Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy Australia Day

A very Happy Australia Day to all - it's hard to believe it's really been five years since that incredible semester in Sydney full of sun, Toohey's Old, pides, ice cream, and plenty of giggling in the Cohen/Goldstein room (thanks Mikey for the photo)

Today we celebrated Brett's 23rd birthday in style. Haifa Hotel manager Joseph cooked up a Tex-Mex dinner, and Gym Instructor Tom Holtz and I contributed the dessert to the celebrations.

One of the other highlights this week was meeting with a delegation that's here from Boston called The Learning Exchange. It's a group of NGO leaders visiting Israel for a week and Haifa for a 3-day seminar, in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Haifa/Boston Connection. They are meeting their NGO counterparts in Haifa to share experiences and learn new approaches towards strengthening the economic development and social justice work in their respective communities. For many, this is their first trip to Israel and to Haifa, and I got to meet with them at their opening event last night.

Thursday, we will be waking up bright and early to get on a 6am bus for the start of a 5-day seminar...and if it wasn't a seminar I was really looking forward to, I'd be royally pissed to get up that early.  Our Otzma seminar is called Sichsuch veh Tikvah, or Conflict & Hope, and is about the Israeli/Arab conflict. We'll be hearing from people from all across the political spectrum - from the left, the right, and from the Arab perspective, and we'll be going on some tours around Judea and Samaria. I think it will be fascinating to be able to see with our own eyes things that we read about in the news. I think it will also be important for some people in the group to learn the real facts about certain issues, as opposed to the way the mainstream media and often anti-Israeli media, reports.

I try to read as much as I can about the current events, and I found this feature from Ha'Aretz particularly interesting, and it's definitely something I'd like to ask different people about during this upcoming seminar. The headline is, "Not all settlers and Palestinians want each other to disappear", and it's about a group called Yerushalom, made up of Jews living in Judea and Samaria, and Palestinians living in surrounding Arab villages, who meet on a regular basis and talk about the things going on in their communities and look for a way to find a common ground and live peacefully together. It's long but very well worth the read.

I'm sure I'll have plenty to write and share after the seminar, so I will post another update when I get back to Haifa next week.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Step Tours and Crazy Sunsets

Many people know about the Bahi’I Gardens and the shops and restaurants in the Carmel Center, but another activity that is unique to Haifa is the Thousand Step Tours that take you from the top of the Carmel to the bottom. There are four paths you can choose, each taking you down a different route through one of the neighborhoods at the bottom. Given the weather has been so beautiful, I thought going on one of these self-guided tours would be a great way to see a new part of the city and to be outside and get some exercise at the same time.

Becca and I went on Thursday afternoon, and it was Take 2 for us. We had set out to do it the week before but neglected to bring our maps and before we even hit the 50 step mark, we lost the official step path and proceeded to make our own route down the mountain. It was definitely fun, but we wanted to do it the right way. This time, we set out to go down the Red path to Wadi Nisnas, an area neither of us had really seen yet. The photo on the left is from the beginning of the Thousand Step Tour, at the top of the first staircase before the four paths split from each other. Descending down the stairs, we walked through some residential streets that were reminiscent of suburbia with all the trees and gardens surrounding some of the houses. As we continued west and down the mountain, we approached the Bahi’I Gardens before cutting back east into Wadi Nisnas. After completing the Red path, not only do I now want to do the other three paths, but I’m planning to take a day to walk up the Thousand Steps from the bottom to the top…talk about some exercise!

Ariel came in for Shabbat and we made a delicious dairy dinner (oh Channel 7…) of a salad with feta cheese, salmon steak, and a noodle kugel, and two different kinds of ice cream for dessert. The three of us went on quite an adventure on Saturday. We took a sherut to Akko and walked along the water en route to the Old City. The stone walls are from the days of the Crusaders and there are paths along the Ramparts to walk on top of them, so we went up to see the views from a bit higher. While up on the walls, we stopped to watch some of the waves crash near a lookout point directly below us. There we saw a highlight of the day – a group of kids were watching the waves, when a big one approached. Most of them ran from the shore, but one kid stayed and got drenched by this huge wave! From there, we walked through the shuk, which on Saturday consisted of mainly Arab businesses, and found a restaurant for lunch. It was this really nice place with arches carved into the stone interior, and we gorged ourselves on pita, hummus and falafel.

Ariel’s friend from summer camp, Amir, met us at the restaurant and wanted to take us somewhere to go walking or hiking. So we started driving north planning on going for a short hike and then to a Crusader fortress. But since we were so far up north, we decided instead to go to Rosh Hanikra, the beautiful cliffs marking Israel’s border with Lebanon along the Mediterranean. We first saw the dramatic scenery from high up at the top of the cliff, and then went down to sea level to sit and watch the waves crash and the water splash on the rocks along the coast. We stayed for sunset, which as you’ll be able to see from my pictures, was all sorts of crazy colors – (so many colors even I could see!).

Amir then took us to his house in Mitzpeh Hila for some tea. As we turned onto his street, there was a poster reading “Gilad, we’re waiting for you at home” – referring to Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped 3 and a half years ago and is being held in captivity by Hamas. I didn’t think much of it as we passed it because many places in Israel have posters in his honor. But as we slowed down to turn into Amir’s driveway, he pointed to the house across the street, he said, “That over there is Gilad Schalit’s house”. He said it rather non-chalantly, but it was very powerful. Gilad’s captivity, and the proposed prisoner exchange with Hamas to bring him home is a controversial, yet gut-wrenching political discussion. And regardless of how I feel about the exchange itself, there’s no way to deny the pain of knowing that one of Israel’s soldiers is being held by Hamas and is living in untold suffering, unable to be visited by the International Red Cross or any other human rights organizations.

But back to happier things – on Sunday, Becca and I went up to Katzrin for two simchas. Eli and Elisheva had a birthday party for Ma’or, who just turned three years old. In addition to the Elmo Cake and lots of very good food and goodie bags for the kids, Ma’or got his hair cut for the first time and got his first kippa and tzitzit to wear. It was also the first time we got to meet their beautiful newborn daughter, Hallel Shira.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

All Sorts of Adventures

I got here just over a week ago, and already, I feel at home. All four of us are getting closer to finalizing our volunteering schedules, and we have a pretty cool range of activities. Brett and Joseph will be working in Akko every Monday because Akko is the partnership city for Texas, so they'll be able to get involved there and get to know a second city. Tom and Brett are helping to coach basketball with Maccabi Haifa's youth league, and all three of them will be volunteering at the zoo as well (clearly the zoo is not the spot for me). And I have my first day of teaching TV production tomorrow, so hopefully that goes well.

In addition to meeting the people we'll be volunteering with, we've had fabulous weather with which to go out and explore the city (and yes, as you can see from some of my pictures, go on an adventure to the Yam in January). Becca and I did quite a bit of walking the other day. There are 4 different walking trails that take you from the top of Haifa and the Carmel Mountain to the bottom of the city by steps (there are about 1000 steps on each trail). We figured it would be a great way to see different neighborhoods in the city and get some exercise at the same time. I knew where the trail began so I didn't bring my map of where the trail went...each of the paths is color coded so I figured it would be marked which way to go. Well, naturally after about 50 steps we lost the steps and just wound up making our own trail, which ended us being a good thing because we found both the Arab markets and the regular shuk, so we stopped off to get some good fruits and veggies, and continued our walk all the way down back to our place.

One of the great things about being here has been meeting the volunteers of the Young Leadership Division of the Haifa/Boston Connection. They've been a great welcoming committee, taking us out to some fun bars around town and even bringing us gift baskets full of food. Liel, a member of the YLD, works as a broadcaster and producer at Radio Haifa 107.5 FM and invited us to the station last night to watch her show. We hung out in the studio with her while she was on air from 10pm-midnight and she talked a bit about us during the program and let us each give a quick shoutout on the air. And as we found out during the middle of the show thanks to Tom Holtz, the entire show is broadcast via webcam online, so next time we go visit, everyone can see us rocking out in the studio.

Today was my first day helping out at an after school community center for Ethiopian olim called Beit Kehilah (literally, the house of the community). It's funny, much like was the case with the gan I worked at in Ashkelon, before we went on a site visit last week, I wasn't planning on working there. But we met with two of the center's directors and advisors and they told us what the center offered, and especially after briefly chatting with some of the kids, I decided it was exactly where I wanted to help. Middle school-age kids come after school at 1:30pm and are served a hot lunch, which is important because many of them come from lower income families who sometimes don't provide proper nutrition. So they eat and then start on their homework and have a small support staff to help them with their work.  They stay until 4:30ish and then the high schoolers come. My role is to help with English homework as needed, and if the kids have already done their homework, just talk about anything and get them to practice speaking in English. This is where I feel so fortunate that my Hebrew is as good as it is because I can switch from English to Hebrew to translate or explain something and then switch back to remind them to use their English. And it's so important for them to practice speaking because a lot of jobs, especially retail or food service jobs, require a certain level of English speaking ability.

Many of the kids I talked to first asked me where I was from and how long I was staying in Israel, and then asked me if I listened to the same American rap they did. And of course, pretty high up on that list is Tupac. I still don't understand how Ethiopian Israelis came to be obsessed with Tupac. I mean I know why I became obsessed with him, but it's really interesting that Israelis who were literally 2 or 3 when he died still know everything about him. So I actually spent a good 15 minutes talking to these 15 year old girls about Tupac...gotta love it!  Another reason I'm excited about volunteering there is the community center receives assistance as part of a project called Shiluvim, which is run by the Haifa/Boston Connection to help the Ethiopian community.  Generally volunteers have a chance to be involved on the committee level or on the grassroots level but not always both. By working with these students twice a week, I'll be able to see exactly how the aims and goals of the Shiluvim project are carried out in the community and how it helps build the future leaders of the community.

We've also had the chance to check out the nighlife in Haifa (yes, there are other places besides Scubar). Thursday night, a few of our other friends from Otzma came to visit and celebrate Jeremy's birthday – dinner in the German Colony followed by seeing HaDag Nahash live in concert. HaDag Nahash is one of my favorite Israeli bands – for those who haven't heard of them or their music, I can describe them as the Israeli version of the Roots, especially in concert, when they have 8 musicians on stage in addition to the two MCs. In addition to their classics and fan favorites such as "The Sticker Song" and "Hine Ani Ba", they played a few songs from their upcoming album, which should be out in the next couple of months.

For those that made it this far, the reward is this...here's the link to my album of pics from the first week in Haifa, enjoy!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Welcome to Haifa

After about a month on the road, I'm finally settling into my new home in Haifa - and I couldn't be more excited.

As you can see from the picture, it's absolutely gorgeous here, and there's amazing scenery to see just about anywhere in the city For those who don't know, Haifa is Israel's third-largest city, located on the Mediterranean about an hour north of Tel Aviv. It's built on the Carmel Mountain, and I've heard its steep streets going up the mountain remind people of San Francisco.

I'll be here for 3 months, until the end of March, with 3 friends from my program: Brett, Joseph, and Tom. We're living in the lower part of the mountain, in between the Kiryat Eliezer and German Colony neighborhoods, and about a 15 minute walk from the beach. There's so much to do and so many things to see, I almost don't know where to begin with all my exploring.

Haifa is Boston's sister city, and so much of the work I'll be doing is in conjunction with the Boston-Haifa Connection, the organization that runs the partnership between the two cities. Along with two of the people who work on the Haifa side of the partnership, I'm going to be working on communications outreach and raising awareness about all the great programs and events going on across Haifa. Hopefully this will include not only revamping their website and translating it into English, but getting out and taking pictures and videos of different events around town and putting together a more updated promotional video to highlight what the partnership does. One of the reasons I'm so excited about this work is I'll get to meet all the different groups coming from Boston to Haifa during the time I'm here, including different birthright/Taglit trips (we met a group from UMass yesterday) and kids from the same Schechter school where I went from K-8.

I'm also going to have the opportunity to help teach television production to high school students. Here in Israel, students have the ability to choose a major in high school and take extra classes in subjects that interest them. So for students interested in communication, they can take classes in film and television, and I'll be helping out with the technical aspect, teaching them about studio and field production, and how to use different computer programs to edit their video projects. I enjoyed getting to teach TV production during the ITRP summer programs at BU, and I'm excited for the opportunity to be able to use my skills and knowledge in TV to not only teach Israeli teenagers, but also get to know them outside the traditional classroom setting.

I realize it's been quite a while since I posted anything, so here's a cliff's notes version of what I've been up to (you can also see the visual diary of my pics on facebook). After the Livnot U'Lehibanot program in Tzfat, I had the opportunity to take part in the first ever conference on Israel-based education. It was held over 3 days in Jerusalem, and I learned a tremendous amount about the challenges Israel educators face in teaching about Israel. It's so important to me that Jews all around the world, and particularly American Jews, have a connection with Israel. Of course there's the old saying: 2 Jews, 3 opinions, so we're not going to agree on everything, especially when it comes to politics, but there's so much more to Israel than politics, and it's crucial Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools work to do a better job of incorporating Israel education into the curriculum. Especially with the incredibly high rate of intermarriage among American Jews, it's important to foster a connection to Israel and to teach why Israel is so crucial to Jews all around the world.

After the conference, I spent a couple of days with Reut and her family in Netanya - we had a great time wandering around Yafo and Tel Aviv, and watching Home Alone on Christmas Eve! I spent the following Shabbat in Katzrin with Eli, Elisheva, Ma'Or and a whole gang of hooligans, and then Becca came! It’s been a few years since we’ve traveled together, but true to Cohen family tradition, we quickly had gigglefests, and I’m sure there will still be many more along the way.

Becca and I spent the first two days in Tel Aviv wandering around and doing lots of eating. We took advantage of the great weather and a trusty city map to walk all over on Monday, going to Dizengoff Center, the Jabotinsky Institute Museum and the Etzel Museum, the Shuk HaCarmelit, and of course, a café for lunch before making our way to the beach to relax for a bit and meeting up with Ariel for dinner. We spent the next day in Jerusalem, taking a tour of the Kotel Tunnels, the underground extension of the Western Wall located underneath the streets of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, truly one of the most fascinating archaeological findings anywhere in Israel.

We spent Shabbat in Efrat with Ephraim and Batya, which was great. Somehow they hadn't known about my obsession with ice cream, and since Batya was preparing a milk meal for Shabbat lunch, she suggested we pick up some ice cream that we could have for dessert. Ephraim picked up 4 pints of Haagen Daas ice cream and the 4 of us nearly polished off all of them...what a great way to spend Shabbat!

So that's what's going on in a nutshell...click here for pictures from my vacation, and here for a few first pics from Haifa!