Volunteering for Coexistence

Long before Israel gained independence, the city of Jaffa was a bustling port. Today, it swarms with multi-national populations, whose tenuous coexistence is constantly on the brink of conflict. The ones who suffer most from this situation are the weaker populations – the children, the youth and the elderly. The participants in the IMPJ pre-army Mechina program in Jaffa volunteer in this unique mosaic in an attempt to assist its weaker populations.

In order to prepare to volunteer with the city’s Arab population, in addition to their Jewish pluralistic studies, the Mechina participants also learn about Islamic Culture. For the past seven years, Ihab Balacha, an Israeli Arab resident of Jaffa, has been the Mechina’s instructor in this subject. To personalize and bring this to life, Ihab hosts Mechina participants in his home where they can witness his culture first-hand, as well as meet his father who has lived in Jaffa since before 1948, and hear his story.  Through this experience, the Mechina participants are able to begin to understand the delicate balance of coexistence in Jaffa.

“Lev Yaffo” is a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in the heart of Jaffa. One of the places in “Lev Yaffo” where Mechina has been volunteering is the multi-purpose “Magen Avraham” daycare center, which serves Arab Israeli children-at-risk from age 0-6. These children come from particularly difficult backgrounds, and are referred to the facility by Jaffa’s social welfare services – some even via court orders. For most, this is their first encounter with Jewish Israelis, and many of the children speak no Hebrew. While communication is mostly through sign language and halting Arabic of the Israelis, the volunteers slowly make connections by improving their Arabic and teaching the children Hebrew. Through this program, for the first time, these young Arab children are able to see Jewish citizens as caring partners.

Liora was one of the Mechina participants who volunteered at “Magen Avraham.” She recalled one child who refused to speak with anyone at the center or participate in any of the activities. All he did was sit in the corner all day and watch. Only near the end of the year did he finally open up and begin communicating and playing with the volunteers and other children. This was a huge achievement for the volunteers, and Liora believes this was possible because the both the volunteers and the children had learned to communicate with each other. This was an eye-opening experience for Liora. Before participating in Mechina, Liora had never had any contact with minorities or the disadvantaged in Israel. She said “I knew there were people with difficulties, but now I know more about their lives and situations and how important it is to be involved.”

This article was originally published in the latest edition of the IMPJ newsletter. We will be sharing more from the IMPJ later this week.

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