Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chag Pesach Sameach

A quick update before Pesach break…it definitely feels weird to be leaving Haifa. A great 3 months, and it sounds cliché, but I can’t believe it’s over already. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, both the time I spent volunteering in the community and my free time exploring Israel’s third-largest city. I was fortunate enough to meet so many great people, and while I know I’m not always the best at keeping in touch, I hope to keep these connections going, especially everyone involved in the Boston/Haifa Connection with whom I’m looking forward to working when I get back in Boston.

I still have yet to post anything about our most recent Otzma education seminar, a 2-day tiyul about religious minorities in Israel. I hope to post an entry about my thoughts and reactions before I leave for Italy next week. Italy? Holla! I’ll be spending the second half of my Pesach vacation traveling around Rome, Florence and Venice with Tom and Adam, so best believe there will be plenty of pictures to be taken, including a special gelato photo diary. Then it’s off to Jerusalem for my last two months in Israel.

So Chag Sameach to all – and especially on Pesach, where we commemorate the exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom, I hope each of us keeps Gilad Schalit in our hearts and prayers. Gilad is spending his 4th Pesach in captivity, held prisoner by Hamas against all conventions of international law.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Inspirational Conference

These past few days have truly been a highlight of my time in Haifa.  I had the opportunity to participate in the Boston/Haifa Connection’s Joint Steering Committee conference, an experience that re-affirmed my desire to become more involved in the partnership’s activities and projects.  Even though I knew generally what each of the 7 committees did, I learned a tremendous amount about the specific projects they work on and plan to start, as well as the pilot programs and special missions the Haifa/Boston Connection has recently initiated (such as the truly inspiring Hatikvah mission of Israeli soldiers who will be traveling to Boston to commemorate Yom HaShoah.)

I enjoyed meeting and talking with people from both sides of the partnership, from new friends involved in the Young Leadership on the Haifa side, to the dedicated and talented professionals and lay leaders with whom I look forward to working when I return to Boston in June. 

The meeting of the Joint Steering Committee coincided with the Volunteer Week spearheaded by the Young Leadership of Haifa—over 1200 young adults volunteering their time in different areas across the city.  I have had the opportunity to take part in a wide variety of community service projects during my year on OTZMAl, and it was particularly refreshing to go to the Fichman elementary school and the Beit HaKehilla community center along with the Young Leadership Committee to see many other Haifaim involved and energized to help their community.  At the Fichman school, we were able to be in a few places at once, as we split up between helping out in a first grade classroom, assembling and planting a “wishing tree”, and painting a mural on the school’s outside walls (somehow I managed not to screw up the mural too much and came away with zero paint on myself…quite a success!) 

But personally, our volunteer activity on Tuesday was particularly meaningful because it was a fitting way to say goodbye to the community center where I volunteered every Tuesday.  We visited Beit HaKehilla in the Sha’ar Ha’Aliyah neighborhood, which is a community center for Ethiopian Israelis and is supported by both Shiluvim and the Leo Baeck Education Center.  Given the upcoming start to Pesach vacation, it was my last day at Beit HaKehilla, so it was really nice to see our Boston/Haifa volunteers interacting and gardening with the kids I’ve been working with, and for me to have the chance to say a proper goodbye afterwards. 

Through my work at the Haifa/Boston Connection office here in Haifa, I was able to see first-hand how much time and energy Lital, Vered, and Yehudit, along with dozens of other committee members, spent, preparing for the meeting of the Joint Steering Committee. And as I think was apparent to all of us who were able to attend, they did a fantastic job planning and organizing the meeting, allowing for a good balance between time for the individual committees to meet together, and time to mix and interact outside the committees, such as the dinner and karaoke at the Binyamina Winery.

Hit it here for my most recent pics 

Also, if you made it this far, check out the amazing work my sister Becca has been doing leading U. Maryland's Alternative Spring Break trip to Rancho Feliz, Mexico - they're doing some really cool things....kudos Beccs

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tiyulim in K-Shmo

I can't say I've gotten everywhere I wanted to during this Part 2 of Otzma (sorry southerners), but I did get up to Kiryat Shmona this past weekend.  My roommate Tom and I traveled up north to visit our friends who live in K-Shmo, San Francisco’s partnership community, located just five kilometers south of the Israeli/Lebanese border.  We had the good fortunes to visit during a weekend with great weather to be outdoors—sunny and about 70 degrees, and we took advantage of those conditions. 

On Friday, our fellow Otzmanik Jeremy led a group of 9 of us from the program on a hike through Tel Hai National Park and up the Naftali Mountains.  As we hiked, we took in the beautiful views—the city of Kiryat Shmona directly below us, the entire Hula Valley and the Golan Heights to the east, and the still snow-capped Hermon range to the north.  All the grassy fields we walked by were green, thanks to the rainfall from the previous weekend (rain which brought the water level in the Kinneret back over the “red” emergency line).  The one depressing thing was seeing the remains of cut-down trees that were hit by Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah.  Over 1,000 of the 4,000-plus Katyushas fired by Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War fell in Kiryat Shmona. 

We had a very nice Shabbat dinner, as we split up between Jeremy's host family and Yael's co-worker and her always, there was no shortage of delicious food and good company.  We were in for another fun but challenging adventure on Shabbat, as we walked all the way from K-Shmo to the Jordan River, about a 4-mile walk each direction. Along the way, we enjoyed more of the surrounding scenery, including a huge wheat field featuring Israeli irrigation technology and a gorgeous view of the western Golan.  When we got to the Jordan, we passed by several groups of people sitting and relaxing along the banks of the river, enjoying the day the same way we were.

Israelis—religious and secular alike—feel such a strong connection to the land, evidenced by their love of hiking and exploring the country.  It’s a great feeling to be able to join them in exploring and getting to know this amazing land, whose topography includes such a diverse range of mountains, hills, and valleys stretching from Metulla and the Hermon in the North to Eilat and the Arava Mountains in the South.

Here in Haifa, we're gearing up for the Joint Steering Committee meeting of the Haifa/Boston Connection starting on Sunday. I'm looking forward to this meeting to see how the two sides of the partnership come together and how each is planning to go forward with their respective programs.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Purim in Tel Aviv - Israel's Mardi Gras

There’s no holiday quite like Purim.  From the costumes, to sounding the graggers during megillah reading, to the Talmudic commandment to drink as a way of lifting our spirits closer to God, there’s no other celebration that’s as outwardly – and inwardly – festive on the Jewish calendar.

Having never been in Israel during Purim, many of us on Otzma were determined to celebrate it in style.  We heard about the annual street party in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood that always draws a big crowd and decided to check it out.  While the forecast predicted heavy downpours for Saturday night, the rain stayed away for the entire evening, and thousands descended on the street party extraordinaire that had the feel of a Jewish Mardi Gras.  Yours truly went as a pirate, and my fellow Otzmaniks dressed up as everything from Aladdin to cowboys to Shnickers and the Situation from Jersey Shore (incidentally, the real life Snooki and Vinny attended a Purim party the other night in Manhattan).

Sunday afternoon was for the kids – Dizengoff Center was filled with families and children in all sorts of costumes (by my informal count, the most popular costume among young kids was the Na-Nachs, a sect of the Breslov Hasids who wear big white, knitted kippot). Inside the mall, there were games and mini-playgrounds set up for the kids, and the middle schoolers shopping and eating were also decked out and dressed up. 

While the events of the Purim story took place thousands of years ago, there are still Hamans in the world today who are openly and vocally plotting the destruction of the Jewish people. Just this past weekend, the unholy triumvirate of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah, and Bashar Assad had a get-together in Syria full of the usual rhetoric, once again reminding the world of their dangerous intentions, and the Jewish people of the continued existence of Amalek.  But just like the Jewish people survived Haman’s original Purim plot, and the countless incarnations of Amalek ever since, we will continue to live eternal, the ultimate miracle of God’s Covenant with us as His Chosen People.

Hit it here for pics from the Purim weekend, including our Thursday night holiday festivities in Haifa.

Faithful readers of this space will remember that this was actually the second time I've "celebrated" Purim in just over 2 months. There was, of course, the absurd Purim party we had at Livnot in the middle of Chanukah. Weird as it was, it did bring us this fantastic picture...Captain Israel lives on!