Volunteering: Unpeeling The Dimensions of Israel


SYBIL SCHWARTZ SVFI with Terra Sancta School principal, Fr. Zaer Abboud ofm, Jaffa on Dec. 18, 2014

In December 2014, I had the honor and pleasure of volunteering in Israel for a month.  Having toured and studied in Israel many times I decided it was time to lend a hand and learn more. I was hoping to deepen my understanding of the issues that dominate the news, and gain insights about the broad spectrum of individuals who reside in the country; their hopes, wishes, and concerns.  Through the Skilled Volunteers of Israel placements at a Jerusalem high school, and a non-profit – the “Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations,” my understanding of the realities were enhanced.

When volunteering at the high school, my role was to assist in preparing 12th graders for their mandatory English oral exams. I learned that these Israeli high school students love their country and have a sense of obligation for serving in the military. These young women and men may have emigrated as young children, many are first generation Israelis whose families originate from Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, etc.. They were patriotic, committed to service and considering numerous career options after their military commitment.  These students may be considered the secular young people of Israel; yet a few had shared that going to the Western Wall meant connecting with God.

At the “Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations” (JCJCR), I came to more fully understand that Israel harbors more than the holy sites for great religions; Israel is a land in which diverse, heterogeneous populations reside.  My task at the JCJCR was inviting multiple tour operators via phone conversations to be listed in an on-line tourist catalog. This directory would provide visitors with varied narratives to understand and relate to the holy land.

Volunteering with the JCJCR, I came to appreciate how important the use of words can be in creating bridges to broader dialogues between the varied populations of Israel.  I had the opportunity to witness middle school students- Jews, Christians and Arabs- interact through structured cross-cultural relationship building exercises that fostered an understanding of each others’ cultures, mores and religion. And ultimately I developed even greater appreciation for how Jewish, Christian and Moslem mothers, fathers, grandparents, struggle to live their everyday lives despite the presence and influence of extremists.

Beyond the five days of volunteering each week, I looked forward to the feeling of calm that permeated the streets of Jerusalem as I walked to Shabbat services. My dear friend Sister Gemma and I journeyed together to the Western Wall amid the bustle of Jerusalem preparing for the Sabbath. On Saturday night I further enriched my multi-cultural experience by attending a local church celebrating mass in Hebrew!

One month later, the memories of the high school students’ enduring and unselfish dedication to the people and land of Israel, as well as JCJCR’s commitment to creating programs that foster understanding and dialogue between Jews and the local minorities, are indelibly imprinted in my psyche.   It is these memories that will ensure that I once again volunteer for “Skilled Volunteers for Israel”, to discover, learn and contribute to Israel.

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