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Planting Seeds of Change

Posted: 08/16/2012 2:49 pm

Spotlight on the volunteer program Yahel and the influence it had on one volunteer, Shoshana Wineburg. Below is an article that originally appeared on jew-ish.com about the potential and power of a service-learning experience.

Shoshana Wineburg always resisted her mother's requests to help with the gardening. Yet now, at 25, the Seattle native and inveterate traveler and volunteer is eager to plant seeds -- both literally and figuratively -- that will blossom into brighter futures for the communities she works with.

Shoshana spent last year in Israel volunteering with the Yahel Israel Service Learning program, where she helped build community, teach English and plant urban gardens among the concrete housing units in the Shapira neighborhood of Gedera. Yahel sends young people to volunteer and live alongside the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Israel on long-term, summer and alternative break programs.

"I grew up in a household with a lot of emphasis on education, on service and helping people," Shoshana said. "The main thing in our house was to be a good person." Her father is a professor of educational psychology at Stanford and her mother is a social worker. Shoshana sees herself as a product of her upbringing.

But it wasn't until she spent nine months volunteering with Yahel, living and working within a largely Ethiopian community, that Shoshana really began to think about how to do service effectively.

"Yahel was particularly eye-opening for me. I had been involved with volunteer work my entire life, and I considered myself critical and analytical. But I had never asked if my actions were perpetuating dependency."

Shoshana feels that Yahel is different from other volunteer programs because they worked hand in hand with grassroots organizations. "The number-one most important thing is collaboration. We were working in collaboration with Friends By Nature, an organization that was already part of the community. We weren't coming in and telling them what to do. It was bottom-up, not top-down. Even though we were outsiders, we were paired with people who were insiders." Inspired by this community-based approach to development, Shoshana is considering applying for a master's in Community and International Development at McGill University in the future.

With Yahel, Shoshana volunteered in the local community center, teaching English to adults and teens and tutoring for the Shiurei Bayit b'Bayit (Homework at Home) program. Working in partnership with Friends by Nature, Shoshana and the other participants on Yahel helped build community gardens between the concrete housing projects that make up the neighborhood. "We set up gardens where they would grow veggies and Ethiopian herbs and teff -- a grain used to make the flour for injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread."

Shoshana's connection to Israel began at a young age, when her family spent her fifth-grade year living in the small town of Metula in Northern Israel. After college, she returned to study at Pardes, an English-speaking egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem.

"My decision to come back was to find my own place in Israel, where I could find a balance between my year of living there as a young child and my year in Jerusalem, where I became disillusioned and frustrated," she said. "I wanted to find a place that was not in the conflict, not in the middle of Jerusalem, but on the periphery, where the Israel experience was not so charged but was also representative of the minorities and the other people living there. It added a completely new perspective to my Israel experience because I had never encountered the Ethiopian community or minority communities before."

Shoshana describes Pardes as an

"incredibly cerebral experience. We were in beit midrash all day studying Talmud. I thought it couldn't get more intellectual than that. My reason for joining Yahel was to get my hands dirty, and be involved with connecting more with people -- with Israelis -- and with the land."

Yahel director Dana Talmi recalls Shoshana as a great participant who felt she had spent a year "learning, learning, learning and now she wanted to do."

More than a year after returning from Israel, Shoshana continues to reflect on the experience. What surprised her the most -- and perhaps left the most enduring impact -- was that this very active service experience proved to be as intellectually challenging as her year of studies at Pardes.

"I learned the significance of having agency in your life and ownership over your actions. When that doesn't happen, growth doesn't occur and you undermine the community's power. That was a paradigm shift for me. It made me become very sensitive to volunteerism and to development in general."

Talmi agrees that many participants are drawn to the program because it offers exposure to communities in Israel that many American tourists aren't traditionally exposed to. Talmi describes Yahel as a program that offers "a different way of engaging with Israel -- a way to engage with all of its complexities."

From her years in Israel to her most recent experience teaching English in Cuzco, Peru (where she is now), Shoshana is a true collector of experiences, adept at immersing herself in a new community. Her next adventure may be an English language instruction program in Asia.

"All of my experiences abroad have been formative for me. Exposing yourself to different cultures, settling down and living somewhere that is culturally different and sometimes culturally challenging, it makes you a more deep and nuanced and humble and appreciative person. Which is why I am curious about Asia. That might be my next life-growing experience."

Yet Shoshana maintains that her experience in Israel felt different somehow, the connection deeper than what she has experienced in Peru.

"I will miss my time [in Peru], but there is nothing about being here that resonates with me or hits me viscerally the way Israel hits me. I want to go back. I need to go back, despite everything. I can never sever the tie because it's in me."
 
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