Sewickley Academy joined Classrooms Without Borders (CWB) in sponsoring a Teen Service Trip to Israel from March 17-28, 2013. Three Sewickley Academy juniors, along with several teens from The Ellis School and Shadyside Academy, spent their spring break working at The Children’s Village in Karmi’el, Israel. The Children’s Village is home to some 275 underprivileged children who live in mispachtons, or family units, of 12 children each. Each U.S. student was assigned to work with a particular mispachton during their time at the Village.
The trip began early on a Saturday morning as seven students and three adults wrestled 24 huge suitcases full of donations into the United terminal of the Pittsburgh airport. The stuffed suitcases represented months of fundraising and clothing drives by the students to collect shoes and winter clothing for the children of the Village. Each student also brought personal gifts for the children of his or her own mispachton.
We arrived in Israel on Sunday morning tired but eager to see the Village and meet our mispachtons. We were greeted at the gate by a dozen children waiting on the curb, excitedly anticipating our arrival. They were the children who already knew Katie and Amanda from their previous visits and couldn't wait to be reunited. As soon as the U.S. teens got off the bus, Katie and Amanda were swarmed with joyful children flying into their arms for hugs. "This," promised Tsipy, director of CWB, "is how it will be for all of you by next week!"
By early afternoon the students had been introduced to their mispachtons and left alone with their families to get acquainted. Imagine being dropped off alone in the home of strangers, in an unfamiliar country, in a language you don't speak, and being expected to feel comfortable and make friends! And yet in spite of their trepidation, the students did just that. The warmth of the parents at the mispachtons and the nervous excitement of the Israeli children were enough to overcome the language barrier and begin building bridges. The U.S. teens presented their gifts to their families and joined them in exploring the games and activities they brought. They had their first dinner in their families' homes. By the time they reunited at bedtime, the students were eagerly comparing stories and bragging about the wonderful children of their own mispachton.
Molly: "I was nervous about meeting my mispachton. I'm not the kind of person who can just walk up to people and start talking to them. But once I got there, I realized - they're just kids. They were so excited to have us there."
The next several days were all about spending time with the children and teens from the Village. Because they were on a holiday break from school, there were special activities planned for every day. The older kids went ice skating (a first for many of the children) and peddle boating (splashing wars translate well across cultures!). The younger children went to a Gymboree-type amusement park. After only 24 hours together, it was clear that real relationships were beginning to grow. The Village children begged the students to ride in their boats. Katie's children, in spite of their fear, trusted her to lead them out onto the ice. Everyone was warming up, taking greater risks with the language, and getting increasingly comfortable with one another.
Rachel: "One of my girls was so scared to go on the riverboats. But I just reached out and took her hand and said, 'Come on, we can do this together.' Even though she didn't understand the words, she trusted me and we just got on the boat together. She ended up having so much fun!"
Two special events happened on Monday. First, a dedication was held for a gazebo that Amanda's family provided for her mispachton. Her family has sponsored a child from the mispachton for a number of years, and Amanda has a longstanding relationship with the Village and her mispachton. Hearing them express what Amanda and her family have meant to them, and seeing the pleasure the children were taking in their new gazebo, was very moving. Even more powerful was the fulfillment of a special dream for a particular child in another mispachton. The Zofer family of Pittsburgh regularly donates money to fulfill dreams - this year, the Village chose an 11-year-old girl named Natali to receive a grant to get braces on her teeth. Natali's very crooked and protruding teeth, and the teasing that she endures, have long been a source of embarrassment for her. When we told her that her dream of getting her teeth fixed was being fulfilled by the Zofers’ gift, she burst into tears and put her head down and sobbed. Her emotion was so powerful that she could barely speak. For the remainder of our time in the Village, however, whenever Natali saw one of us, she threw her arms around us and thanked us again for her braces. Her delighted smile each time was priceless.
Rachel: "I brought the kids in my mispachton each a string bag with an outfit in it - tennis shoes, a t-shirt, just simple things. When the kids got on the bus to go back to their homes for the two-week Passover break, one boy just brought the things I'd given him. That's all he brought with him, just that bag. Those little gifts mean so much to them."
By the final outing of our trip, after several days together, the interactions among the teens could not have been more different than that first awkward evening. All of the kids mixed freely and boisterously during a five-hour hike in the spectacular Golan Heights. The new friends goaded each other to dive into the freezing pool under a waterfall, took pictures of each other in every possible configuration, and cheerfully insulted each other's taste in music. Quieter conversations ranged from discussing post-high school plans for college or the army to thoughtful, respectful explorations of religious and political opinions. Animated charades filled in where language failed, and good natured laughter at awkward phrasing and mangled pronunciation abounded. An observer would never believe that only days ago, the rowdy group of friends singing Kanye West songs and giving each other piggyback rides across the rocks were strangers from vastly different circumstances and cultures.
The same magic happened within the mispachtons with the younger children. Elementary students delightedly jumped into the role of teacher, quizzing the U.S. students on Hebrew words and smiling indulgently at their mistakes - "It's good, it's good!" The littlest ones competed for our attention, wanting hugs and playmates and the sat right next to us at the dinner table. Two young boys gave up a morning to paint playground equipment with us - they got more paint on themselves than on the equipment as they struggled to reach the monkey bars over their heads, but what mattered to them is that they were working alongside their new "big brother".
Jacob: "The flight over was really hard - just really draining - and at first I said, 'never again.' A 10-hour flight was just too far to go. But now I realize that it was totally worth it for what we can give to these kids. I definitely want to come back again next year and do it again."
Tsipy was right. By the time we said our final goodbyes to the kids at the Children's Village, everyone was flooded with hugs, tears, laughter, and choruses of "I love you!" Emails were exchanged, notes and drawings were tucked into pockets, and plans were being made for the next visit. We arrived as strangers, but only days later we waved goodbye to very special friends. We came to serve the children, but everyone agrees that we received as much as we gave.
This blog was written by Sewickley Academy Grade 1 teacher Jerilyn Scott, who was a chaperone on the trip to Israel.