It was just over a year ago that I was sitting in front of my computer in Jerusalem, having just completed a month of volunteering in two different settings there, and trying to organize my thoughts and impressions. Now I am doing the same, but in Haifa, where I volunteered for a month at a satellite program of the Leo Baeck Community Center, an after school program for children at risk.
My husband and I rented an apartment (AirB&B) in the Carmel Center neighborhood of Haifa, a bustling commercial and cultural place. When we had time, we got to explore other neighborhoods and sights, including of course the beach, an easy bus ride away. I love being in Israel. Though one can’t deny the occasional gruff encounter, people are almost always open, friendly and welcoming. Israel feels like family. Some of the most memorable conversations happen on the bus. One example: A young woman boarded the bus before me and asked the driver a question I didn’t hear. I did, however, hear his response, which was “you have to take a helicopter if you want to do that!” When I boarded, I said to the driver – “I didn’t know that Egged had helicopters.” He answered: “Egged doesn’t have auto buses!”
My placement was richly rewarding, and a month was barely enough time. Children who are identified as being at risk are referred to an after school program, where they receive academic support, a safe place to be and to play, enrichment activities, and a healthy warm meal. The program is run essentially by one teacher, Iris Temkin, who has been in her role for 17 years and is totally devoted to the kids. There is also a “house mother” who cooks the meal and functions as another supervising adult. These kids come from families with the full array of dysfunction – mental illness, neglect, addiction, abuse. Most, but not all, are academically challenged, and most have significant behavioral challenges as well.
I thought that I had achieved a competent enough level of Hebrew before I arrived, but found that I sometimes struggled to understand the kids. They, no surprise, talk a mile a minute. Neither Iris or Alice, the house mother, have much English; I had no trouble speaking with them. I did whatever seemed to be needed in the moment. I helped with homework – English, math and Hebrew. I played games with the kids, supervised them on the playground, and provided support to Iris and Alice. I felt as if I had authentic and warm connections, certainly with the adults, and also with many of the children. I regretted not having more time to be with them.
I leave hoping that I will be back next year, and I would be more than happy to return to my friends, big and small, at the Leo Baeck Children At Risk Center.
Rhoda G, Boston