Soren Barnett ’20, Onward Israel Diversity and Social Justice, Haifa, Israel: Blog 1/3


Hello or שלום!

I am writing from Haifa, Israel, where I have been living and interning for the past seven weeks (and I have one week left)!  I am a rising junior and am double majoring in International Affairs and French, and minoring in Music.  As I will be studying abroad in Paris for the whole coming academic year (!!!), I will not be able to give a physical presentation on campus about my summer experience, so I will be writing three blogs that are organized somewhat like the following:

Blog 1/3:  About my program, how I picked the program, internship in the Ethiopian community center

Blog 2/3:  Internship at the Moadonit, challenges with the program and SEF, and tips

Blog 3/3:  Internship at the LGBTQ+ center, educational programming through Onward Israel, conclusion


About my program:

I am participating in a program called Onward Israel Diversity and Social Justice.  There are many Onward Israel programs throughout Israel centered around different themes, or drawing from particular locations in the U.S. and the goal of Onward Israel is to bring college-aged students to Israel for valuable work experience and various learning opportunities.  Most participants in Onward Israel programs are Jewish, though not all are and it is not a requirement, and most but not all come from the U.S.  All participants in the program have an internship (or in my case, three) in the city in which they live and the program sponsors three “seminar days” over the course of the eight week program, which I will explain in blog 3, and one Breakout Seminar on a weekend where we have programming and meet other Onward Israel participants (more to come in Blog 3).


How I chose this program:

At some point during the winter, I decided that I wanted to go to Israel again.  I came to Israel for the first time on a Birthright/Taglit trip for 10 days two summers ago, when I knew next to nothing about the current political situation.  I wanted to come back for a longer period of time so I could better get to know “This Place.”  And especially as everything that my one-sided American-Jewish education taught me about Israel was really challenged this past semester in the class Environmental Development in the Middle East, it felt so important to me to come here.  I know that there are so many problems and challenges here, which I want to help solve, and people who need help, and whom I want to help.  I came to Israel for two months to try to gain as much knowledge and as many perspectives as possible so I can get a little bit closer to knowing how to solve the problems and help people and get a better idea of where my future may lie in relation to this region.

I began looking up internship programs in Israel and I saw Onward Israel, which is a program that is heavily subsidized, so it seemed to be a more affordable choice, especially because I will be studying abroad for the academic year.  Choosing the themed program of Diversity and Social Justice seemed to fit my interests and meant that the programming has helped me to discover different perspectives and I’m with other students with similar interests.


Internship at an Ethiopian Community Center

This was my original internship placement based on my desire to gain new perspectives, but because of some complicated issues, I ended up with three different internships over the course of the two months, the others will be described in the other blogs.

The Ethiopian community center is for retired-age Ethiopian folks to come for a few hours on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday mornings (the Israeli work week is often Sunday-Thursday, as Friday and Saturday are the Sabbath days for Muslims and Jews, respectively) to gossip with their friends, do different activities and learn some possibly useful things.

In a typical week, Sunday would start with the folks trickling in, shaking one another’s hands and saying good morning (which I finally learned how to say in Amharic, the language they all speak).  Not long after, a woman would come in and either lead some work in the garden (often just weeding) on the property where there were tomato plants and hot pepper plants and some beautifully efficient drip irrigation.  Other weeks, she taught everyone how to make a delicious Israeli salad, extracted lemongrass oil in this complicated setup right in front of us and taught about the helpful properties of the oil (at least I think – I don’t understand much Hebrew so a lot of it definitely eluded me), and she once even brought in a deep fryer and an air fryer and made potato fries, while apparently talking about how oil is not healthy.  After her lesson/demonstration, there would be a snack that consisted of, depending on the day, either these weird, large, tan beans, barley, or popcorn and little teacups of buna, a strong black coffee.  Everyone would then kind of do various things sitting in their seats, often talking or playing cards or this matching game with little tiles.  Many of the folks there barely even speak much Hebrew, and when they do, it’s with an accent, so for me, who barely speaks Hebrew as well, it was almost impossible to understand or communicate at first.  I played a lot of cards the first week and communicated with many gestures and other non-verbal cues.  A few women taught me some card game that I never truly understood because they all seemed to play it differently, but as they would deal the cards, I slowly learned how to count to 10 in Amharic, which always makes them smile and feel proud.  I was also able to teach them how to play the game “war” with my then very, very limited vocabulary.  The last part of the day would be a lunch that I helped serve and I got to practice and learn some Hebrew during this, such asking if they wanted more of a certain dish.

On Mondays, a yoga instructor would come in and lead “sports” that involved either a squishy ball or a latex band and some sitting and standing.  I would often help collect the balls that were dropped throughout the time but I also went pretty hard in these workouts because why not, so I also helped demonstrate for the older folks, who were cute and funny while attempting to the movements.  The repetition of these workouts and the Hebrew vocabulary in them has actually helped me learn quite a few new words.  Then after snack, a woman would come in and help with some crafts.  Most of them are working on these colorful needle-point creations and I would help them when needed (pictured above) in between working on my own crafts and needle-points that are to be gifts for some of my family members.  I often sat next to my favorite woman, who I apparently remind of her five year old grandson, even though I’m 20… We’d sometimes have tiny interactions in Hebrew complementing one another’s work or talking about and showing pictures of our respective families.  It was really nice getting to connect with her because I felt like I had some trouble making friends with those in my program so when I feel particularly lonely, it has been really nice to know that she enjoys my company and I enjoy giving her hugs and saying the two things I know in Amharic to make her smile, despite our inability to verbally communicate extensively.

On Tuesdays, we’d also have “sports” and then a man would come in and teach a mixture of Israeli history and current events, Hebrew, and some Torah (Bible stories).  My job was to keep everyone’s water cup full.

Overall, because of their many previously organized activities, my friend and I didn’t get to lead as many activities as we had hoped to.  I did play viola for everyone one day.  We mostly helped with everything that went on, but were also able to make connections with the people there.  I came looking to get a deep understanding of some perspectives of Ethiopians in Israel, but the language barrier made that difficult.  However, I got to understand little snippets of their lives and perspectives through making emotional connections and hearing them brag about their grandchildren.  I also spent a number of hours helping my boss with English, which taught me probably as much about how difficult of a language English is as it taught me new words in Hebrew.  It also taught me a lot about common mistakes in English and helped me see a new way that people mentally process learning new languages.

For the rest of my experience, please read the other two parts of my blog!

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