By Sage Albert, UNC-Chapel Hill ‘22
After Birthright, 10 of us extended our stay in Tel Aviv for another week to learn more about the city with Yarden (NC Hillel’s Israel Fellow) as our guide. It was an eye-opening experience where we got to meet a lot of Israelis, including refugees, and learn about the country in depth.
On Friday we went to Shuk HaCarmel (the market) and spent Shabbat at Yarden’s house, meeting her family and seeing where she grew up. Saturday we walked to Yafo and learned about the history of the old city. Later that day we went to the beach and played some matkot (an Israeli game). Sunday morning we started working with an organization called Bina and went on a walking tour of Tel Aviv. We got to experience the city’s history and look at the place with a deeper understanding. That afternoon we volunteered at a youth center in Bat Yam, playing games with the kids and helping them improve their English while we learned some new Hebrew.
On Monday we went on a walking tour of south Tel Aviv, which was very different from other neighborhoods we had seen. We learned about the history of refugees and asylum seekers coming to Israel and we saw their conditions firsthand. While we were used to seeing signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, what really stuck out to me is that there were signs in many other languages. Our guide pointed out signs advertising bed space, explaining that most people don’t have the luxury of having their own home, or even their own room. We talked about the Eritrean population that currently lives in the area and learned how citizenship works in Israel. We also toured the central bus station and got to see the 7th floor graffiti exhibit. After having lunch at Levinsky Market we volunteered at another youth center for children with cognitive learning disorders. We played Israeli games, soccer, and basketball with them. It was a lot of fun to be able to connect with children through play despite language barriers.
Tuesday morning we went to Bina’s campus and worked in the community garden. We harvested wheat and wildflowers while listening to meditation music. It was so relaxing. For lunch we got food and drinks at Aroma (none of us will ever be able to drink Starbucks again). Then we went back to Bina’s campus to hear from Malat, an undocumented asylum seeker who is half Ethiopian and half Eritrean. She told us her story of trying to cross the border with her family and about her life in Israel. It was shocking to hear about everything she overcame in her life and really powerful to see how passionate and strong she is despite that.
Wednesday morning we volunteered at the Jaffa Institute food pantry, packing boxes of food for people in need. We learned about the work that the Jaffa Institute does and we all really enjoyed working together as a team to help them with their mission. That afternoon Yarden led us through Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Then we toured Tel Aviv University and met with Hillel students there. We got to compare our school experiences and talk about Jewish life in Israel and America.
Thursday was our last day of the extension. We enjoyed abulaffia (sweet bagels) from the shuk and spoke to Yarden about Israeli politics. After the shuk, we walked to the cemetery in Tel Aviv where important people who have contributed to the city are buried. We ended our trip with ice cream and burgers and then said goodbye. While Birthright showed us all the sights and beauty of Israel, we all agreed that the extension allowed us to dig deeper and really get to know the country. The time we spent on the extension opened our eyes to true stories in Israel and taught us so much about the day-to-day lives of people living here.