Repair Interview: Shoshana Wineburg and the Yahel Social Change Programby Leah Koenig | March 2, 2011 | 2 comments
Yahel is a new and exciting addition to the world of Jewish service (and also a Repair the World grantee). Founded in 2009 by Dana Talmi, the organization is already making huge strides in promoting service in Israel. Their programs work to create a society where “people work side by side in order to bring about personal and social change.”
Yahel’s Social Change Program invites young adults for a 5-month program where they live and work with the Ethiopian community in Gedera, Israel, combining hands-on volunteer work with learning and cultural immersion. The first Yahel cohort just finished up their first session, and five of the six volunteers decided to stay on for another session. (They were recently joined by three new participants.)
One of those participants, Shoshana Wineburg, took some time to speak with Repair the World about living in community, the Ethiopian residents of Gedera, Israel, and what it means to “live social change.”
Why did you get involved with Yahel?
Last year I studied at Pardes (an egalitarian Yeshiva) in Jerusalem, which was a very rewarding, but very heady and intellectually intense experience. I appreciated it and enjoyed learning, but felt there was a disconnect in my life last year between study and action. I was in such a privileged position to be in a place where I could sit and grapple with issues all day. Throughout the year, I’d think about “I learned a lot today,” but what am I contributing?” I felt it was necessary not just to learn, but to do.
So why Yahel specifically?
While at Pardes, I volunteered once a week in a low income community in Jerusalem and worked with an Ethiopian brother and sister. We hung out together and went to see movies; their mom cooked injera for us. I developed a close relationship with them and their family, and felt like it was a taste of an experience that I wanted to explore more in-depth. Yahel seemed like a chance to do that, and also make more of a direct and sustained impact.
Was the connection between social action/service and Judaism on your radar screen before this year?
Social change was on my radar screen, but not Judaism. I’d graduated from Stanford as an American Studies major in 2009 – while there I was very involved with service work on campus. I was a tutor coordinator for Upward Bound and led a tutoring group once a week. I also worked with ESL students.
But I was not involved in Hillel or any Jewish organization on campus. I’d lived in Israel as a 5th grader and came back throughout the years to visit friends, but I struggled a lot with organized religion. Pardes was my first real Jewish experience in a while – and it was a huge jump! I grew up in Seattle, so this was my first time having a close group of Jewish friends. And the amount of emotional, spiritual and personal growth that went on during the year was expansive. I think that’s also why I was interested in Yahel – because of the community aspect. It was the first time in my life where I experienced what it was like to be a part of a smaller collective.
What has your experience at Yahel been like?
There’s a micro and macro part of the community. The micro part is me and my 5 roommates. We live in one house, so it’s a total communal and collaborative living experience. That in itself has become the nucleus and it has been an incredible experience. We live together and eat together – it’s been an experience that impacts my every day life.
The larger community expands outward from our house – it’s the community we work with. We live about 80 stairs up from Shapira street, a street in Gedera Israel that holds 22 housing projects and 1,300 Ethiopian residents. This is the community where we do most of our work, and we live right in the center of it. If you walk down the street everyone knows you.
That sounds intense.
At the beginning there was some suspicion amongst the neighborhood residents about who we were and what we were doing. But that has definitely changed. One of the things I regularly hear from other Israelis is that the Ethiopian community is closed and sticks to themselves. But our experience is has been totally different. The community is so open and welcoming and has really accepted us. I think those comments speak more to the failure of multiculturalism in Israeli society, than the actual reality of the situation.
What kind of work do you do?
I volunteer with the high school, work with kids, and tutor students in their homes. I work two days a week at the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, and also help run an open center where the neighborhood teens can come from 7-9pm to hang out. They have a music station, a cards station, a movie station – by living and working in the community, you really get to know the residents in a holistic way, instead of just in fragments. That’s one of the most amazing things about Yahel.
Your group is the first Yahel group – do you think it’s been successful?
Yes, we are the pioneers. Our original timeframe was supposed to be from September to February, but 5 out of the 6 of us decided we wanted to stay, which I think is a huge indicator of the program’s success. Also, you have to have patience with community empowerment work because change comes in spurts. Community empowerment is about sustainability and it requires time – I think that’s partly why so many of us wanted to stay. We feel like we are just hitting our stride.
I know you just started the second cohort, but do you have any thoughts for where this experience might lead?
That’s the million dollar question! I definitely know that I’m interested in pursuing something with education or social work on the community empowerment level. I always told myself that I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I’ve been enjoying that a lot. I’d also love to keep doing work in the Ethiopian community in Israel.
Any last thoughts?
This has been an amazing experience – it has completely changed the way I think about serivce work and empowerment, and made me a more thoughtful and deliberate volunteer. I think Americans are generally eager to give, but don’t always think critically about the implications of our giving or think about what it means to give sustainably. This experience has taught me how to give in a way that builds skills and tools, instead of just throwing money at a cause, which can unintentionally cause harm, or just give two hours of time and then walk away. This is about diving in and really living social change. At Yahel we are not learning about it from afar, it is what we do.