I'm really terrible at remembering to write my blog, so here's an update about the first two weeks of my program, two weeks before it ends.
The program I am volunteering for is called Oranim. It's a 5 month program that combines volunteer work with ulpan (Hebrew language study). There are programs in other cities including Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ramla and Ness Ziona and one other kibbutz, Kfar Masarik. My program is on Kibbutz Yechiam which is situated in the Galil Mountains 10ish miles east of Nahariya, on the coast, and about 5 miles south of the northern border with Lebanon. The kibbutz was founded in 1946, a year and a half before the declaration of independence of the State of Israel. In the early days the kibbutz was known as HaSela (The Rock) but the name was changed for a member of the Palmach who was killed during "The Night of Bridges". During the first years, through the Independence War, the men of the kibbutz lived in and around the fortress at the top of the hill (which dates from the 12th century), while the women and children stayed in and near Haifa. During the war, the men simultaneously converted the rocky land surrounding the fortress into farm land and defended their position from the local Arabs; going weeks at a time without supplies or water because of the remote location of the kibbutz.
Yechiam functioned as a socialist community up until recently when the kibbutz members voted to privatize the kibbutz. The dining hall remains but it is no longer used for communal meals. The fields are still worked to produce fruits and vegetables but most of the farmers are migrant workers from Thailand. The deli factory still produces meats but the employees there are no longer exclusively kibbutz members and they are paid a personal salary. The childrens' houses have become day care centers where even members of the kibbutz have to pay to send their children. This is actually quite common as the era of kibbutzim is coming to an end. Unfortunately for me, I didn't realize any of this before I came here, so it was quite a shock to find out I'd be responsible for my own food. Good thing I have some money saved up!
I arranged to meet Lorien (who later that day became my roommate) at the train station in Tel Aviv so that we could travel together to Nahariya and then to Yechiam. I had been fairly nervous but Lorien is a really anxious traveler so in trying to distract her with getting-to-know-you small talk I calmed myself down. Lorien and I talked the whole train ride and the trip felt very short. I learned that Lorien is from Capetown, South Africa and went to private Jewish day school where she learned Hebrew as a second language and Afrikaans as a third. She is 26 and prior to coming to Israel worked as a Programmer. She decided to come to Israel to take a break from "real life" and try to figure out what she wants to do next with her life. As we were chatting I was surprised to see that the northern train line travels next to the coast almost the whole way from Tel Aviv to Nahariya. The only thing that is closer to the water is the highway.
The train arrived in Nahariya on time and we lumbered down the street to the bus station to catch the bus to Yechiam. At the station we happened across Jessica, another participant in our program who comes from Argentina. We tried, unsuccessfully, to help her find a bathroom. Jess is a 23-year-old journalist based in Buenos Aires. Her English is awesome although she refuses to believe it and sometimes she comes up with great names for things like "tiny closet" instead of cabinet or pronounces the "ch" in stomach. The bus finally showed up and we finished the last leg of the journey to the kibbutz. The road to Yechiam passes by little else except banana and orange fields. Some of which are owned and run by the kibbutz. The Galil Mountains are green and beautiful, especially in the Spring, which was just beginning.When we got off the bus we were met by Oshra, our "city" coordinator. She took us to our rooms to get settled and meet the other volunteers, Max, Justin and Mike. Mike had already been in Israel since last June on other Oranim programs. He was first in Ramla until his program was moved to Yechiam where he loved it so much he signed on for two more programs. Mike is from New York/Connecticut and studied music education at the University of Rochester. Justin is 22, from Toronto and just recently graduated from university where he studied health science. Max, 23 (although he's had a birthday since we met), is from New York City and graduated from Dartmouth where he majored in history. He is really interested in the French Revolution.
We got settled in and met Oshra and Yariv in the Volunteer Moadon (clubhouse) for some pizza, humus and information. Yariv lives on the kibbutz and is the Director of Educational Programs for Oranim. He also works as a tour guide, so we don't get to see him that often.
On our first full day of the program, Yariv took us on a tour of the kibbutz which was thoroughly confusing. Yariv really knows his stuff and proved it by eating half the plants we walked by. At his prompting, I ate a purple flower that tasted exactly like what you'd think a flower would taste like. In all seriousness though, there are so many edible plants. Just outside our door there is a tree that gives "berries", lemongrass and mint plants, I even picked a lemon off of a tree to use in my guacamole. The kibbutz is split into two sections, one is residential the other is industrial. There is the deli meat factory, a fiberglass shop, mosaic studio, a company that gives horseback tours and soon there will be a winery. There is also a national park surrounding the fortress, with a restaurant where people have bar/bat mitzvot or weddings. The fortress is really big and beautiful and is a prefect place to take pictures, read or draw. This is Jessica reading at the fortress.
The rest of the first week was filled with introductions and a hike to K'lil, a nearby community made up of former city dwelling intelligentsia who moved to the north to farm and live a simpler life; or, you could say, Israeli Hippies. On our hike to K'lil through the dry riverbed:
For the next two weeks we had Ulpan everyday for 5 hours. Everyone else had gone to private Jewish day school, so they all knew a little Hebrew already. Even though I had gone to Hebrew school from Kindergarten through my Bat Mitzvah year until 10th grade, on the first day of class I realized that I had never even learned Hebrew script. I only knew type face Hebrew letters so everything our teacher, Meital, wrote on the board was meaningless to me for two reasons: First, I didn't know what the words meant and secondly, I couldn't read them. Needless to say, I had a slow start in Ulpan, but by the end of the first two weeks I was already using small sentences! "Shalom! Shem Shali Karen!" "Hello! My name is Karen!" "Coma ze Oleh?" "How much does this cost?" "Eifo ha'shirotim?" "Where is the bathroom?" "Ani ohevet g'vina!" "I like cheese!"
At the beginning of our second week I was spared the embarrassment of knowing the least amount of Hebrew in Ulpan when our final participant, Stacy, showed up. Coincidentally, Stacy not only is from New Jersey, but used to go to college in the same town I was living in before I came to Israel. We didn't live there at the same time, but it was nice to have someone around from the same place. Stacy is a 28-year-old gemologist, who took some time off of work to come volunteer in the Holy Land. Here is everyone, except Jessica on a tiyul (outing) at the fortress. From right to left (just like in Hebrew) Max, me, Lorien, Justin and Stacy.
Now that we had all the volunteers assembled, and with our intensive ulpan coming to an end and our volunteer placements were about to begin, it was time to look up and out into our socialist future, like a soviet propaganda poster.