted to Israeli culture and the language, whereas the older immigrants, have not done so as easily.
Gedera is built on seven hills and is famous for its pastoral view of the countryside. While we were there, we worked in the youth center with the Gari’n Members (community members, directors and leaders) located in the middle section of the town.
Every morning our group worked with Gar’in members on physical volunteer projects throughout the community. We built gardens, we re-painted the youth center, cleaned up any trash around the outside to make it look as presentable as possible, painted their clubhouse, and painted the windows and the outside in order to make it look like the type of place we’d be happy to call our own if we had been living in Gedera.
A Perfect Fit
In the afternoons we volunteered in community clubs, worked in leadership development, after-school enrichment and mentorship and army preparation with local youth. For many of us, interacting personally with the Ethiopian Israeli children and their families was the best part, and cannot be described in words.
You could feel the gratitude when you looked in their eyes, and you could see the happiness and joy the children felt from our presence. We could hear it in their laughs while we played with them, and we could sense it in their smiles when they would latch on and hug us, and ask us questions like, “Why did you choose to help us?” or when a little girl came up to me and said, “We are so happy inside that you are here and we see you here.”
The next few days were spent in Rishon LeZion. This is the fourth largest city in Israel, and is located south of Tel Aviv. It was founded by European Jewish Immigrants and in 2009 its population stood at approximately 228,200. It had beautiful pure green land, the air was crisp and fresh, and the sky was light cobalt blue. Rishon is also a popular area and venue for pubs, dance clubs and restaurants.
Children playing in the nearby park would also come over and try to get involved with our projects. The feeling of doing something for someone else, and seeing the gratitude so deep in their eyes, that they themselves are so moved to physically help, is a picture that no one can paint or tell accurately.
At the end of our work in Rishon Le’Zion we had finished painting and refurbishing four full apartment buildings, and planted trees in the community gardens. All around, children were smiling, and families were graciously thanking us. One of the Gar’in leaders said to us at the completion of our work there, “I have no words, no words,” and that said it all.
On community service trips, like this one, you typically won’t be allotted much free time, so when you are, definitely make the most of it and have a great time exploring the country you’re in. We had two evening outings, one to Galon Kibbutz Coffee House for a pub and hookah night, a very popular night activity in Israel, and one to visit the popular streets of Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem for shopping, eating, bargaining and bar hopping.
This neighborhood is kind of the, “place to be,” so to speak. It’s the mecca of exciting nightlife and activities in Jerusalem. The bars on Ben Yehuda were crowded and extremely exciting. Much more fun than American bars, I can honestly say.
However, almost every bar in Israel has some type of hookah going on inside, and being offered to its patrons, so if you’re thinking of frequenting Israeli bars, especially in Jerusalem, make sure that tobacco doesn’t bother you too much, and you bring plenty of shekals (israeli currency) with you to spend on the drinks they offer and of course the exciting, lively nightlife and music that Jerusalem has to offer.
With each site we visited in the next few days, we were engaged in JDC’s local and global approach to issues and challenges in Israel, and how we could help; not only in Israel, but when we arrived back in our own communities.
JDC's Work & Projects in Israel
We visited Café Europa in Ashdod (A JDC program that brings together Holocaust survivors three times a week and serves as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all the social, cultural and supportive needs of survivors, utilizing professionals from a range of therapies.) In addition, Café Europa brings together survivor’s families and young volunteers to create an intergenerational community. We were lucky enough to sit and hear the story of a Holocaust survivor while we were there.
We also visited The Laquiya Weaving Project, which was an incredibly innovative project. It was run by ‘Sidrehis,’ the grassroots Bedouin women organization in the Negev established in 1997 by a group of Bedouin women from different locations in Israel. Sidreh’s main goal is to improve and strengthen the status of Bedouin women in the Negev through personal, social and economic empowerment programs like this one.
We were able to watch the weaving first hand, and hear about the struggles of oppression these women face daily in their society. This project was part of JDC’s investment in the development of social services for Israeli Arabs, Druze and Bedouins.
We completed physical and social volunteer work (a combination that you’re bound to experience if you decide to venture on a community service trip) that fulfilled the Gar’inim’s mission together with its Ethiopian-Israeli and veteran Israeli members. Over the course of our time in Israel our projects included neighborhood beautification and renovation work, community gardening, and mentorship and youth leadership development.
The trip not only changed the community’s lives for the better, but it changed ours forever. We made connections and bonds with the people in the communities that we will never forget.
We are currently running a campaign, in efforts with JDC and UMASS Hillel to raise money to send back to the Ethiopian Israeli Communities in order to make a lasting difference in their lives. Some of us plan on going back again, to give more of our time, hearts and souls to these very special communities once again.
If you’re interested in going on a community service volunteer trip, like this one, or learning more about JDC and their mission, please visit www.JDC.org
If you’d like to make a donation in order to help the Ethiopian-Israeli Communities in Israel, Please e-mail Sam Krentzman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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