I was a participant on the Yahel Social Change Program, a program that works in collaboration with a grassroots NGO that does community empowerment with the Ethiopian Israeli community in Gedera, Israel. The majority of our initiatives centered in Shapira, one long street containing 22 housing projects and approximately 1300 Ethiopian Israelis.
My work with Yahel demanded that I think hard about the process of social change. Social change, I learned, is fraught with moral ambiguities. I wrestled often over whether our presence was sustainable or whether our work was truly empowering.
Yahel’s logo is “Build Community. Create Change.” The truth is, as I’ve now returned home to Seattle, Washington and think back on that moment—playing with the kids, seeing the people I teach, waving at the people I work with—I realize I achieved exactly that. Ultimately, I learned that social change is about weighing the benefits of your work and accepting its limitations.
Yahel’s influence ripples throughout Shapira. On Monday nights, the day Yahel offers “Open Space” in Shapira’s youth center, teens crowd the room to play ping- pong rather than smoke on the street. Walk down the road and kids who would never have the opportunity to speak anything but Hebrew or Amharic call out in English. Women who couldn’t recognize an English letter now read; their children read faster. Our collaboration with a local grassroots NGO sparked movement and infused energy in their staff. As the old Ethiopian men who sit at the lotto kiosk on the corner shake hands with the first American they’ve ever met, our presences catalyzes something in Israel that has atrophied: social integration. Yes, one by one, the Yahel volunteers will leave. But our impact, I believe, will stay.
I came to Gedera because I believed in social change. I made social change. I came because I sought community. I helped build community. And as I sit here under Starbuck’s placid walls trying to process this inchoate feeling of emptiness, I realize above all, I found love. Three days ago, I left Gedera to come back home to Seattle. Sitting here in Seattle, I miss Gedera. I miss home.