In case you’ve been living under a rock, you probably noticed that this past month there were elections here in Israel. Results of the elections aside, it pained me to not be able to cast my ballot in the place that I am living, to be part of the process that shapes the lives and policies of those in my city and country. It is this desire to be involved in my local community that led me to pursue an opportunity with Skilled Volunteers for Israel. Skilled Volunteers recognizes the importance of connecting those who are making Israel their (even temporary) home with organizations that are making long-term impacts in Jerusalem and beyond.
Through Skilled Volunteers, I was placed at Mercaz KLASS, an after-school homework help program for students of all ages living in the Katamonim neighborhood. Every Sunday after my own studies have finished, I walk from the parts of Jerusalem that one sees on Birthright or USY to the areas of the city that many of its residents don’t even visit. I watch as the English disappears from street signs, as the tour busses thin, and as the Jerusalem stone gets decidedly less gold.
Inside the center, though, is an experience as wonderful, as important, and even as spiritual as what goes on in the Old City. Every day after school, tutors and students come together and make empty rooms and a borrowed library into a true home. Under the amazing guidance of the program’s inspiring leader, tutors help students write essays, finish homework, and remain invested in their studies. Mercaz KLASS provides a space for students to form relationships to each other, and to fill their time after school with safe and productive activities that will help them achieve a better and brighter future.
When filling out the paperwork for the position, the program’s director characterized the students as “at risk,” a description that I have been trying to understand since starting my time at Mercaz KLASS. There are the obvious answers – Katamonim is a low income, primarily Ethiopian neighborhood, and many of the students themselves express experiences of racism and discrimination present in Israeli society. Yet I have come to understand that the biggest risk these children and their community face is being underestimated or forgotten about by those who visit, think about, and work to better Jerusalem. It is this challenge that Mercaz KLASS and Skilled Volunteers are working so tirelessly to address, and that I feel privileged to have had an opportunity to understand and combat over my time there the last few months.
Sarah Krinsky, Jerusalem, March 2015