I will always remember the faces of expectant strangers – who later became family – both meeting for the first time at the airport, and more significantly, as we departed from the coach at some dark and early hour back in March, somewhere in the North of Israel. Wheeling our cases over uneven soil, lugging our backpacks over tired shoulders to the sound of chattering crickets and silent trees; the air was cool and welcoming. We were met with a warm smile from Faiz, one of the directors of Sha'ar La'Adam and an eager hug from Debbie, our other group leader, as well as raised eyebrows and hesitant smiles from Tom and Tor (they grew to love us). Who are “we” by the way? Charlie (27) from London (that's me), along with Abi (28) from Massachusetts, Alan (29) from New York, Becca (19) and Clifton (25) also from New York, Natasha (20) from Canada and Sam (23) from New Jersey. A mixed bunch.
We were led down a path into the pine forest and shown our forest dwellings for the next 4 months. Beautiful stone and wood rooms where the tangible ingredients of love and care are embedded in the walls. “We finished just an hour ago”joked Tom, one of the Israelis who had been part of building the centre. We then realised that he wasn't actually joking.
Tom was part of “Lower Sha'ar La'Adam” as we humorously came to call it (us being “Upper Sha'ar La'Adam). Lower Sha'arLa is a small yurt and teepee “village”, complete with 2 kitchens, 2 bonfire pits (intimate style and epic style), a theatre stage, a clay oven and the forest of Winnie the Pooh (you'll have to come to find out about that one). Most, but not all, of the residents of Lower Sha'arLa were studying anthroposophy, speech and drama and/or working in Kibbutz Harduf in one of the many incredible curative communities. I will never forget the memory of watching the forest transform around us as the students of Shnat Mevo, the Foundation Year in Anthroposophy, worked tirelessly for 3 weeks solid to stage a 5 hour (yes, FIVE hour) production of Percival, complete with set, costume, music, dance, food and good spirit. Impressive was an understatement.
Anyway, back to the arrival. (It's easy to get sidetracked around here due to the abundance of experiences!). One of my first recollections of arriving at Sha'ar La'Adam was being shown the beautiful compost toilets, which became a frequent and contentious topic of conversation throughout the programme. The way we care for our toilets reflects the way we care for our community and indeed the Earth. Perhaps a matter of opinion, which I'll own as mine, but I invite you to think about it! I feel proud to add that we have really been working well to create an ecological and sustainable environment – constructing a path to the compost heaps below the toilets, slowly learning what is the most effective and simple method of being kind to the Earth. “Shwae shwae”as they say in Arabic, slowly slowly. Also in the grand plan is to create water filtering and cleaning systems.
So, compost toilet tour, check. Now let's eat. Hadar prepared us a delicious courgette pie, Debbie made tahini and Mor prepared Israeli salad (I don't know why, but cucumber and tomatoes seem to taste even more amazing when cut so small!). It was a delicious welcome and it wouldn't be long before we were the ones preparing the food and welcoming guests for the opening ceremony and Kabbalat Shabbat. As we munched on the ohel (food), some of us more nervously than others, we each went around and introduced ourselves with our names and favourite animals. I said mine was Snail but I actually meant to say Fox. There is the fresh scent of awkwardness in the air, common to first time meetings and new experiences.
“We are so happy you're here”beams Ya'akov (the other director of Sha'ar La'Adam and one of the founders of Kibbutz Harduf), smiling with a twinkle in the eyes through his thick-lenses glasses and shaggy grey-brown hair -“we've been waiting for you.”
In the coming days we quickly we came to realise just how it meant to them that we were there, and quite how long they had worked to make it possible. It was and still is, a real kavod (honour), to be one of the 7 pioneers of this new project – or 7 flowers, as we were lovingly nicknamed by Rajah, the headmaster of the school in Ka'abiye where we would soon start teaching English. Likewise, at the close of the project, through the ceremonies and events that the children and schools had prepared for us as a send-off, did we truly realise the great impact that we had made. Of course it's not all hearts and smiles all the way through, but hey, it was only the beginning.
Beginnings are always somewhat daunting. Endings, even more so. Faced with a blank page (or these days, a screen) on which to recount the tales of our lives, one wonders where on Earth to start. “Suck it up, buttercup”, Natasha would say. “Az boi, mathilim” - so come, let's start.
Back in March earlier this year, I had just finished 4 and a half incredible months of intensive training with the School of Storytelling, based at Emerson College in the UK (specialising in Storytelling in Education). Three days after my studies came to an end, I found myself in the midst of a pine forest in the Galilee in Israel, at a place called Sha'ar La'Adam, Bab lil Insan, which translates to Gateway to Humanity.
How did I get there? One might wonder. I'm still asking myself the same question. A leap of faith, a desire to explore this strange and complicated land an the special work that is happening here. It was a new partnership between the Jewish Agency, Israel Pathways and Sha'ar La'Adam: Project TEN – a new social action and service-learning centre and coexistence volunteer programme. All the arrows of my life seemed to be pointing in this direction and, even better, the programme was sponsored by the generosity of MASA and I took it as a fantastic opportunity. Many heart palpitations later, I made it home. Even better, I should add, I was accompanied by my dearest friend Abi, who had journeyed with me at the School of Storytelling and decided to join the programme just three days before it began.
This idea of coming home to Israel is really a whole other blog in itself, but it was one of the main questions I was carrying with me – what and where is home? (other than the home that is always to be found inside). This question becomes even more complicated within the context of a country that is riddled with war and conflict – the devastation of current affairs is unavoidably and deeply felt here and indeed in the diaspora.
We began to scratch the surface of tackling these questions and issues through the Beit Midrash – text study and chavruta (partner) learning – as well as Creative Coexistence sessions with Ya'akov Arnon and Faiz Sawaid, Sha'ar La'Adam's founders. In addition, the countless conversations that occur outside of structured classes would provoke and inspire further. It becomes a running joke that Faiz' favourite question to ask is, “what is your question in life?” Indeed hearing Ya'akov and Faiz' own story of how they came to meet and create this partnership together is fascinating – I hope you will get to hear it one day – and learning some of the history of this country through their different stories together was incredibly rich and inspiring. “Wait, tell me everything”, Becca would urge, with her keen passion and curiosity to know and understanding everything!
Sha'ar La'Adam was founded in 2002 and describes itself as “an international community centre for educational, artistic and ecological activities between Arabs and Jews.”It is situated in the forest between the Bedouin village of Ka'abiyye and Kibbutz Harduf, an anthroposophical kibbutz with several health and rehabilitation centres.
“The establishing of the center is a result of many years of congenial relations between ethnically diverse neighbors who have peacefully addressed the problems between old and new settlements. Everyone involved realizes that only a joint effort will resolve these problems, leading to the foundation of a new and different reality based on a common vision.”
When talking with Faiz and Yaakov about what this place really is and what it means to them – there is something we can never quite fully grasp, only experience gives us a fuller picture. Perhaps this was most evident through our participation in the annual festival. The “vision [of Sha'ar La' Adam reflects] our ability to live together and our commitment to sharing resources, knowledge and culture.” This doesn't mean acting as one, but simply finding a language and a place to meet each other as human beings and not necessarily with the labels of Jewish, Arab, Christian, etc. In my understanding, it also encompasses having an awareness of the bigger picture that we all stem from one Source. The directors are great visionaries with plans for a multi-faith House of Devotion and other exciting projects that make me genuinely wish to return and continue to help Sha'ar La'Adam grow.
I have been volunteering with the Jewish Agency's PROJECT TEN for nearly 10 weeks now. The program is coming to an end so I have decided to gather together a few of the main highlights of my time India to share. Firstly I will give myself a brief introduction, I currently live in London and I just graduated with a BA in History & Politics from Westminster University. I have previously volunteered with Tzedek in Ghana for two months and Justifi in Thailand for one month both of which were amazing and inspiring programs. I decided that I still had much more to learn about international development and Jewish values so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to reach this aim. At the same time if I'm being completely honest I have also developed a great love of travelling so this was a great way to accomplish both!
Project TEN is designed to give its volunteers an opportunity to volunteer. Our group has been working with an NGO called Aide et Action (AEA) in direct service and at the same time provides a platform for exploring the concepts of international development and social justice issues through a Jewish perspective. Aide et action is an international NGO which is working towards ending extreme poverty primarily through providing access to an education for many in Indian society who would not otherwise have the opportunity for a variety of reasons. Some of the main projects that our groups have been working on have included AEA " run for inclusion" campaign in which we as a group have been helping to organize an international run that will take place all across India Nepal and south Asia region. One of the main aims of this campaign is to fundraise and raise awareness of the marginalization of certain groups in Indian society. I was personally working together with one of the Indian staff members to help develop the web content. We were also given various other interesting tasks during our time volunteering such as creating a vast educational booklet full of activities including lessons on leadership, conflict management and self-esteem etc.…. All of these lessons will be used by the teachers to help them in one of their educational programs called "I-Lead". Finally one of the most inspirational and memorable experiences for me and the rest of the volunteers was our visits to the rural villages. We divided into groups and went off to remote villages with the task of evaluating of AEA's school educational programs and making a detailed report at the end. This was a very valuable experience as I felt that I got to see sides of India which I would not have otherwise have done so if I was just a tourist.
We also went a several group trips to various interesting and historical sites in India including the Taj Mahal of course! It turned out that in the group I was the only non-Israeli which has proved very challenging at times! However at the same time my level of Hebrew has improved greatly although I still have a long way to go! I would just like to say that I have had a fantastic experience in India and I'm looking forwards to continuing my travels to northern India and Nepal. Finally if anyone is interested in volunteering with Project TEN please feel free to be in touch with any questions!