Reflections: Volunteering in Israel!

by - 3:26 PM

I will always remember Israel as an indescribably unique country, where all the major religions, cultures and peoples collide in one captivating, eclectic place. Whether I was out exploring the Old or New City of Jerusalem, wandering the cobblestone streets of Nazareth, Jaffa and Acre, hiking the scenic Golan Heights or the fortress of Masada, swimming in the salty Dead Sea or the Galilee, snorkelling in the breath-taking Red Sea, and finally living in a remote Druze village, there was always so much to see, so much to learn, and way too much to discover!

Beginning this year, I’d already been feverishly planning to backpack and volunteer in Israel during the summer months of June to August. Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave the winter cold of Australia and embark on my journey! After three weeks backpacking all over the captivating land of Israel and the desert scapes of Jordan, it was time for me to begin my one-month stay in a Druze village called Peqi’in – a quaint, age-old town of 5,400 inhabitants nestled between the hill-country of the Upper Galilee. The experience that awaited me turned out to be one of the most incredibly eye-opening, challenging and memorable times of my life altogether. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but one thing I knew for sure, I’d be the only native-English speaker around and everyone else living in the village would be Arabic and Hebrew speakers. That was precisely why I was going to Peqi’in: to teach and practice English with Druze children, as they usually never got the opportunity to interact with native-English speakers!

Staying in Peqi’in with a local Druze family was one of the best things I had ever done in the 20 years of my life simply because it was an opportunity that few people ever got – to live in a world so isolated and so vastly different to the world I knew back in Australia. It was quiet and peaceful, unlike the chaotic streets of Tel Aviv and the underlying tension one feels within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. I felt like I was in a totally new dimension of time – life went at a different pace. And it felt amazing.

During the week, I’d teach at the local matnas – or community centre – where children between the ages of 12 to 14 would come to learn in a special English summer program that we were initiating for the first time. Being a musician, I brought along my ukulele, and I’d play it in games and in our classes! Often on my visits to the families, they would also invite me to play and sing for them because they enjoyed music so much. It was always great fun to see the kids interacting with each other and to see their eagerness to practice English despite the language barrier at first. It was therefore an immense advantage that I could speak rudimentary Hebrew, because I did a university semester of Hebrew back home!

One of the highlights of my time volunteering was a village-wide treasure hunt that I and two other volunteers from the Czech Republic organised. The children were so thrilled about it and they really showed us their competitive side during the hunt! They never had a treasure hunt of this large a scale before. We hid clues all over the village: from the spring centre, to the Jewish cave, the post office, and the various fruit shops and religious sites that make Peqi’in the special place that it is. The point of the treasure hunt was to help the children practice their reading and problem-solving skills in English! They had to recall what we taught them about numbers, directions, nature, food and a myriad of other topics in order to successfully complete the challenges and find the clues. It was a really fun day running all over Peqi’in in the blazing summer heat with the kids and feeling utterly exhausted in the end, but I felt so happy to be part of something that had never been done before in this village.

In a real underground bomb shelter at my student (Kayan) grandmother's house!
I will always remember the generosity and kindness of the Druze people. Everyday after school, I was often invited by two or more families to their homes for lunch or dinner, or supper! And I couldn’t refuse. My students would walk with me to their homes and show me around the village. It was always great fun trying to communicate. As we practiced English, I’d take the opportunity to also pick up a few more Arabic or Hebrew words. There was also plenty to do on the weekends. I would travel to nearby towns like Nazareth, Tsafed and Tiberias or go to Druze weddings that the whole village was invited to. I even managed attend an engagement party up in the highest Druze village in Israel – right on the foothills of Mount Hermon and across the Syrian border! I thoroughly relished these opportunities to interact with the local people and to observe the Druze customs and the traditions.

I thank the beautiful people of Peqi’in for opening their hearts and their homes to a stranger like me, to someone who does not speak their mother-tongue and who does not share their unique customs and traditions. Through it all, I learnt an important thing: people are the same wherever they are, they want to love and be loved in return. If you are open to listen, to understand, to care about people– no matter how young or old, no matter their race or religion, no matter how different they are to you in a thousand ways – they will also open their hearts to you and partner with you to make some pretty amazing things happen!

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