Embracing Israel

Posted on January 14, 2016
December 29, 2015
I write this as I sit in our rented Jerusalem apartment, having completed the final day of my volunteer assignment, and as I anticipate boarding the plane back to Boston tomorrow.  It is truly a daunting task to attempt to put words to the experience of the last month, in a way that does justice to its’ richness and complexity.
I’ll begin not by talking about my placements, but about living in Jerusalem.  My husband and I rented an apartment on Emek Refaim.  We went to the supermarket, prepared most of our meals at home, did laundry, took walks in the neighborhood, and I rode the autobuses to and from my placements everyday.  We had a multitude of chance encounters with people whom we knew, and random conversations with people in shops, around town, at the bus stop.  Everywhere I encountered warmth and genuine interest.  One story, which for me is emblematic of nearly every interaction I had.  I was sitting behind the driver on one of my commutes, when a blind woman boarded the bus and sat beside me.  She told me that my seat was meant to be reserved for people with handicaps.  I said (in Hebrew!) that I was so sorry, I was new here and didn’t know.  She responded with:  “Oh, don’t worry, we’re all new here, and we’re all Jews!”  I’m quite certain that I won’t be hearing that anytime soon in Boston!  It’s a strange experience to be here, listening to the news, feeling heartbroken about both the dangers Israelis face every day and about the short-sighted and misguided political leadership, and yet to bask in the sense of pride, unity and wholehearted embrace of life and its’ joys that I encountered every day.
My time at Melabev was wonderful, intense and challenging.  Despite my many years as a clinical Social Worker in the States, I had little to no experience with the elderly.  Spending time with a group of elders with significant memory and cognitive challenges was not easy for me.  I was privileged to be placed with a team of remarkable women, whose every interaction with every client radiated warmth, respect and affection.  The members responded.  I don’t want to romanticize the experience – I certainly witnessed the clients’ struggles with their condition.  One man’s occasional outbursts because he could not safely stand on his own and he did not want to wait to be physically assisted.  One woman’s refusal to participate in an activity meant to strengthen memory because it was “a children’s game.”  (It was).  But they came every day, had deep attachments to each other and to the staff, mostly participated in the activities and conversations, shared incredible memories, and found occasions for laughter.

Rhoda Grill
My other placement was at Mercaz Klass, an afterschool program to support mostly Ethopian children who needed academic help.  In this setting also, I encountered incredible dedication on the part of the staff, who knew and cared about every child who walked into the building.  The kids themselves were amazing.  I got to know several of them, ranging in age from about 10 years old to a soon-to-graduate High School senior.  Without exception, they were motivated, eager to learn, incredibly polite (somehow I don’t think I’d be saying this about American kids) and appreciative.  They were all attempting to learn English as a third language, speaking Amharit at home and Hebrew of course at school.  And they all had responsibilities for younger siblings at home while parents worked.  I leave them feeling tremendous admiration for them, optimism that these wonderful young people will find a way to fulfill their aspirations, and hope that they continue to get the help and support that they need – my contribution was just a small drop in the bucket.
What to say in conclusion?  I can’t be sure what I contributed exactly, but I can say that I have been greatly enriched by this experience.  Who knows what the demands of life will allow, but I hope to be able to come back periodically and renew my relationships with the places and people
I have been honored to get to know.
Rhoda