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WB native teaches, and learns, in Israel

By: Mike Koury | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published December 18, 2015

 Becca Garfinkel, center left wearing glasses, and members of her program sit to eat at a night market in Lod.

Becca Garfinkel, center left wearing glasses, and members of her program sit to eat at a night market in Lod.

Photo provided by Becca Garfinkel

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — Becca Garfinkel always wanted to be able to travel around the world.

Now, as part of a volunteer program, she gets to do that and help many young people in the city of Lod, Israel.

Garfinkel is in Lod as part of Masa Israel’s Yahel Social Change Program, which is a nine-month program that is part learning experience, part volunteer effort.

Through the program, Garfinkel has been teaching third- to eighth-graders English. Her students include Israelis, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants and more. She volunteers about 25 hours a week at a local school called G’nei Aviv, as well as helping community organizations.

Garfinkel heard about the program from an advisor in her minor program — community action and social change — during her last semester at the University of Michigan, where she graduated in May. 

She said she often works with the same group of kids for a month at a time, which makes her work and relationships with her students a little more rewarding.

“When you make a relationship with a group of five kids, they form their own little community, and I just get to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s super cool.”

Garfinkel’s mother, Lori Garfinkel, said her daughter always wanted to take a gap year between schooling to do something, so it came as no surprise to her when she told her about traveling to Israel.

“We knew that she was going to take this gap year,” she said. “We thought it would be in France, but it ended up in Israel.”

Lori Garfinkel said it’s been a little hard being away from her daughter for so long, as she wasn’t too far away when she was in college in Ann Arbor, but the family had been a mobile one when Becca was growing up, living in different locations, so they knew this was in her.

“We miss her,” she said. “We know that she’s doing work that she is compelled to do.”

As a Jewish woman, Garfinkel previously visited Israel as a child with her parents, but she doesn’t remember the trip all too well. She had never really considered visiting Israel again until the program presented itself.

Her experience, Garfinkel said, has been interesting and different, in her eyes, from the experiences of other visitors.

“Lod is a mixed city, which means both Arabs and Jews live here,” she said. “Arabs live next to Jews, and it’s almost completely integrated.

“You just don’t find that in Israel. I didn’t realize that extent of the (separation outside of Lod) until I was here. It’s really remarkable that Lod manages to exist so peacefully.”

The violence and uncertainty in the Middle East and Israel in the recent past definitely have been on Garfinkel’s mind, but one place she hasn’t really seen it is in Lod.

“I’ve asked around and said to a lot of my neighbors and said, ‘Is it safe? Does violence like this happen in Lod?’” she said. “And they said no, because people don’t want to hurt their neighbors.”

But the fear of violent attacks persists to where Garfinkel said she hasn’t yet visited the Old City of Jerusalem.

“It affects my decisions a lot,” she said. “It affects my mind a lot. The threat of terrorism is so real here it’s just something that’s constantly talked about.

“It’s just that the concept of violence is so much more present in this society.”

The thought of violence also has been on the mind of Lori Garfinkel, who is concerned about what trains and buses her daughter may take. But she said the people at Masa Israel have been great at communicating their security and where her child is going.

“They’ve been terrific about quelling our fears,” Lori Garfinkel said. “They tell us about the security that they have in place for all of the kids.”

“It’s definitely hard for my parents and other family to allow me to have this independent experience while being worried sick,” Garfinkel said. “It’s definitely been kind of a burden to say, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’m fine,’ but it’s really just part of it. It’s what you kind of buy into when you move here.”

But all the thoughts of violence and danger haven’t swayed Garfinkel’s opinion of Israel or the Middle East in general, noting the contrast of what people or the media might portray, especially in light of recent world events.

“It’s just so negative,” she said of what she’s seen in the media. “It’s all about violence. It’s all about conflict … but there’s also really, really great things happening.”

Some of those things Garfinkel has been documenting in a blog about her experiences overseas: garfinkelr.wix.com/becca. One thing that she has documented is pluralism in the north of Israel, as well as a nonprofit group that gives students scholarships to do community service in Lod.

“What you see when you’re here is really people just trying to live,” she said. “Whether they’re Jewish or Muslim or Ethiopian or Christian, they’re just trying to raise their kids, to put food on the table. It’s more meaningful than we give it time for.

“I don’t think we realize it until we’re faced with it. Until we actually see the real things that are happening, the real people who are suffering or who are just living their lives.”

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