I first visited Kiriyat Moshe, a small neighbourhood of Rehovot, eight years ago. While studying in Israel, a group of Americans and I adopted the Ethiopian community as a volunteer project.
Each week, a few of us spent Shabbat partnering with the local Bnai Akiva chapter to run youth programs. The goals were twofold: to offer educational content while giving the youths a positive social outlet away from the dangerous culture of the street.
I visited Kiriyat Moshe nearly 20 times. Each week, we slept in the bomb shelter of an abandoned school and ran programs in the bomb shelter next to ours. During our brief forays outside, we found a drab, dark neighbourhood filled with dilapidated buildings falling into disrepair and children on the streets with nowhere to go. Most upsetting, many of the children were losing their rich Ethiopian heritage and instead grasping American rap culture in an attempt to form their own, confused identity.
As the Ethiopian community immigrated to Israel, they were thrust into a new world. Everything from language to buses, basketballs to grocery stores was new. I remember one child telling me that because he had learned Hebrew faster than his family, he became the translator. One day an absorption officer pulled him aside and insisted that he explain to his parents how to use a toilet. Coming from a traditional culture in which respect of elders was paramount, the new power held by the youth created an imbalance that neither the parents nor the children knew how to cope with.
I remember the close relationships I built with the children. While we mocked my Hebrew accent, we would sing songs, play soccer or talk about school. The kids in Kiriyat Moshe were full of hopes, but dreaded that their dreams would never be realized.
During my last visit to Kiriyat Moshe, when we left the bomb shelter for Kabbalat Shabbat, someone broke-in and stole our wallets and cellphones. I left eight years ago hopeful that things would improve, but fearful that change would be long in coming.
Last week, I returned to Kiriyat Moshe with a group of students from the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, many of whom were experiencing Israel for the first time. For a week, we had been touring, seeing highlights of the country from the Golan to the Negev. Kiriyat Moshe is not usually on the itinerary for such trips, but these students were on their way to a chesed project, working alongside local youth.
As our bus pulled in, the students were excited, but I think I was even more so. Since my last visit, a community centre and new basketball courts have been built. There were children playing hopscotch and skipping. We got off the bus and headed into the school where I used to sleep. Throughout the building there were after-school programs taking place: tutoring, big brothers and more. We headed downstairs into the shelter where I had slept many times. Thoroughly cleaned and painted, the shelter had been converted into a lounge including couches, TV, foosball (a tabletop soccer game) and ping-pong.
For several hours, my students sat with a group of Ethiopian children. Together they assembled care packages for Israeli soldiers, shared stories and songs, and formed relationships just as I had done years before.
Since I first arrived in Kiriyat Moshe, our Toronto community has helped change the spirit of the community, investing in new parks and outdoor activities, after-school programs and tutoring. It is easy to see the effect we have had. And yet, despite the investment in infrastructure, it is often the personal connection, when children sit together, sing together and laugh together, as I did years ago and as my students did now, that makes all the difference in the world.