Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Volunteer Work

I have to complete 120 hours of volunteer work as a requirement of the scholarship I've received from the government.  I'm volunteering at 2 places right now, and I just started this week.  The first place is a drug rehabilitation center for teens.  They go to the center every weekday from 8am to 3:30pm, if they are still of high school age, then they complete their studies at the center, but don't spend the whole day learning.  They're engaged in a bunch of different activities.  I go there every Tuesday and conduct a 2 hour arts & crafts session with them.  The boys and girls that go there each have their respective common rooms.  This week, I was with the girls, it was a good way to get to know the facility and the type of kids that go there, there are only 3 girls in the program right now, and about 8 or so boys.  So, what I did was make paper flowers out of colored tissue and pipe cleaners to decorate their common room with, we finished in about an hour and then I just sat and talked with them for the rest of the time.  I think it went well, next week I'll be doing a project with all of the kids, that's going to be a little more intense.

The second place I'm volunteering at is called Amcha.  It's a center for Holocaust survivors and the children of survivors.  I spend 5 hours a week there.  Two and half hours on Wednesday assisting in an English class, and two and half hours on Thursday just spending time with them, playing games, talking, karaoke, whatever.  Meeting these people was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.  I have never met a Holocaust survivor before, and seeing the energy these old folks have, and how happy they are now, despite to constant reminder of the numbers tattooed on their arms, it was just incredible.  It's difficult to describe.  I simply felt good with myself, and was reminded that nothing in my life could ever be so terrible.

My Scholarship from the Israeli Governement

OK, so I mentioned in my first post, Why I Made Aliyah, that I discovered a scholarship specifically for new immigrants.  Basically it works like this.  The government pays up to 120 credits of any degree.  Once you've made your choice on where you want to study, have done all of the necessary acceptance requirements for your institution of choice, and have signed up for classes, you're going to take proof of all that information to the local Jewish Agency to the offices of the Israeli Student Organization (Minhal HaStudentim) and they will give you an affidavit for the credits you're taking that semester in which you will in turn give to the finance offices of your school.  It's that easy, really.

Here's the catch, you in turn must complete 120 hours of volunteer work.  This volunteer work begins once you've earned 80 credits towards your degree.  There are tons of different places to complete this volunteer work.  Basically, though, it's going to be volunteering with seniors or with kids, from there the options branch out, for example, kids with cancer, old people's home, after school programs, senior bingo night, etc.  Also, you don't have to finish all of your hours at the same place, you can volunteer at multiple places.

Another thing, you need to have relatively good grades, actually average grades, lets say.  In Israel, they don't use the 4.0 system like in the States (come to think of it, I doubt anywhere else in the world uses that system, not to mention Fahrenheit, feet, miles, etc) they use the "100 system" (I don't even know if that's the right name for it), but basically as long as your average is above 65 (which is like a D+), you're in the clear.  Also, if you fail a class, when you retake it, you pay for it the second time around.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Learning Hebrew

I'll never forget my first day at Ulpan ("Hebrew School", literal meaning: workshop).  As my mother and I were approaching the main office, I noticed a group of about 40 or so people that looked to be around my age.  They were not Israeli or American, in fact, I had no clue where they were from, all I knew was that they were speaking some foreign language I had never heard before.

Well, after a brief meeting with the director of the Ulpan (we had met the previous week, and she told me to show up on this day to begin lessons), she introduced me to the guy in charge of the group of immigrants that I'd be joining for Hebrew lessons, his name was Alex.  My mom said goodbye to me, and I walked out of the office with Alex down to the classroom.  As we passed the group of young foreign people, they began to follow us, and I suddenly became really nervous.  I was certain that I'd be learning Hebrew with other English speakers, but it was suddenly blatantly obvious that that would not be the case.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered that the strange language they were all speaking was Russian.  I was the only native English speaker in the group, there was one other guy, Vladimir, who also spoke English fairly well.  Needless to say, we quickly became friends.

The first few weeks were sort of awkward.  I felt like a creature from the great beyond, or something.  I was constantly being watched and talked about, I wasn't Shelly, I was "The American Girl".  Some people were shy to approach me, others couldn't seem to get enough of trying to talk to me in their broken English, and others seemed to have no interest whatsoever.  Vladimir was constantly translating questions the others had for me, and then my answers back to them. 

Eventually, the awkwardness went away, and I started making friends with a few people.  Once we felt we had learned enough Hebrew to being talking with each other without Vladimir's help (about 3 months into the course, by this time I had been in Israel for 6 months), I started to feel a lot happier and more optimistic about life here.  Everyday after class, we'd sit together and start talking about anything and everything, we were constantly referring to our respective Hebrew dictionaries, but it was so much fun!  In the process, I learned to read and write in Russian, by the end of Ulpan (it was a 5 month program) not only was I and my circle of friends speaking Hebrew at a level far beyond than what was expected of immigrants being in Israel for only 8 months, I was also able to carry on a basic conversation in Russian :)