Voices from the Field
The days since the quake have been, without a doubt, some of the most terrible I've experienced, and also some of the most inspiring – it's been a roller coaster of emotions. I've had to become something of a self-salesman, inserting myself into as many relief projects as I can.
In the days immediately following the quake, I helped a team of Israeli doctors by translating for their Nepali patients into Hebrew. High school Ayal studying Hebrew at Niles North couldn't ever have imagined that this was one of the moments for which he was preparing. I have also spent some time helping build shelters and toilets in rural districts, and organizing teams of volunteers to go out and work.
On the side, I've been photographing and listening to survivors’ stories and posting them on Facebook. Initially, my thought was to share their stories with friends and family with the goal of helping make Nepal and its current struggle relatable and personal, to “meet” real Nepalis (should sound familiar to an iCenter audience).
It's also become a therapeutic project for me – meeting Nepalis who have lost quite literally everything except for their own lives, yet keep on living, not holding themselves as total victims, is humbling.
Nepal will rebuild itself. It will need a LOT of international aid, and a lot of time, but life will continue here.
About a week after the quake, I came to the IDF army hospital in Nepal to help with a bit of translation (the IDF literally flew in a fully functioning hospital, X-Rays, operating rooms, everything. It was the best hospital in Nepal for the two weeks it was here). Anyway, I was later called into the search and rescue/pikud ha'oref tent to help them understand the situation in one of the cities near Kathmandu, the one I had been in when the first quake hit. I walk in, and the soldier sitting there gives me a look and says, "Ayal!"
The Israel world is a small place but I did not expect to meet someone who I knew, davka here, davka now. So, I turned around to see if there was another Ayal in the room. There wasn't...
I didn't recognize her initially, but she quickly reminded me she had been at the iCenter's Masters Concentration in Israel Education seminar in January of 2014 – Tom Shay, from Kibbutz Lochmei Ha'getaot. After catching up over couscous, hot dogs, and tehina in the dining tent (I was pumped about the tehina, a hard to find commodity in Nepal), she explained to me that there's a Nepali man who works on her kibbutz whose family lost everything. The kibbutz members pooled a sum of money to help the family rebuild and get through this difficult time. They had asked Tom to deliver it to his family, but she was not allowed to leave the base for security reasons and also didn't know Kathmandu. Obviously, I offered to help. Later that day I made contact with the family in Kathmandu, now homeless and living in the back yard of a distant relative. I met up with them, they invited me for tea, and I delivered the money. It will help them a lot.
I never thought that my time at the iCenter would connect me to helping hand out relief money in Nepal, but the world works in funny and sometimes wonderful ways.
More about Israel in Nepal
To quote a fellow Israeli traveler, "In these uncertain days after the quake, I would be scared NOT to be Israeli." She was referring to everything that Israel did to help Israeli travelers. There were dozens of search and rescue experts hiking up into the mountains to locate and save Israeli hikers who had been stranded due to ongoing landslides and avalanches. Helicopters were acquired to help in this effort even when they were near impossible to find. The IDF brought in a fully functioning hospital to help injured Nepalis (and travelers as well). The Chabad here was keeping a list of all Israeli and Jewish travelers who were accounted for, and those still missing. They, even more so than the embassy, are the experts in search and rescue here; unfortunately this isn't the first time there have been disasters with hikers in the Himalayas. Also, for the three or four days following the quake, the embassy allowed Israelis (and those like me who snuck in by speaking Hebrew) to sleep on the grass of the embassy to have a safe place to stay outdoors, away from hazardous buildings. In the midst of an already emotionally trying period, processing all of this pride in what Israel was doing to take care of its own, and also of Nepalis, was incredible. It got me rethinking my current situation of having one passport. But that's a story for another day...
Ayal’s passion for Israel was cultivated early on from his home life and quickly became a major part of his life independently. He graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in Environmental Studies and International and Global Studies, and a minor in Hebrew Language. Prior to joining the iCenter team, Ayal lived in Jerusalem as a JDC-BBYO Jewish Service Corps member. His work focused on utilizing community gardens as a way to empower low income communities across the country as well as organizing leadership programming for at-risk Ethiopian Israeli youth. He loves photography, playing music and being outdoors- and likes doing these things especially so in Hebrew and while in Israel.
I first learned the song Ani v’Atah at a Kibbutz ulpan during the first segment of a year-long service program for young adults around the world. I never imagined it would later become the anthem for a public school I would found with a diverse cohort of Jewish and African-American Washingtonians. But last week in Northeast Washington, DC, 80 children at Sela Public Charter School, including my own son and daughter, sang their school anthem with Miki Gavrielov, visiting Israeli rock star, and shared in Hebrew their own plans to change the world. The special event came together when Miki Gavrielov requested to visit the school, after seeing it featured on Israeli news Channel 10, singing the song he popularized. The program, which was livestreamed around the world, featured a whole school effort to integrate the social change message that permeates Sela and its sister Hebrew immersion charter schools, across the country.
Sela is part of the Hebrew Charter School Center's network of schools that teaches about Israel and global citizenship through a curriculum focusing on the vibrant current and historical contributions of Israel. Students learn about Israel through the lens of culture, language, the arts, technology and music. Miki’s visit allowed the children to use their Hebrew language skills and knowledge in an authentic setting about Israel and with its people: Miki and his entourage. This educational contact point provided Sela students an opportunity to take their Hebrew language skills and express them through music and conversation.
In Hebrew, the children told Miki how they planned to change the world: pick up the trash, guard the animals, cherish their teachers, help other people, and be a better friend. In preparation for their annual Israel fair, the children will soon make their own passports and boarding cards. Although we live in an international city, many of the children who come to Sela have not seen such things before. The foundation we are giving them is a genuine passport to a world beyond their neighborhoods, a world that, because of their primary school education, I am convinced they will be able to change.
Jessica Lieberman, PhD, has over 15 years experience in human rights, intercultural exchange and international affairs. She has worked for a number of Human Rights NGOs in the Middle East and the United States and has taught at the George Washington University, Elliot School of International Affairs. In her current position, she is deputy director of the Office of Global Programming in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the US State Department, where she supervises a team of program officers responsible for managing over 100 million dollars in U.S. foreign assistance. Dr. Lieberman is founder and Board Chair of Sela Public Charter School and lives with her husband, daugther and son in Takoma, DC.
A child's stream-of-consciousness was something my Bubby always valued. Her philosophy was that when a child asks a question, any question, it should be answered honestly and seriously – not only because it matters for the child’s development, but because it matters to the child.
Time and memory do not work in tandem. In fact, I find at the close of any period of time, I retain only a few memories, and over time those memories tend to wear unless I’ve written them down or have some kind of memento. My Bubby, Marvell Ginsburg, passed away last year, when I was 23 years old. Over those 23 years we spent almost every Shabbat dinner together, had many sleepovers, and many important discussions. Those moments are precious, but now, one year after her death, most blend together into a short, couple-second film reel in my memory bank. Luckily for me, Bubby was a writer, so decades of her voice are preserved in the archives of her life’s work.
What I will not forget are the last few discussions we had. When the family would come to visit her in the nursing home, Bubby always looked somewhat overwhelmed. Everyone would speak loudly and slowly, and even then she struggled to understand the yes-no questions she was asked.
But I would frequently come alone, and the ritual was always the same: I pulled up a chair next to her bed, she would slowly lift up her hand, I would hold it, and we’d stay that way for the hour or so in which we spoke. During those conversations it was as if the curtains over her cognition would lift, and the wisdom she uttered in those moments still play in my mind on repeat, like a poem I have to memorize. Here was this woman, my Bubby, my teacher, who had accomplished so much in her life as an early childhood educator and mentor, giving me, her grandson, final pearls of wisdom.
We discussed many things: “What is a Jew?” “What do I look for in a wife?” “How can I become successful?” In the middle of one of those conversations she turned aside and said, “I’ve loved so much being your mother.” To which I said, “You’re my Bubby, remember? You’re not my mother.” To which she slowly shook her head and replied, “A mother is a mother is a mother.” And she was right.
What I remember most about her was her ability to listen to me and discuss anything I was interested in at any age. At the end of her life my mom discovered among her things a book of quotes, memories and observations she wrote down about her grandchildren. Under my name she wrote things like:
“Why doesn’t God answer me when I talk to Him? If I put my hand in a rainbow how will it feel? Does God feel sad about the people who died who He made? How many buffalo are in the world?”
And then right before kindergarten:
“I’m scared about kindergarten. I don’t want to go to kindergarten. What will I do in kindergarten? Do we just sit around tables and write all day?”
During her career, Bubby wrote and published a curriculum guide called Teaching Holidays to Young Jewish Children. It was widely read and distributed to Jewish day school programs all over the world. The insights in it are timeless, the activities clever, and each essay on child development is perceptive and poignant.
I found a copy of the guide in one of Bubby’s closets a few years ago and had her sign it for me. Until recently, it sat on my shelf unread. What use did I have for it? But when I began working at the iCenter I was offered the opportunity to focus on an independent project, and I pitched the idea to reissue her guide. We are currently editing it for this generation of Jewish educators.
For me, the joy in reading this work is in hearing each sentence stamped with her voice, and gaining a deeper understanding of who she was as a professional. Over the next couple months it will be my honor to bring her work back to the field, and we'll start by linking to her Mother's Day chapter.
Happy Mother’s Day, Bubby.