the thing about love and the thing about peace, the thing about hope and the thing about me, is we keep on keeping on when life gets hard

Stories included in the following article are shared only to illustrate striking experiences that made significant impacts on my life and my relationship with ‘hope.’ Please respect my honest experiences as exactly that.

If you’ve known me for a while or if you happen to be a fellow Rock Boater, then you may not be surprised to read that one of the things I find most valuable in life are moments. Not just any moment, but moments that you’ll always save as precious memories frozen in time. Moments that inspire you. Moments when you were challenged and made the right choice (or maybe even the wrong one). Moments when the lead singer of your favorite band gave you his mic to sing part of your favorite song. Moments that shattered your entire understanding of the world. Moments that inspired you to keep on keeping on when life gets hard. Moments when you felt real, undeniable, unstoppable, unquestionable, unwavering love. Moments that are once in a lifetime.

In July of 2014, I went to Israel on my Birthright trip with Amazing Israel. One of the most influential moments for me (and there were many) was the moment my understanding of ‘hope’ changed completely. On Birthright, participants have the opportunity to be given a Hebrew name. I asked my tour guide/educator, Barak Berkovich, to help me find a meaningful name, as he seemed to really appreciate the intense experience I was having with the conflict as it unfolded around us throughout Operation Protective Edge. He asked me about a Facebook post I had made a day or two beforehand. Our conversation went something like this (paraphrased, of course – it’s been two years, after all).

Barak: What you wrote, it was beautiful. What does it mean to you? The song you shared, and what you wrote about it?

Katie: *long pause, lost in thought* I think, maybe… hope.

Barak: Ahhhhh, Tikvah. What a beautiful word and a beautiful name.

Tikvah (תקווה). In that moment, hope was no longer just a word we say when we want our favorite team to win the big game or the new movie to be good. For me, hope was the beginning. Hope is the beginning. That summer, my heart swelled with hope for Israel. Since then, I’ve come to find that any kind of progress or change in the world starts with hope.

In the beginning of Achvat Amim, we met a Rabbi who asked us what our thoughts were on peace in Israel. “Is it even possible?” When it was my turn to answer, I said that, while I was new to understanding this conflict and came to Jerusalem to learn about it, I was still “hopelessly optimistic” that peace is possible in Israel. This session with the Rabbi stuck with me throughout my time in Jerusalem – every time my idea of hope strengthened, morphed, or was challenged. And there were certainly times during my five months in Israel when I lost hope.

In October 2015, very early on in our program, we went with the Center of Jewish Nonviolence to Susiya in the West Bank to help the Palestinian communities there with their olive harvests. We spent the day with wonderfully kind, generous, and welcoming locals who served us delicious tea and made us feel comfortable in their homes. After a day in the field picking olives, we sat in a big circle and spoke with one of the host families over dinner. A father told his son that all of the volunteers there were Jewish. His son laughed at what he thought was a joke. The father insisted that we all were in fact Jewish. His son’s eyes got wide with surprise. “Really?! No!” It took me a long time to really understand why he was so stunned. Eventually, I realized that in that child’s six or seven years of living, the only Jewish people he had met were soldiers or residents of the nearby Susiya settlement, and none of them had ever helped his family with their olive harvests before.

When we talked about this as a group in Achvat Amim at the end of the day, we wondered how many people out there are like him and have only experienced a certain group of people in a certain way. How many Palestinian children only have soldiers and settlers guiding their perspectives on Israelis? And how many Israeli children only know Palestinians from terrorist attacks? How can there be hope when so many people – generations, now – on both sides have only experienced half of the picture and believe that to be everything there is to it? Going to Susiya really magnified for me how extremely different each person’s perspective in this conflict is. It’s almost not even about perspective anymore – this is not just how these individuals see the conflict – its truly how they’ve experienced it. How can there be hope when there is little chance to change these experiences on both sides? But then typing that, I immediately think, ‘I hope we changed that boy’s experience with Jewish people, because if we did, then maybe we gave him a chance to have a different perspective in this conflict.’

It should be noted that this very community that hosted us in October is now facing another potential demolition. My experience in Susiya was difficult, but it left me believing that if we keep working together, we can find a way to safely and positively coexist. I worry for the safety and survival of all of the people I met there, especially if the metal scraps and tarps they use to make homes are demolished.

Susiya was just the beginning. Later, I finally got brave enough to go to Bethlehem. Okay, I finally got brave enough to ask my wonderful Dutch friend who had been there three times already if she would please take me, because I had no idea how to even get there, let alone what to do once (if) I got there. Visiting Bethlehem was one of the most powerful and difficult experiences I have ever had. From talking to shopkeepers and locals throughout the day who all used the phrase “I feel like a prisoner,” to walking down the street towards the infamous wall where past protests were violent enough to permanently close all the businesses that used to be there, to seeing and touching the wall, to absorbing all the powerful works of art on the wall, to leaving Bethlehem through a walking checkpoint at 5pm as crowds of locals return home from the work day – that day was a turning point for me and significantly challenged my hope. I was moved to tears more than once, and looking at photos still makes me emotional. Experiencing that reality in just one day was enough for me to begin to understand why so much hope has been lost in Bethlehem, and to empathize with the fact that there is very little hope in restoring any hope.

The same week I went to Bethlehem, I also went with Achvat Amim to the desert to learn about challenges in the south. We first tried to piece together what we could of the Gaza situation, touring the border with Gaza, visiting Sderot, and discussing the history of Gaza and what used to be. I went into that learning day with so much hope that I would come out on the other side with a better understanding of what actually happened while I was in Israel the last time, on Birthright, during Operation Protective Edge. But even after walking along the border, looking across the valley, and seeing Gaza… that situation is still hopeless to me. I can’t even begin to think of a way to solve all the problems that exist there. It seems to me that social change won’t even scratch the surface, and the barriers to even small grassroots efforts are seemingly insurmountable. Thinking back on that day still hurts my heart. Losing hope is not something I do, but I did then.

The next day, we explored some of the recognized and unrecognized Bedouin villages of Israel. After visiting Umm al-Hiran, I almost ran out of hope. I cannot follow any sort of rationalization for not recognizing people and where they live. They are there. Period. Not recognizing that they are there doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. You can dislike that they are there all you want, and you can even debate whether or not they should be there, but simply not recognizing them doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, you can drive there. So, the town is there, and when you get there, you see and speak to the people there. Adding to that is the idea of demolishing what the residents of Umm al-Hiran have built for themselves [which, by the way, how are there demolition orders for a community that “doesn’t exist” / is unrecognized?] in order to build a Jewish community in the same place and name it Hiran just furthers my confusion and, at the time, made me ready to throw in my hope towel. What is happening in this place that I love so much? It seemed like the opposite of all the Jewish values I hold so dear to my heart, and the opposite of tikkun olam. This is not repairing the world… it’s actively demolishing it. When I first wrote this post, I wanted to believe that, with this issue, there is hope, because all it would take is to just not demolish these peoples’ homes and to ‘recognize‘ them, right? I thought. I hoped. But then I read this. And then this. And now I see how difficult this situation is, and how hard it is to have hope in its resolution.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I went back to Israel because I fell in love with a place that was at war. I wanted to be a part of finding a better way. I wanted to have a meaningful role in tikkun olam. It is true that I learned and saw a lot that hurt my heart and damaged my hope while living in Israel. But I’m grateful that even at moments when I thought all hope was lost, I still got to be a part of projects that restored my hope enough to keep on keeping on when life got hard.

The first project I was involved with was at Yad b’Yad, the Hand in Hand School for Jewish and Palestinian children. I was there to teach English, but the kids taught me so much more. I’ve written about some of my experiences there before, but it’s worth sharing more. One day, I met the first Orthodox Jewish student to attend the school. He and his friend, Mohamed, were working on an assignment together on the couches in the hallway where we usually sat between classes, so I joined them. After a few minutes of observing and listening, I said hello. The Jewish boy asked me how I knew he spoke English, and I told him that I didn’t know, that I just simply don’t know Hebrew or Arabic, so I always speak English. We had a nice conversation, and then I asked what he and his friend were working on. They were writing a letter together, alternating between Hebrew and Arabic. If that isn’t proof positive that Israeli society can be a shared one, and coexistence is possible and practical, then I don’t know what is. I’m sure that little boy didn’t think for a second about working with Mohamed, he just did so because he’s another boy in his class – a friend. The good news is that more and more parents want to send their kids to a Hand in Hand school all across Israel, and they are constantly growing their institutions. The fact that Israelis recognize the importance of bilingual schools like Hand in Hand gives me a lot of hope.

I’ve also written a lot about my powerful and wonderful experiences at the YMCA with the ACTV program. Nothing gave me more hope than spending time with those kids every week. It was the highlight of my work there (and it continues to be as I keep in touch with the kids!). One day, just when I was feeling like there was no purpose for my being in Jerusalem at all, one of the Jewish girls tried out her rusty Arabic with me. One of the Palestinian girls overheard and rushed over with delight and joy. She helped the Jewish girl with her pronunciation and even helped her remember words she used to know from school. In that moment, I saw how even just a small step in the direction of respect and understanding helps so much to bridge wide gaps in cultural divides. The effort these kids put in to connect with each other despite their differences is inspiring. They try, they listen, they help each other, they welcome each other into their cultures, and they share. I’m so grateful ACTV exists, and watching these kids work together every week filled my heart with hope. Unlike Yad b’Yad, no one tells these kids to go to ACTV each week. They willingly joined the program because they wanted to, not because their parents chose for them. Keeping this in mind adds so much meaning and purpose to what they are doing each week. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I truly believe these kids will change the world. I can’t wait to see it happen, and I’ll help them any way I can.

I also found a lot of hope in Masa Israel and the leadership development initiatives they established for Masa participants. I was able to attend a few conferences that pushed the participants to think critically and ask questions about real challenges that Israel faces. They offered programming that supported a broad spectrum of ideas concerning these challenges and found ways to make room for everyone’s perspective. This gave me my first real, complete exposure to the extremities of international Jewish perspective on Israel. There were heated debates in many of the workshops. It is clear that there is a definite passion for so many people about this place, and Masa proved to me that it’s possible to make room for everyone’s passion, regardless of how different an approach they each may take. At first, realizing how radical some people’s perspectives were only upset me. Then, one of the group leaders challenged us: “If something initially made you angry, how could you have responded differently?” I realized that being angry because someone thinks differently from me doesn’t make any sense. Actually, our disagreement creates an opportunity to better understand a different perspective and to have civil conversations. Who knows? Maybe this can lead to mutual respect and understanding. Maybe we’re all, in fact, on the same side and want the same positive outcomes for this State we all love. This possibility gives me hope that maybe someday, we can all put aside our differences and work together. And truly, that is a key component in finding a solution for המצב (hamatzav, the situation).

Most of all, the fact that Achvat Amim exists, and the fact that Karen and Daniel have dedicated their lives to developing and facilitating a worthwhile, meaningful, educational, and analytical program like this gives me the most hope. Not only are these humans incredibly knowledgeable and realistic about the conflict, but they are both unfailingly understanding and supportive. Achvat Amim was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life, but Karen and Daniel always made me feel like I had a strong support system to manage it. When I started Achvat Amim, I knew nothing about social change or activism, I had no idea what “grassroots” meant, and I knew very little about the realities in Israel. Achvat Amim gave me the opportunity to not just understand social change, but also to be a part of it and experience it as it happened. Through this program, I was able to be a part of my own learning process and learn by living life on the ground in Jerusalem. Karen and Daniel created a safe space in our group to have open dialogue about the conflict which made it easier to process more difficult experiences. I now understand the importance of grassroots programs like these, and I will forever be grateful for this experience. Knowing that this program exists, and knowing that it will keep growing and developing and impacting peoples’ lives restores all of my hope.

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (I really love this book!)

I’ve been home now for six months, and I’ve been writing and re-writing this since my last post, seven months ago. Actually, some draft of this article has existed since October (2015). Figuring out what I wanted to share and how I wanted to share it has been a challenge on its own, because it’s all so important but also incredibly delicate. On top of that, reimmersing myself back into my normal American life has been interesting and exhausting. I find my mind is still constantly on Israel and – really – I find that I’m still learning a lot about my experiences there as I get reacquainted with my life here. I hope this article doesn’t seem too far removed from the experiences six months ago to share with you now. For me, it feels like I’m still very much in it, even though it was about a year ago that I started this intense and transformative experience.

When I think back on my whole Israel journey, I return to the moment early on in Jerusalem, when I told the Rabbi that I was “hopelessly optimistic” that peace is possible in Israel. But really, after six months of living the realities of Jerusalem life, I think I was wrong from the start. Saying that I was hopelessly optimistic was never accurate. I learned over those six months that, in fact, I am so incredibly hopefully optimistic. Because no matter what the challenges are, I still know from experience how many good people there are doing grassroots work to make a difference in people’s lives. There’s so much hope in that – that they don’t give up. Maybe that’s truly what lies in the heart of tikkun olam. During our first few weeks of Achvat Amim, Karen and Daniel shared with us part of what they learned from growing up in Hashomer Hatzair: Tikkun Adam, Tikkun Olam (“Repair thyself, Repair the world”). Learning about the world and working to better it goes hand-in-hand with learning about and bettering yourself, and holding the world accountable to higher standards innately means you should be holding yourself to those higher standards, too. So even when the atmosphere of a place leaves little wiggle room to make big, overwhelming changes that you feel are necessary to make progress, you don’t give up on the smaller projects, because those are still making a difference in someone’s life, and you’re still repairing a part of the world, and yourself. And if we’re lucky, maybe making positive differences on the small scale will catch up to the large scale and really repair the whole world.

“Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” -Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

I think this says it all. Hope is the best thing, and my hope for peace and coexistence will never die. Now, to figure out what to do with all this hope.

Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “Young & Restless” by The Gallery:

and youth was in our blood, baby we were young

I knew I’d be spending my 28th birthday in Israel, but the fact that it actually just happened is still quite unbelievable. A year ago, I was sitting in Florida with some of my best friends, relaxing with absolutely nothing to do and wanting it no other way. I had just launched my fundraising campaign to make this Israel dream a reality, and the first few weeks did not yield the promising results for which I was hoping. But, after a Yuengling Brewery tour and a few visits from some wonderful friends, I had restored faith in my mission. And look at me, a year later. Blogging in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Yafo Street in Jerusalem.

I’ve been in my head a lot here. Mostly, the idea of being officially in my “late twenties” has had me reeling. Lots of thoughts of the “what am I doing with my life?!” variety have found their way into my silly little mind. That’s not exactly what the thoughts are saying, but that’s the shape they’ve been taking. Because I sort of know what I’m doing with my life, but it all seems so distant. And getting older always makes me think about my past and what got me to exactly where I am right now. Seriously, though… how on Earth did I get here? What would 12-year-old Katie think of Present Katie? What about 18-year-old Katie? Hell, even 22-year-old Katie?

Then I actually started thinking about these questions. Okay, so, when I was 12, I was in seventh grade. I remember dreading Hebrew school but going every week because having a Bat Mitzvah was important to my family. I remember worrying about who to invite, and which guys to invite, and how to be sure it was cool. 10471369_10100204512906328_1078343481_oI remember not learning the tune to the last little bit of my Haftarah portion (is that even a thing?) and making it up on the spot at the bima. I remember my Grampa being proud of me anyways and taking lots of pictures with him. I remember that my Bat Mitzvah party was a great success. I remember dancing with my best pal from Hebrew school. I remember being so concerned about everything because the boy I had a crush on was there and I wanted him to like me (#priorities). I remember friends telling me for years afterwards that my party was the best of all the Bar and Bat Mitvahs in our class (thanks to my awesome Mom!). I don’t remember thinking much of anything of Israel when I was 12-years-old, so I’m sure if you had asked me back then if I thought I’d live there on my 28th birthday, I would have probably asked you where that was, or at least if it was a real place.

All these thoughts got me thinking about what the kids I teach every Tuesday at the Hand in Hand School for Jewish and Arab Education are doing as 12-year-olds. This past week, when we took out the same seven kids that we take out of class every week that the teacher recommended we work with as “proficient English speakers,” one of the girls asked us why it was only Jewish kids in the group. She asked us why none of her Arabic-speaking friends were invited to the group, even though they know English just as well as she does. 1117151129These were valid questions that we didn’t have answers to. Of course, we weren’t in charge of selecting which kids came out with us, but it also took four months and this girl’s question to realize that none of the kids in our group are Arab. And if her friends are just as fluent in English as she says, then that’s a problem. That same day, one of the other girls was talking about how her Dad is friends with Ezra Nawi and some of the people recently arrested in the West Bank for Palestinians selling land to Jews. She went on and on about how she doesn’t like when her family goes to visit them in the West Bank – everything is dirty and they don’t have real houses or any civil structures or anything “normal” – instead, just metal scraps leaning up against each other for walls and tarps strewn across the tops for roofs. I couldn’t believe the words she was saying as they were spilling out of her mouth. How much of the situation does she fully comprehend? Does it go past her expectation that people should have homes to live in the way she does? Or does she understand the limitations on her parents’ friends’ lives and building abilities in the West Bank? Moreover, was our simple response of “that’s the problem” to all the things she was saying sufficient? After processing this day with the kids, the coolness of my guest list at my Bat Mitzvah doesn’t seem all that important.

When I was 18, I was deciding between college at Purdue University or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I was planning my future luxurious career as a fancy airline pilot and ruling the world. When I was 18, I would have told you that you had the wrong girl if you told me I was going to be living in Jerusalem in 10 years. I was so far removed from my Jewish roots by the time I graduated high school that it wasn’t even a possibility. And though I will always be critical of my 18-year-old self and the choices I made, my lack of religious and cultural awareness had nothing to do with it. The only thing I cared about was going away to college, and that was going to happen no matter what.

Today, in my Jerusalem life, my favorite few hours every week are those that I spend at the Jerusalem International YMCA with the kids in the ACTV Youth Program. They are anywhere from 14- to 18-years-old, and they are amazing. Most of them already speak two or three languages. These kids are smart, honest, interesting, funny, and sweet. Sometimes, the language barrier makes it hard for me to have real conversations with them. But sometimes, a few words here and there are all I need. They continually impress me with how they behave as if there are no boundaries between them. 0203161835They talk to each other in whichever language they have in common, even if it’s limited English on both sides of the table. These kids appreciate each other and share their artistic creations with each other and create new ones together.

When I think about their lives outside of the YMCA, I realize more the reality of life in this place. Some of these youngsters are thinking about their role in the Israeli army when they graduate in the next year or two, and how that impacts their relationship with the friends they’ve made here. Some of them are hoping to go to university, not from the “will I get in or won’t I get in” perspective we have in America, but from a “will I be able to get there every day or won’t I?” perspective. The YMCA in Jerusalem has a large bell tower in the middle of it, and early on when I started volunteering here, I was looking out towards the West Bank with one of the kids from East Jerusalem. I didn’t know where he was from (he just looks like a teenager to me), which language was his first (his English is quite impressive), or in which direction I was looking at (I was new in town – but really, I’m still pretty bad at knowing what is where here). I saw a wall in the distance, and I saw a teenager standing next to me looking longingly out at the city before us. I asked him what we were looking at and what he saw. He clued me in and mentioned something about the wall that tears through the panoramic view from there. I asked him what he was doing after he graduated from high school. 1202151400aHe told me he was going to study at Bezalel University, hopefully. He told me that it’s hard for him, because of the conflict, as an Arab-Israeli, to do something like attend university. It broke my heart. This place is so complicated. Now, deciding between Purdue and Embry-Riddle was pretty insignificant compared to the army and the boarders and boundaries that I never had to consider when going to university.

I’ve developed a really good relationship with these kids, despite our differences and despite my lame efforts at their languages (guys – languages are really hard!). Luckily, they are all pretty smart and have a really good handle on English. Every single time there’s any activity in the conflict anywhere in Jerusalem, a wave of fear rushes over me. Oh my god, what if it’s one of my kids? What if one of them got caught in a wrong place, wrong time situation? Surely, none of them would ever be involved in the violence of this conflict. They are all so grounded and smart and responsible. Still, though, every time Haaretz notifications pop-up on my phone and the words “youth” or “youngsters” or “teens” are included, I suddenly feel like what I suspect any parent in this region feels – fear and worry. I can’t help it. The Old City, and especially Damascus gate lately, has seen so many attacks since September, and it’s right down the street from me, from my apartment, from the YMCA. And so many of these incidents involve kids on both sides of the conflict (they’ve been calling it the “youth intifada” since I got here). 1216151833And I respect and appreciate so many kids on both sides of this conflict. They are all wonderful and they have so much potential within them. Who knows, they may work together someday to make this world less divided and more cohesive – they could be the ones who bring peace to the Middle East… or at least Jerusalem.

It’s also imperative to remember that my experience and worry while living in this conflict zone for five months is completely different from growing up in Nachlaot or Beit Safafa for a person’s entire life. So when one of the first kids I met in ACTV showed me a video on his phone last week that was clearly filmed, by him, from across the street from Damascus Gate while an attack was in progress, I needed to find a way to stifle my initial and automatic response of sheer terror (and I did not do a good job of this). 1209151932What are you doing so close to the chaos?! cannot be words that I utter (and I didn’t, but oh man, was I obviously terrified watching that video). Who am I to judge what his life narrative has been that lead him to being there at that time to film the events as they unfolded? I wholeheartedly believe that because these incredible, bright, and unique kids come together every week and have the opportunity to hear narratives from the other side and understand and empathize and make themselves heard to someone from ‘the other world’ means that they would be less likely to take their emotions out in any other way. The videos they are making are journalistic and captivating, and I believe that this creative outlet has to be both a release and a motivation to keep their bright futures in mind when dealing with the madness of this place. It’s situations like these that make me so desperately wish languages weren’t so difficult to learn so I could better understand these amazing kids. Instead, I have to have faith and believe in them pursuing what is right and just and safe. I truly believe these kids will grow up and save the world.

When I was 22, I was graduating from college. I was wondering what on Earth I was going to do with myself now that I had a degree in Aviation and insufficient flight certificates to earn money flying airplanes. I moved back home, got a promotion at my retail job, and waited for my next move. I was still not interested in Judaism or Israel. My only concern was working in aviation and making some use of that expensive degree. If you had asked me six years ago if I thought I’d be living in Jerusalem on my 28th birthday, I probably would have argued that that life path would derail me from my aviation career. After all, I was supposed to be an Air Traffic Controller, so when I was 28, I’d be making six-figures and living the [stressful] high life. And, of course, I’d be married by then, or at least in a relationship with the man that I would eventually marry. So Israel? Jerusalem? Not at all in the cards, let alone something 22-year-old Katie cared about.

12654169_1675343826057121_4585534925405172411_nToday, in my Jerusalem life, I am the oldest in a house of nine crazy and wonderful human beings. My roommates range in age from 21 to 25. I envy them regularly that they got to a point in their lives where they knew they wanted to do social change/coexistence work in this complicated place at such a young age. Some of them are five or six years ahead of me on the life plan stuff, and that’s amazing. Not a day goes by when I’m not aware and grateful for my life experiences and past failures that afforded me this opportunity to live in Jerusalem. If 22-year-old Katie had her way, she’d be a government employee, and I’m sure the FAA never would have given her a leave of absence from Air Traffic Control to try to make peace in Israel. Instead, my reality gave me an amazing boss who did everything in her power to give me this chance and coworkers who have supported me every step of the way here. I feel pretty lucky for all that.

So, I’m 28 now. Indisputably late twenties. It’s been a crazy time, but I’m really grateful for all the twists and turns that lead me here. And I hope I’ve made some sort of tiny difference while I’m here. One thing is for absolute certain: the people here have made a huge difference in my life. Another things that is certain: I am not done growing up. But the more I learn from those older than me, I believe more and more that you’re never really done growing up. So maybe the late twenties isn’t such a big deal. I’m basically still 12, right?

Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “Baby We Were Young” by The Dirty Guv’nahs:

i got half a smile and zero shame, i got a reflection with a different name, got a brand new blues that i can’t explain, who did you think i was?

Happy New Year from Jerusalem!

Regrettably, it’s been a long minute since I’ve last shared anything with all of you, my loyal blog readers. It really hit home the other day, though, when my best friend pointed out that it’s been over a month (6 weeks!) since I last wrote home via this here blog. For that, I apologize profusely. I wish I could hide under the excuse of “I’ve been so busy!” but in truth, that’s only about half of the story. Sure, I’m busy. But I’m also sort of engulfed in my life here, whether that means actually living my Jerusalem life or hiding from it for a minute. In all honesty, my life here has been much more difficult than I ever anticipated during the last year of planning. That being said, I’ve learned a great deal more than I expected, and about things I never thought I’d even think about during my quick 5-month stay here. This has undoubtedly taken a toll on me, but something good is coming out of it, too. Anyways, a basic part of who I am is that I take special delight in the first day of every new month, and while it’s no longer January 1st, it’s still very much the beginning of a new year, so this is still extremely important and valuable to me. In that light – in that focused spotlight on such a specific part of my identity – I think it’s time to share with you some of the things I learned in the end of 2015, and how I think that may impact the fresh canvas of 2016.


I’ve been hanging out with a lot of people from other places lately. I met some awesome people in our This Is Not An Ulpan Hebrew class and have been lucky to spend time with my new friends from the Netherlands and Germany. 1122151246.jpgI also spent a week at Masa Israel‘s Global Leadership Summit, which was attended by people from all over the world, including Russia, France, Ukraine, Hungary, England, USA, Israel, and Argentina. And most recently, I spent a quick two days in Athens, Greece during our winter break. Fret not, friends, as this brief trip was courtesy of my Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card and did not come from any GoFundMe funds that enabled me to come to Israel in the first place. IMG_20151229_211522I just really needed a break from the conflict in Jerusalem and Israel, and Greece had that whole economic snafu in 2015 which means the trip was cheap. The trip was also exactly what I needed. I’ve never traveled somewhere alone just to be a tourist before. I learned a lot about myself, got more material for this here blog post, and had a blast.

Experiences like these, as well as my ever present awareness of the fact that everything in Jerusalem is so foreign to me, have really made me think about who I am and where (or if) I fit in in this world. And beyond this basic and somewhat self-centered perspective, we’ve also spent a lot of time as a group in Achvat Amim during our learning days talking about identity, both Jewish or Israeli identity (and how those things can be just as different in Israel as they are similar) and Palestinian identity. Who am I? What makes me who I am? What about you? Is it where we come from? Is it where my parents come from? And why is my identity so open to interpretation, but those of so many other people are decided for them?

Whenever I travel outside of the United States, I naïvely rediscover the negative stigma that exists in the rest of the world when people learn that you are “American.” Let’s push straight through the critique that “American” does not exclusively describe those humans from the USA, because I know that America is more than just the US. I’ve learned, though, that I cannot help what other people label me, and thus, identity becomes subjective and very much in the eye of the beholder. I know where I’m from, and it’s not Canada or Mexico, but for some reason, people don’t say, “You’re so from the United States of America!” in response to my general ridiculousness (or whatever else prompted the statement). No, they say “You’re so American!” and that’s that. But either way, it’s become clear that I am perceived as not just American, but very American, and for most of the last three months, I thought that was a terrible thing.

When I think about American tourists, I only think about “ugly Americans” who expect everyone in the country they are visiting to speak and understand English(/Americanish) perfectly. So, am I so very American that I’m an ugly American? Well, since arriving in Israel, I’ve found that learning new languages is hard, and Hebrew is hard, and Arabic is hard, and Greek is hard (okay, I didn’t actually try to learn any Greek at all…), and my language learning progress has plateaued, and people always say that “everyone in Jerusalem speaks English” which isn’t completely true but it’s true enough to order falafel or schnitzel and hot cider with wine addition… Also, I miss home a lot and speak of it regularly, and I frequently seek comfort in the familiar, be it friends back home or TV shows I’ve come to rely on over the years. And every time I consider how absurd it is that I’ve basically given up on the languages and how unacceptable it is to hide out and spend time with Lorelai, I realize more and more that the answer might absolutely be yes, I am an ugly American. But so what?

This is a big realization for me. Yes, I’m American. I was born and raised in the US, and that has contributed a lot to who I am today. No amount of shaming, from others or myself, is going to get the USA out of me. And you know what? That’s totally okay. Actually, I kind of love it. I love Boston. I love my home life in Indiana. I’m proud of who I’ve become and what I’ve overcome to get to where I am today. My [marginal] success so far has been earned through long working days and wild working hours. Furthermore, I’ve met a lot of people since I’ve been abroad who embody many American traits that I don’t relate to. But that’s okay, too, because, to each his own, and it takes all kinds to make this world.

Does that mean that, as an American, I completely, blindly, and 100% agree with everything that’s going on in the United States? Of course not. The Skimm headlines frighten me daily with the chaos in the States. One of the first things natives of other countries ask me when I tell them I’m from the States is something about Donald Trump. That’s not part of my identity at all. But, as an American, and being an American in another country, does that automatically make Donald Trump part of my identity? Good grief, I hope not. Just because I’m not on board with what’s happening in the States doesn’t mean I care less about it and doesn’t make it less of a part of who I am. And I can flip this same idea to apply to anything else, too. The Haaretz headlines frighten me daily when things are happening in Jerusalem, where I live. I disagree with a lot of things that are happening in this land, but I’m here because I care so much about it and I want to make it better. Every day, Israel and Jerusalem are both becoming more a part of my identity. I know the neighborhoods of this city when riding on the Masa bus back to Ramat Rachel from Lod. 1210151242b.jpgI run into people I know on Yaffo street by my apartment. My heart hurts every bus ride back into the city as I see the abandoned homes of Lifta on the hillside outside the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. Everything about this place is shaping me and changing me and becoming a part of me. It’s becoming a part of my identity. How can that be, if I’m not even from here?


During the Masa Leadership Summit, I was talking with someone in my group, and I mentioned something about a man we had met earlier that day – an Israeli citizen who is Arab – and I called him Palestinian, and she interrupted what I was saying.

Girl: He’s an Arab-Israeli. He’s not a Palestinian.

Me: What? No, he’s Palestinian, he calls himself Palestinian…

Girl: How can he be Palestinian if he’s an Israeli citizen?

Me: I don’t know, how can I be Italian if I’m a citizen of the United States?

Girl: Oh.

This was the moment when I realized how important identity is in this place. It was evidence of what we’ve talked about concerning efforts to minimize and even erase some identities. How can there be peace between two peoples if both sides have so much trouble recognizing and validating the existence and presence of the other side? And why do we let separate individuals create the identity of entire peoples who are from the same place? How is it so easy to let the individual speak for the entire society when it doesn’t necessarily represent that entire society? Just as Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily represent the whole of the citizens of the United States of America, any single extremist doesn’t necessarily represent the entire society from which he comes. Sure, I get that a potential political leader in the States would be elected to such a position, and therefore should represent the majority of the people, but he hasn’t been elected, so presently, he’s just and misrepresenting people. I hope.

These experiences have given me a lot to consider as I begin 2016 and the last two months of my volunteering time in Jerusalem. I’ve certainly realized that my own identity is far from completely formed, but maybe a person’s individual identity is constantly taking shape, and changing shape, and that’s okay. I’ve also realized that it’s cool to be who I am in the rawest form, and if part of that is me being what some people, myself included, might consider an ugly American, then carpe diem and in omnia paratus. More importantly and more directly related to the work I am here to do, I think it is important for me to get a better understanding of the identities here in Israel, including those of Israelis, Jews, and Palestinians. I hope to learn much more from my placements, and I hope to find more opportunity to get out of my comfort zone. Spend more time in Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. Go to the Kotel. Go to Al-Aqsa. Go to Tent of Nations. Visit Bethlehem. I don’t know, I just know I need to do more. I only have two months left to figure out as much about this place as possible. It’s time to get to it. Right?

Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “Who Did You Think I Was?” by John Mayer Trio:

is it coincidence? i’ve lived my life within the walls of this fence

One of the very first conversations we had as a group in Achvat Amim was about borders and boundaries. What are they? In what different forms do they come? How do they impact people? Can you see them? Can you feel them? What’s the relevance of them to us, as volunteers, here in Jerusalem, concerning hamatzav?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the recent weeks. Yes, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve last written. I took the time in the last three weeks to consider many boundaries I had not previously realized even existed – boundaries I had been warned about from various people but never truly believed would become an issue for me. But my naïveté led me astray once again, and I’ve learned a great deal from it. Now, I must move forward. This is me doing that, so welcome back, loving and loyal readers all over the world. I’m glad people have still been visiting this blog despite my lack of updates. I hope that will change, moving forward. Starting here, with a 2500 word piece on borders and boundaries. You excited? Come on, now, it’s not too much! I just have a lot to say right now.

“Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity can be fostered and developed.” This is at the entrance of the Jerusalem YMCA, and I am so glad to spend time at a place like this every week.

So, borders and boundaries. One border I wish I could break down is the language barrier that prevents me from really making the impact I came here to make. I haven’t shared yet on my blog that I have three individual placement projects for my time as a volunteer here. They are all very different, but the one I have the most fun with is the youth program at the Jerusalem YMCA, ACTV. To break it down, there’s a Hebrew speaking facilitator, an Arabic speaking facilitator, and kids ages 13-17 from both East and West Jerusalem who come together to learn about videos and films and ultimately have the chance to make their own short movie. These kids are incredible and honest and so inspiring. They are all so sweet, and they love practicing their English with me and teaching me some [very basic] Hebrew and Arabic. The purpose of the program is for the kids to bond with other kids from different schools and neighborhoods over a mutual interest, but also to create a safe space for dialogue, which is especially important during these more tense times in the city. I’ve been having a blast getting to know these kids, but I wish I spoke Hebrew and Arabic fluently so I could really connect with them. There is one kid from East Jerusalem, whose first language is Arabic, who told me that he learned the bulk of his English and Hebrew in the youth programs at the Y, and that he really loves going there and seeing his friends from school discover how awesome the program is. And he is just one example of the cool kids that are crossing physical and nonphysical boundaries to make this program happen. It’s a dream, and I feel so fortunate that they let me be a small part of it.

Obviously, the language barrier gets in my way in most every other second of my life in Jerusalem, too, which is to be expected. I should really be studying Hebrew right now instead of writing this blog, but these are the choices that we make sometimes. This barrier also impacts one of my other placements. I’ve been volunteering with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center for their Windows of Mount Zion project. Definitely click the link, but fair warning, the website is in Hebrew (boundary), but Google translates it decently (boundary), if you’re curious. This project tells the many stories of Mt. Zion, which is layered with religious and cultural history that doesn’t seamlessly mesh together the way we might hope it would. It’s amazing, though. I get to wander and explore the mountain and write about my experiences. I talk to people when I hear English (boundary), listen to what tour guides say when they speak in English (boundary), and notice subtle visual/physical changes week to week. I miss a lot with my lack of language skills, so I try to explore with Hebrew speakers when I can to hear more of what’s actually happening.

20151026_141653I sometimes even discover more barriers on Mt. Zion that I didn’t even know about. Last week, I asked a tour guide, who was leading a Muslim group, where his group was from. When I reported back to my project coordinator that they were from Indonesia, she said, “Of course you can approach the Palestinian tour guides, you’re wearing a nakba key.” I’m sorry, a what? I had literally no idea what she was talking about. I mean, I know I wear a key necklace, and I know what the word nakba means (Arabic for “catastrophe”). My key is catastrophic? Oh, no, actually, you mean it’s a symbol. Oh, a political symbol. This moment of specifically identifying this thing that I wear every day that is so politically driven in this region that implicitly puts me on both sides of this particular border froze me in my tracks, and it has been a massive thought on my mind ever since. It was certainly a moment for me here in Jerusalem. For the record, my necklace is absolutely not a nakba key by any stretch of the imagination, but I will address that in the rest of this post. About an hour after this initial conversation, my program coordinator and I encountered the Indonesian tour group on the roof of the building of King David’s tomb. As it turns out, they spoke English almost perfectly, they lived in the US for a while (specifically in Boston!), and they were wonderfully friendly! We took this silly and amazing selfie, and I love everything about it. #breakingbarriers #oneofmyfavoritemoments

I really have the hardest time ever being able to identify a person from their appearance as Israeli or Palestinian, but this is something natives do without hesitation, and usually pretty accurately. I can’t. How did she know the tour guide was Palestinian? Heck, I still sometimes have a hard time just differentiating between spoken Hebrew and Arabic (though hearing them side-by-side at the YMCA is helping this, a lot). To me, a person is a person, and it doesn’t matter their ethnic or religious background. As we say at my airline gig [read: real job], (boss, skip this part, please, thanks!), “Yeah, but are you cool, bro?” because, really, that’s kind of all that matters. Not literally, especially when it comes to flying airplanes… but here specifically, just… are you a good human or are you not a good human? Because there are good humans on every side of this situation. And, sadly, there are bad humans on every side, too. Naïvely, I assume everyone is a good human until they prove themselves otherwise, so I don’t feel there’s a need to work on this identification of who is who in Jerusalem. You may disagree with me, but I refuse to succumb to judging people based on their appearance.

The key in question (and me looking like a general cool kid blogging at a coffee shop… #cantlookacameraintheeye #itmightstealmysoul) which is decidedly NOT a nakba key, but a sentimental souvenir from my Rock Boat days.

That day, though, my Mt. Zion project coordinator pointed out that because she is so obviously Israeli and Jewish (again, I don’t get that – she just looks like a human to me), she could not so easily approach a Palestinian tour guide the way I did. I only did it because I heard him speak English. I had not even considered where he came from as a factor. Or that my necklace would offer some level of comfort in my asking. I mean, I’ve been wearing Star of David earrings since my Birthright trip last year, and I wear two rings with chamzas on them, so this whole idea that my necklace made a difference still astonishes me. If anything, I exhibit with all my jewelry choices the delicate balance I am desperately seeking here in Israel. For the record, I have been wearing this necklace since 2009 I think. The bottom of the key are the letters TRB, which stands for The Rock Boat, which is a music festival at sea that basically used to be my religion [#irony]. So please do not be mistaken, this necklace is not a nakba key, and it is not a political statement in any way, shape or form. It is just the last part of me that is still The Rock Boat. Despite all this, though, I don’t plan on taking off this necklace now that I’m aware of it’s political implications. Aside from the fact that I would feel completely naked without it, I kind of like the inadvertent meaning this necklace carries, and the fact that it polarizes people and makes them assume things about me. It’s ironic that my jewelry from six years ago makes people judge me in the exact way I wish people would stop blindly judging others. But honestly, if this necklace means I can talk to more people and cross this barrier a little bit more easily, then I will take it. It should be noted that, since this first conversation with my project coordinator about my necklace, the key as a political symbol has come up a few times, including one stranger not even saying hi to me, but instead just jumping straight to, “OMFG, what does that key mean?!” Hi, and oh, look, byeeeee.

Photo courtesy of my roommate in Kibbutz Karmim, Inessa Genkina

Last weekend, I went to Kibbutz Kramim for a Masa Israel program called the Mifgashim Weekend. About 100 Masa participants came together to talk all things ‘community.’ Part of the weekend included tours of Beer Sheva to see different communities there. We started in Dalet, a neighborhood of relative poverty. After learning about how far this neighborhood has come in the last decade, we ended up at a wall (boundary) with beautiful graffiti/public art and a bridge going over it. Once we climbed the bridge, we saw that there were train tracks below it, just on the opposite side of the wall. We also saw a much fancier neighborhood on the other side of the bridge. The wall was built after too many tragedies involving kids and those train tracks. The bridge, which is called Education Bridge, was built to reconnect the two communities that were now physically divided after already being significantly divided by socio-economic statuses (boundary). The wall makes perfect sense. And the concept of an Education Bridge to reconnect the two communities also makes perfect sense.

The wall (border), Jerusalem

The entire time we were hearing about these communities, I felt like it was such a simple and obvious metaphor for the rest of this country. I’m living in Jerusalem, and I see the wall (boundary) dividing this place regularly. I completely recognize and appreciate that the apparatus that separates Israel with its neighbor is a chain-link fence in the majority of the country, but I also recognize that it is and has been damaging to humans and their livelihoods, regardless of the barrier’s material composition. But in my life, here, in Jerusalem, it is very much a wall. It’s a tall wall. It’s a part of every panoramic picture of this majestic and historic city. It’s a border and it separates humans from other humans. It served a purpose in the past and was effective. I’m glad it saved lives at the time and stopped attacks. But moving forward, this is what we have to work with in the future. And, in a sense, this is one of the reasons why I’m here. Just like in Beer Sheva, how do you bring together two communities that have been physically divided? Is saying the phrase “bridge the gap with education” too obvious after revealing already that the bridge in Beer Sheva is called the Education Bridge? Things aren’t going to change here in an instant or overnight. It’s going to take generations. But it won’t start to take generations until we get started with education. On both sides of the wall. If the education system changes to be more inclusive and less segregated, then we might have a chance for change in a few generations. But, at the end of the day, I’m volunteering for social change and coexistence, not to lobby for policy change. I’m here to change hearts and minds. I don’t actually know if I’m doing that exactly, but I’m trying. Maybe if we start with the hearts and minds, it’ll move up the chain to policy makers eventually. So, you know, baby steps.

I’m so glad that the YMCA program exists. The fact that kids can and do choose to spend their afternoons with kids from the “other side” gives me so much hope. The fact that the Yad B’yad interfaith/bilingual school exists also gives me hope. Small steps are being taken, and I just hope that they continue to grow. The thing that struck me the most last weekend was something the Beer Sheva tour guide said. She said that, ultimately, if you want to do something good for the world, it’s going to upset some people. That’s how you know you’ve done something. The very thought of this being true breaks my heart, but now that I’ve been here some time, I see how much truth lies in that statement. I know that what I’m doing here might upset some people, and perhaps some of the words I choose also might ignite some negative responses from some people, and I’m sorry for that, but ultimately, don’t we all want the same thing? Peace? An end to the mindless and vicious attacks on humans? The survival of the Jewish State of Israel? Personally, I’d love for Israel to have some longevity without war and terror attacks. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I want to help. I love this place, really and truly. I spent 2015 saving and fundraising to volunteer here, and I took an unprecedented 5-month leave of absence from my full-time job to be here [thanks again, Cassy!]. I’m volunteering, which means I have no income at all. But it’s all worth it to me, because I love this place, and its survival is important to me. I want the world to see how much this place has to offer. I want the world to benefit from all the technological advances and entrepreneurial spirit this place has. Israel truly is amazing, and it would be so much better in a peaceful state. Despite all of the awful things that keep happening here and across the globe, I still believe that peace is possible. I have to. I’m a hopeless optimist, after all. I still believe this place can find peace and show the world how much it has to offer. And if I offend people along the way in pursuit of this, then I’m sorry, but I think it’s worth it. I think Israel is worth it. Don’t you?

Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “Borderline” by Red Wanting Blue:

i wish i were pretty, i wish i were brave, if i owned this city, i’d make it behave

Last weekend, we answered the question, “What does it take for the conflict to drive nine hopeful, heart-filled, headstrong peace activists out of Jerusalem?” We left the city for greener pastures in the north at Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek to really experience what a שבת של שלום (Shabbat shel Shalom, Shabbat of Peace) was, since Jerusalem is having a hard time with שלום lately.

As much as it sort of feels like we just hopped on a bus and ran away from המצב (hamatzav, the situation, commonly used in reference to the conflict), and what we came here to do, it felt necessary. I don’t think anyone in the group has any qualms about those weekend life choices. We got away as a group, bonded in a non-conflict zone as a group, attended a peaceful demonstration and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians in the north hosted by Givat Haviva as a group, learned about life on an authentic socialist kibbutz as a group, and really just relaxed. As a group.

Group parading down the street in front of our apartment, shouting terrible things like “Death to Arabs”

Why have we been so stressed out? I mean, if you’re relying on just my blog posts to find out the goings on of Israel and Jerusalem, then you’re definitely not up to date on things. Hamatzav has escalated in the past month in the form of stabbings, shootings and so many horrible, unjustifiable deaths on both sides of the conflict. I want to emphasize that it is both sides behaving badly here. I don’t know what the news in the US is reporting, because honestly, I’m living it, I see updates instantly, and I don’t want to dig deeper than I have to. Also, the rest of my group is hounding Twitter for new activity enough for all of us. But I have seen a lot of things on Facebook that would lead you to believe that Israeli Jews are being attacked – and that’s it. That part is true, of course, and it’s awful and graphic and inexcusable, but Israelis are also responding in terrible and heartbreaking ways. Seeking any sort of revenge attack on a stranger simply because they are Arab is not the way to fix this, and neither is shouting the phrase “Death to Arabs” while parading through the streets of Jerusalem and waving Israeli flags. I will never understand how a person on either side can so blindly wish for the extinction of the people on other side. Why can’t we all recognize that everyone in this is a human and deserves to live their human life without fear of attack? Why can’t we all just get along? And how on Earth can any Jew feel comfortable shouting “Death to Arabs!”? Holocaust history is well-taught in this country, so I don’t understand how a person could learn about the Nazi’s shouting these things about the Jews as they tried to eliminate them all and then say the same thing about an entire other group of humans. The fact that there are radical Jewish groups like Lehava (click here to read my roommate’s thoughts on Lehava) all over the city stampeding the main streets with chants like this is more terrifying to me than getting on a bus in Jerusalem right now. And there was just a shooting on a bus. The same day we started our volunteer efforts for coexistence in Israel.

Screen shot 2015-10-17 at 10.36.40 PM
A recent Facebook post from Yad B’Yad — I encourage you all to follow their page on Facebook!

We finally went to visit Yad B’Yad (Hand in Hand) for the first time, which is an “integrated, bilingual school combining peace education and top academic standards” for grades K-12. The school is beautiful, diverse, and welcoming, and every person we met was excited that we were there. After we explored the school a bit, we heard about the shooting on bus 78 in Jerusalem. We almost left the school early because of it, but we chose to stay. I’m really glad we did, because we joined a 4th grade class, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. If you know me even a little bit, you know that I’m not exactly the best with kids. Luckily, it seems that a girl can change, even as an adult, because the kids thing was actually pretty incredible. There were about twelve kids in the class that day, and we paired off, one volunteer (us) with one 4th-grader. My partner was an adorable nine-year-old named Merkav, and she was smart as a whip! We were supposed to spend the class playing tic-tac-toe and hangman using colors for words. Merkav guessed all the colors I played for hangman, so once I could tell she was way too smart for this game, we started going through all the colors of her markers in her collection in three languages – English, Hebrew, and Arabic. This was when I learned that her first language is Arabic. She was teaching me the Hebrew and 12143148_1640752006182970_1324742320755857639_nArabic words for all the colors, and then she wrote them on the paper in the most beautiful Arabic script I’ve ever seen! That may be because the squiggles I’ve been writing in my notebook during Arabic class just don’t come close to actual Arabic… Anyways, the whole experience was amazing. In the middle of our fun, a faculty member came into the room to find out if any of the students took a bus home from school. All the kids who took the same bus would have a chaperone home that day. When the kids asked why, the teachers just said (in Hebrew), “it’s crazy out there.” My heart broke when I realized what was actually happening in that moment, but I was also so inspired to see how much the teachers care about their students.

This is the first step we’ve taken to begin the work we came here to do. I’m so grateful we were at Yad B’Yad when we found out about the bus shooting. The juxtaposition of the blind hatred involved in such a horrendous attack next to this school that fosters such a welcoming and inclusive environment was exactly what we needed. Thank goodness this school exists. Now, all we need is just to get more people to believe in this way of life, of mutual respect and understanding, and we’ll be well on our way to peace in Israel. I’m really looking forward to volunteering at Yad B’Yad every week.

We often talk about our feelings as a group, which sounds extremely cheesy but is so important to our survival here with the nature of our program, and a lot of people were having a similar feeling of, “how much do we risk of ourselves for the sake of something so much larger than us? How long do we stick it out here before we cut our losses and see that this place is too dangerous to justify being here and we all pack up and leave?” I intend to stay until February 29th, regardless of המצב. But we are all thinking about this constantly, so skipping town was exactly what we needed to refresh our souls. The other awesome dynamic of going to Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek was that the area around the Kibbutz is a part of Israel where the concept of “Solidarity of Nations” is pretty well demonstrated. However, the recent attacks around the country have disrupted the coexistence of the people in the area, so Givat Haviva set up a tent where people from both sides could come and talk about things. Dialogue is so important to understand what’s really happening here.

1016151534aIn addition to the tent for conversations, Givat Haviva also hosted a peaceful demonstration on the side of a main road in the area. Residents from the Kibbutz and neighborhoods in the vicinity, both Israeli and Palestinian, came together to show that we can all be together and live in peace. The entire experience made my heart swell with love.1016151539a-1 People often say that social change has to start with the people living in the areas of conflict. This was exactly that, with a handful of Americans (read: us) dropping in to say ‘hey.’ After we stood in solidarity with these communities and spoke to some of the people demonstrating, we were able to sit in on the dialogue circles with the communities. I was lucky to have our wonderful Educational Director, Karen, act as my personal translator for the whole thing. It was amazing to hear the things people came there to say. In my circle, there was a Palestinian woman who is an Arabic teacher in a Jewish school and an Israeli woman who is a Hebrew teacher in an Arabic school. They both spoke about their frustrations with the situation and how students ask hurtful questions like, “if someone were to attack us, would you still protect us?” They both expressed disappointment, as it was obvious to them that they would do whatever they needed to for their students, and to be questioned like that clearly undermined them, both as teachers and as human beings. 1016151602-1The teachers were both so visibly upset about this change in their lives, especially because they themselves did nothing wrong. It’s awful that the actions of few extremists in the rest of the country have had such a negative impact on the lives of people who are genuinely good and just want to coexist and live their lives in a community that is otherwise not involved in this latest escalation. Overall, I walked away feeling like these people came together seeking empathy from the other side, and they got it. It was amazing to see people put aside their differences – the same differences that are igniting vicious conflict in other parts of Israel – to just talk about what’s going on and to see how we can move forward in these more difficult times.

This experience definitely helped to right my mind around the circumstances of my being in Israel right now. I came here to make some kind of a visible impact for coexistence and social change. None of us thought we were going to be here during the brink of a third intifada – the youth intifada, at that. But this is המצב, and it’s going to do what it’s going to do, and we need to decide if we still have a chance to make any impact at all when the fear in everyone is at its max. We spent the rest of the weekend making jokes about the socialist kibbutz life and playing soccer. I watched two 1017151434a-1Chad Michael Murray movies, so you can say that my teenage soul was nurtured, and then I topped it off with two episodes of Friends (we still don’t have TV in our apartment, so watching these happy-go-lucky things on TV while laying in a giant comfy bed that isn’t a twin size and isn’t the bottom of a bunk bed was a luxury I forgot about). I felt ready to return to Jerusalem with a renewed spirit and confidence in what we are doing here. And just like that, I was reminded of what this place, this Israel, really is, as we hugged the Wall that separates Israel and the West Bank for much of the drive back south to the city.

We’ve been back in Jerusalem for a week now, and it was a big one. I’ll write about my volunteer placements and our visit to the West Bank in my next post, but I did just want to say that we’ve had a couple conversations as a group since our return about whether or not we even still think peace is possible. The boat is rocking, and it’s challenging our hopeful, heart-filled, headstrong peace activist minds, but I am still, and probably always will be, a hopeless optimist. I’m not so naïve to think that it won’t be difficult and a long process that may take generations to be effective, but I truly believe with my whole heart that it is possible. Someday, someday, maybe.

Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “Let The Rain” by Sara Bareilles:

it’s time to love one another, we’re sisters and brothers, what are we fighting for?

I’ve been in Jerusalem0927151818b for over two weeks now, and what a time it has been. I’ve had so many extremely different experiences, between holiday meals with Orthodox families to meeting and speaking with Palestinians to being yelled at during a “Stop the Occupation” demonstration that we were walking by to starting Arabic and Hebrew lessons to feeling the reality of the conflict in rallies of both peace and hate in our own backyard to full on crying sessions with all the feels, and literally everything in between. My program is in full swing, and I have eight roommates in a pretty rad apartment in the center of Jerusalem. My goal was to do weekly blog posts, but that’s proving to be relatively difficult to produce in the midst of the chaos and emotionally/physically draining days here. I do feel like so many experiences I’ve had in Jerusalem are worth mentioning because they are so different, but I may have to take a less descriptive approach than I’m used to. Before my program even began two weeks ago, my heart was growing with how I feel and think about this place that everyone wants to call their own, this Jerusalem. And since the start of my program, my heart has shattered and been put back together again countless times. And this is just the beginning. We’re still in the orientation phase of all this. That’s what get’s me the most. It’s only been two weeks. Seems like a year’s worth of events have occurred since we got here. But also, we have 4.5 months left. Only 4.5 months! That’s so little! It’s nothing! Time is a funny, funny thing. So, in short…0927151826a

I wanted to write about the incredible experience I had my first two nights staying in the Old City at the Heritage House and how those first two nights magically coincided with the beginning of Sukkot and how I went to the Kotel and then spent two wonderful Sukkot meals eating under the sukkahs of two different Orthodox families who were incredibly generous to host a perfect stranger like me. I wanted to write about how I had never experienced tradition quite like that, and how it felt so real and warm and unique and different from my Jewish life thus far.

I wanted to write about how we ventured into East Jerusalem on our first night of the program, and shopped in the East Jerusalem market in the Old City past the Damascus gate, and how infuriating it was to realize how baseless the concept that we, as American Jews, were not permitted there during our Birthright trip. I wanted to write about how kind the people in that market were, and how receptive they were to us, and how they were so willing to answer my questions, and how delicious the food to be found there is.

I wanted to write about Birthright and how conflicted I feel about it, and my personal struggle between holding on to my Birthright Glow and positively knowing that it was the best experience of my entire life, while every day here realizing how much was kept from us then and whether or not it’s okay for 500,000 diaspora Jews to experience Israel in such a way that misses so much of what’s actually happening here. I wanted to write about how much I wonder whether or not that’s truly my own struggle, or if much of it stems for the generally negative opinion the people around me have about Birthright. I wanted to write that in the deepest depths of my heart, I will always love Birthright for everything it gave to me and every way it changed my life for the better, but I still wonder if there’s a better way to go about this because life in Israel is certainly not all sunshine and rainbows and camels and hikes and resorts in the middle of the desert.

I wanted to write about borders and boundaries and how they can be so fuzzy in their clarity and how language helps and hurts them and how I struggle with this on a daily basis in this foreign country where I now live. I wanted to write about walking to our learning center in almost East Jerusalem and seeing little girls walking with t-shirts that say “I ❤ Palestine” and telling them that I liked their shirts and then two days later starting to realize the reality of life there and how difficult it is and how much more I like their shirts now.

I wanted to write about the concept of decency and respect and the possibility for them both to exist in this conflict despite the different sides we all sit on, and how frustratingly absent these ideas currently are in this place. I wanted to write about Moriel, the interesting individual who brought up these topics before we even knew each other and did so with poetry and performance and pulling on all the heart strings.

I wanted to write about riding the Light Rail individually as a group from start to finish and what it was like to feel like we crossed the Green Line so seamlessly and without issue and even if it’s not perfect, it’s a thing and people of all different backgrounds were on that train together, and why can’t the whole region be like that light rail?

I wanted to write about Combatants for Peace and meeting a Palestinian man who told his story of being jailed for attacking an Israeli soldier years and years ago and realized the path to nonviolence while behind bars and came out on the other side wanting peace without violence. I wanted to write honestly about how I was scared and inspired sitting in front of him and listening to his story, and about how it hurt my heart to hear that his family seems less supportive of him now as a peace warrior than they were earlier in his life, back when he went to jail.1002151235-1-1

I wanted to write about the bus tour of East Jerusalem that we rode on, when we drove up to the wall and saw a checkpoint and drove through settlements and saw Palestinian neighborhoods and a refugee camp. I wanted to write about how I think I lost a piece of my heart that I may never get back at the sight of these fancy villas on French Hill that face the Shuafat Refugee Camp and how impossibly unequal these two places are, and just the slim possibility that maybe someone in that refugee camp looks out across that valley to where they used to live to see prosperity when they sit in poverty is enough to make you lose faith in all humanity.

I 1002151333wanted to write about how after all that exposure to what may be really going on in East Jerusalem concerning settlements, we walked through a “Stop the Occupation” protest on a street corner just ten minutes from our house. I wanted to write about how somehow, in our observance of what was going on, we somehow became representative of the protest, and people began yelling at us in anger and response to what the signs were saying. I wanted to write about how this was the first time I felt genuinely scared and unsafe in Jerusalem.

I wanted to write about how that same day, we had our first Shabbat as a group, and we hosted a bunch of new friends in our awesome apartment. I wanted to write about how cool it was to meet so many new people who are excited that we are here and that we want to do what we’re here to do. I wanted to write about how I had an emotional breakdown as my roommates and new friends recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for the recent passing of my dear friend, Matt. I wanted to write about how much that meant to me and how much I appreciate all of these new humans in my life.

1010152251I wanted to write about the Matisyahu concert, and how wonderful it was, even if Matisyahu isn’t the best performer in the whole world. I wanted to write about the Israeli flag, and how it has become a different symbol in our group than it was supposed to, and how that troubles me greatly. I wanted to write about how much I still see the flag as a display of national pride in a Jewish state, and how important that is to me and how my heart still warms when I see the flag. I wanted to write about the conversations my group has had about the meaning of the flag and how it has changed to something hateful, something that negatively represents retaliation from all the attacks on Israelis, especially when the flag is flown proudly in groups that chant horrible phrases like “Death to Arabs.” I wanted to write about how I felt when I saw the flag waving in the front row of the Matisyahu concert, after all these talks had happened and after we saw a parade of people marching down the street in front of our apartment chanting “Death to Arabs” and waving the Israeli flag with them. I wanted to write that even after all that, I still loved seeing that flag in motion while Matisyahu sang “Jerusalem” at the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem. I wanted to write that I refuse to believe that all people waving that flag are also thinking “Death to Arabs,” as I certainly am not, and I wish those that do would stop and realize that they will only make things worse with this mentality.

I wanted to write about how this is hard. I wanted to write about how much I wish it could just be easy. I wanted to write about how scared I am, but it’s okay to not write that, because my friend Ian covered it pretty well on his blog. I wanted to write about so much more that has shaped how my thoughts have changed about this place, and also how despite all of this, I still feel a love for this place that I can’t ignore.  I wanted to write something about all the violence that I seem to be surrounded by here in Jerusalem, but I still feel frozen in my search for words on that topic.

I wanted to write about how precious life is. I wanted to write about how my heart hurts for the Embry-Riddle community right now as it faces the pain of losing one of its own in a plane crash in Florida. I wanted to write about how tomorrow is the anniversary of the passing of my sweet friend Grace, and how I still cringe at the sight of motorcycles five years later, and how this is immeasurably more difficult in Israel where people ride so wildly and seemingly recklessly, but how I think she’d be proud of me for what I’m doing here, and I still wish I could just talk to her again. I wanted to write about how there are so many other ways to go in life, it is positively insane to kill random innocent people you’ve never met before and who did nothing to you. I wanted to write that all these senseless tragedies that are happening all around me, on both sides of the conflict, are awful and I wish they would just stop. I wanted to write about how uncomfortable the news has made me in portraying this conflict as one sided or the other sided, and how it’s truthfully both sides behaving so badly, and two wrongs don’t make a right, and how juvenile that sounds but oh my God, how applicable it is here. I wanted to write again that life is precious, and that I hope that if any of you are still reading this, 2,000 words later, that you can put aside anything that might otherwise prevent you from doing this and just hug your loved ones and tell them you love them tonight. I wanted to write that I have wished I could hug my loved ones back home on more than one occasion since I’ve been in Israel. I wanted to write that I am sending all my love to my family and friends (and by friends, I mean family I choose, because that’s what you all are to me) back home, and I miss you.

But mostly, I wanted to write that I’m okay, I’m safe, and everything will be fine.


Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “What Are We Fighting For?” by Tyrone Wells:

you said, remember that life is not meant to be wasted, we can always be chasing the sun!

On my Birthright trip last summer, my magnificent guide/tour educator, Barak Berkovich, frequently used a human (one of us) to illustrate the map of Israel to point out where exactly we were in our travels as we crisscrossed the country. I won’t give away his secrets, but I am happy to share that I’ve been to Beer Sheva, and I’m glad he always included that in his orientation of what’s where in Israel.

Katie, Tamar, Etay in Beer Sheva

I was invited to visit Beer Sheva by Indianapolis’ very first Shaliach, Etay. Etay was connecting Indy and Israel before I even thought about going to Indiana…. or Israel, for that matter. I’m so glad he did, because we have many of the same friends in Indy, and they put us in touch when I started to panic about what I was going to do in Israel for two weeks before my program began. Spending the weekend with Etay and his lovely girlfriend, Tamar, was the best possible way I could have spent my last few days in Israel before I hunker down in Jerusalem to get started with the work I came here to do. It was like visiting old friends, except we had never met until last weekend.

The weekend was filled with so many new and exciting experiences. And if you know me at all, you probably know that I’m a big fan of moments. Perhaps it’s because I’m a child of Sixthman events, which is a company that “creates music festivals at sea designed to set the stage for moments that make life rock!” Instead of staging forced moments, Sixthman creates an atmosphere conducive to the spontaneous development of unmatchable and magical life moments. I like to believe that my life is just naturally that environment, as I feel fortunate to have many ‘moments,’ or maybe it’s just that I ‘changed my mind‘ once upon a time and now i choose to see these moments more often in life. Either way, this weekend in Beer Sheva with Etay? Moments, moments, all around.

My first moment really took me by surprise. Etay took me to one of his favorite places in the city with delicious beer and wonderful food, and friends all over the place. I had a really interesting conversation with one of his friends, Tomer, who asked me things like what I was doing in Israel and how I met Etay. After I told him a quick bit about my program and my time with the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, he asked me a perfect question. What’s with all the Jewish stuff? And without even really thinking about it, I heard myself say something about how my experiences really demonstrated the strength of a people and the power of community. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but you know what it actually is? It’s absolutely the Federation in me. I heard myself say these words and realized that it wasn’t just being exposed to the Federation for the last four months that put the tagline on my mind, but rather the substance of my experiences working with so many strong people in the community who are making things happen that put the idea in my heart. A smile washed over my face as I realized this. That’s what’s with all the Jewish stuff. And I’m just getting started, too. Being on this ride and feeling things click into place within me is what this is all about, right?

The rest of my time in Beer Sheva was awesome, but I think my experience was skewed from the excellent company I kept there. I really did feel like Etay and Tamar were old friends, and we were all just excited to reconnect. We drove around the city, tried new foods, learned a smidgen of Hebrew, and met new people. I also had my first Shabbat celebration in Israel with Etay’s family. The idea that a family would open their doors and welcome a perfect stranger into their home and feed them without any sort of expectation is still so unfamiliar to me but so genuine and natural for these wonderful people. Shabbat has become very meaningful for me over the last year, so to be able to spend it with a family as warm and welcoming as Etay’s was truly special. I was worried about what Shabbats in Israel would be like without being able to go to IHC every week, but after this moment at my first family Shabbat, I realized that everything’s going to be sababa. 🙂

Bedouin Community in the South

On my last day in the south, Etay drove us all to some desert destinations. My first moment on this ride came when I saw what a real Bedouin community in the desert looked like. You know, I thought I had already seen a Bedouin community. I thought I spent a night in a Bedouin tent in the desert last summer on Birthright. One of my fondest memories of my trip last year was all 50 of us singing The Weight around a fire with the stars shining over us. The Bedouin experience was like a small resort in the middle of the desert, put together like a little town with running water and electricity. I left those tents with an idea that the Bedouin community was fine, prosperous, and fulfilled. This moment on the drive to the desert was so completely not that. These Bedouin communities were shacks and lean-tos and scraps of trash and instability. They were spread out and more “every man for himself” rather than a connected community. It was the opposite of prosperity or fulfillment, and more like struggle and unrest. And moreover, I was surprised by this. I still am. How is this what it’s like? Who are these people? How can we make this situation better? Are they really forced to steal water and/or electricity to live? Why was this reality so the opposite of what I experienced on Birthright? Is this what all Bedouin communities are really like? If so, then what did I experience last summer?

This moment left me feeling helpless and disappointed. In an instant, my previous notions of the magic of a part of Israel shattered like a full glass of wine, sticky and stainy and wasteful and so frustrating. And this is just the beginning. Now, more than ever, I know I am here to actually experience all of Israel. I will finally leave behind the Birthright Glow and see clearly with my own eyes. Ultimately, I don’t have answers to any of the questions that came to mind in the car as we drove. But I’m glad that I had this moment, because I know I’ll have so many moments that frustrate me this way while in Jerusalem. I’m here to learn what’s really happening on the ground. Even if it upsets me. And even if I know I’ll leave feeling helpless and without solutions. At the very least, it’s one more person with a slightly better grasp on the reality of this place, and maybe someday, I’ll wake up with an answer or two. Someday, someday, maybe.


The rest of the day was amazing, though. As upset as I was by the Bedouin revelation is how inspired I was by the rest of the day, and I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that I will encounter different extremities with my feelings about Israel over the next 5 months. Our first stop on our trip was in Yerucham. It’s a tiny town in the middle of the desert and a wonderful example of the idea that Jews in Israel can live in the vast, empty land of the desert without disruption. The town is beautiful and has an incredible man-made lake with a breathtaking dam in the middle of nowhere. It was a pretty amazing site, and helped to restore my faith in this place. Not everything is perfect or right, but we can be on the right track in so many other ways and places. Yes, we can.

0926151755aAfter our visit, we were on our way to Sde Boqer, and I had no idea what I was in for. This beautiful view overwhelmed me with a sense of peace, serenity, and calm that I’m not sure I’ve ever felt. I wish so much that I could share the feeling of seeing this reality with you, as this picture surely does not do it justice. The community itself is so green and made up of families who want to make the world a better place. The history of the village is only part of its charm, and the traditions leave reason to keep coming back. I definitely left a piece of my heart behind on that mountain top, and I’m looking forward to my return. I’m so endlessly grateful to Etay and Tamar for taking me here. I had no idea this place even existed. What in incredible and beautiful world we live in. And that wasn’t even the end of the day!

0926151846cThe rest of our night was spent literally chasing the sun. We hurried a bit farther down south to Mitzpe Ramon to see the majestic crater that I’ve heard so much about for the last year. We got there just as the sun was setting, and it was beautiful. I think the massiveness of it all was hidden in the shade of the setting sun, but the moon made an impressive cameo that was not to be ignored. I paused for a moment, realizing that the lyrics to a favorite song of mine came to life in that evening in a way I had never anticipated. Life is not meant to be wasted, we can always be chasing the sun. I’ve always been inspired by these lyrics since Sara B penned them and shared them with the world, but today, more than ever before, they are so true.

I’m here for a reason. I’m here to learn and experience and see and understand. It’s time to push myself to the limits, whether I like what’s involved in that or not, and it might even be time to try to do something about it all. I’m so glad I had this weekend in Beer Sheva for so many reasons… mostly because Etay and Tamar are incredible humans, and I feel incredibly lucky to have met them and had such a fun weekend with them. I’m also glad that I had my first encounter with something that upset me, and I had it in a safe and judgement free environment. It’s a part of this whole puzzle. There’s so much going on in Israel and it’s all so complicated. I hope there’s an answer out there to all my questions, and I hope that there’s a way to fix all the problems here. I hope, I hope, I hope.