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A Safe Space for All

Updated: Apr 2

The International YMCA in Jerusalem: A Truly Safe Space for Palestinian, Christian, and Israeli Jewish Teens

One of the highlights of my professional career was volunteering in Jerusalem for the nonprofit organization, Skilled Volunteers for Israel. It was my first time in Israel. While I am a little too “seasoned” to pick grapes on a kibbutz, I wanted this trip to be less of a tourist jaunt and more a meaningful contribution to a country that, as an American Jew, holds great significance.

Skilled Volunteers of Israel puts in a lot of time and effort to screen and match adult professionals with organizations. Once I contacted Skilled Volunteers, Marla Gamoran, the Executive Director of Skilled Volunteers, held an in-depth interview with me via Skype to assess my level of commitment, areas of interest and to determine my skill set (which are designing and delivering youth program staff training, program evaluation and documentation, writing, editing, and curriculum design).

I was eventually matched with the Jerusalem International YMCA’s Youth Programs. Several months before I left for Israel, I was put in touch with Asaf Shahar, the administratOor and a group facilitator at the Youth Department,, and with Efrat Eyal Hatchwell Ben-Eli, the director of the Youth Department, who worked closely with me to explain what they do at the YMCA, and to match my expertise with their particular program and staff needs. We eventually determined that I would design and deliver a three half-day training institute for staff and volunteers.

Co-workers collaborating

Co-workers collaborating

The YMCA’s youth Department is unique, perhaps to all of Israel, in that they bring Israeli Jews, Christians, Druse, and Moslem Palestinian youth from East and West Jerusalem together through arts programs. The programs include the ACTV Video Group, the Young Leaders Group, the Youth Performance Art Club and the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, art performance ensemble activites group, leadership group  The goals of the youth programs include creating a place where youth can develop social and cross cultural communication skills, build a caring community, and learn about themselves and others. Each group is lead by 2 facilitators, one Jewish and one Palestinian along with a translator. They also have young, mostly college age, volunteers from all over the world who come to help out with the program. The core staff includes a Palestinian and Jewish group facilitators, , Khaled Rishek and Amal Abas, along with a counselor and translator, all of whom play critical roles in building cultural and social bridges; for youth divided by language, culture, religion, and the tense, and often deadly, politics of the region.

One of the things that Asaf and Efrat wanted help with was to put their materials, resources, and experience working with youth into one coherent curriculum which would help them share their work with outside organizations as well as pass down and institutionalize their work for new staff and volunteers. In addition, they wanted help with assessing and evaluating their programs. Efrat felt that while they had been doing excellent work for several years, they had never been able to articulate what they do to other educators, funders, and outside institutions. The Institute would provide the framework for them to accomplish this.

Young Volunteer at the YMCA

A Young Volunteer participates in Sara’s training at the YMCA

In the Institute, I taught an approach to curriculum design called Backwards Planning. This is an approach that begins with identifying the intended outcomes of a curriculum and then work backwards to designing evaluation methods and then, finally, to instructional methods and lessons. The picture above shows Khaled and another group leader Amit, , co-facilitators working on the outcomes for their choral group. They were writing in Hebrew, as Khaled was more fluent in Arabic and Hebrew. On the next day, I worked on evaluation methods with some young college-aged volunteers. We first looked at the outcomes that were identified in the first day, refined the language in collaboration with Efrat Eyal Hatchwell Ben-Eli, who was there all three days, and then the volunteers created a list of ways they could evaluate the outcomes, such as by using a structure that was already in place at the program – a dialogue that was held with youth after any activity. This group dialogue was a way to process the activities with youth, and could easily be used to engage youth through structured questions to evaluate their experiences.  On the last day we focused on creating an action plan. Participants worked in groups according to their groups’ topic areas. For example, Efrat worked on an action plan with staff who worked with her theatre group.

Participants, using an action plan format, identified their interim and long term outcomes, what needed to be accomplished, by when, and by whom. This was an activity to help staff begin to implement all that we had worked on over the previous two days. As a closing activity, we stood in a circle, and passed around a gift bag, into which we place a gift that we had “received” from the Institute, and a gift that we were leaving behind for the group. I took with me the gift of deep respect for the hard work of the International YMCA, and I left behind the gift of hope.

Sara with the Team at the YMCA and SVFI's Terry Hendin

Sara with the YMCA Team and SVFI’s Terry Hendin

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