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Experience of a volunteer in NSWAS

Saturday 15 May 2004, by Rosa Blumenfeld

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During the past two and a half months I have been a volunteer here at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. I had been in Israel for a few months already as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The first time that I came to the village was when I attended a conference here about “Religion, Social Identity and Education Among Arabs and Jews in Israel”. I was to start volunteering at NSWAS the following week.

I was to be the first volunteer working with the Public Relations office as the assistant to the current director, as well as working with the groups coordinator cleaning a lot as well as performing odd jobs that needed to be done. I was both excited at this new opportunity but also quite nervous as well. All kinds of questions were running through my head: Would I be good enough to stay here for a long period of time? Will people like me? What exactly will my work consist of? What are the other volunteers like? etc. etc.

Although cleaning toilets is a powerful motivation to go to a new place, I came to NSWAS because of its ideology that I identified with. I knew that the work would be hard but I was looking forward to doing something new. It turns out actually that there were quite a few that needed to be cleaned here, a process which I have performed several times and which I will no doubt continue doing until the end of my stay here. With that I entered into a new routine: Sundays and Tuesdays were PR days and Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays were cleaning days. Two days meant coming to work in nice clothes so that I would be presentable around the office, and the other three consisted of wearing sweat pants and baggy t-shirts.

Working at the PR office consisted of translating, writing e-mails and thank you letters as well as doing research on-line that could potentially benefit NSWAS. Working with the Groups Coordinator consisted of cleaning the entire office building, preparing the auditorium for incoming groups (including the adjoining bathrooms) and doing other projects in and around the building. It took me a little while to get used to the rhythm of the work. I knew coming in that it would be hard and physical work so I struggled with it in the beginning and slowly, as I got more used to it, my pace quickened and I started to feel more at ease at work. There was the “day of the window”, dubbed that way because I cleaned the windows of the outside of the office building as well as the auditorium all day. Then came the “day of the broom” where I swept everything in sight from the inside of the office building, to the steps outside of it and the surrounding area as well as the auditorium. There were also group days where I would come in early to set up the refreshments and materials for incoming visitors to the village as well as clean up after the groups when they left. This became a tricky process when more than one group was scheduled to come in on the same days especially since none of them ever seemed to get here on time.

After hours I was spending time with the other volunteers and people around my age living in the village. I was invited for coffee, dinner and just to chat. Within the first few weeks I was adopted by a family in the village whose daughter I am very good friends with. I went to the Purim party at Kibbutz Nachshon with the younger people of the village and another volunteer. Once I got home from work I actually had the time to just sit and read which I felt I didn’t have time for as a full time student and just visit with people and get acquainted. I also started attending the aerobics classes with the women of the village. On the weekend I would usually leave NSWAS to do see friends in other parts of the country or my father who also lives here or just stay here and relax. Getting out of NSWAS was a little tricky at times but nice because it provided more variety to my daily routine.

Before I knew it, I had already been here for a month, then two and now I am fast approaching the third month of my stay here. I must say that although both of the jobs that I have been doing differ quite a bit, I have learned a lot about the village and about myself as a person as well from each of them. I realized that although this village is founded on ideals, it is not perfect. It is a community that has its problems, disagreements and politics just like any other community would. Although two very different peoples are living here together, the lines that sometimes divide the community around certain issues aren’t based on religion or nationality but rather on the people themselves and their opinions. One of the most interesting things for me coming here is talking to actual Palestinians and really listening to what they have to say, a process that I had never had the opportunity to do before as a Canadian Jew even though I had lived in Israel for a couple of years as a child. I have also learned about the (usually) negative attitude that the Israeli government has about this place. The consequences of which can be seen in the fact that almost everything that is accomplished here is privately funded. The Israeli government does provide some funding but not nearly enough for the village to be able to sustain itself. It was difficult for me to realize that the government of a state that I believe in so much could have such a negative attitude toward a place like Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. I also learned about the different things that happen in this village that coincide with their goal of peaceful coexistence such as the activities of the School for Peace, the workings of the elementary and junior high schools and the Doumia/Skina. I have also learned about the history of this place and current issues within the village.

After I had been here for about three weeks, there was a death in the village of a young girl, may her memory be a blessing, that was the daughter of one of the first families that came to NSWAS. I went to the funeral even though I did not know the family personally because I thought that it would be important for them to know that the entire community was supporting them. A community which I now felt that I was a part of. It was very sad to see the grief of the family and the community as a whole but it was also very moving to see the whole village come together and try to help this family through that difficult time for them. It reminded me that even when they are in pain, human beings are capable of so much love and support for one another. A message that is also so essential to the ideals on which this community was founded.

Now that almost three months have gone by and as I reflect back upon my time spent here, I realize that even though this place has its imperfections, it is important to keep in mind exactly what an accomplishment it is, an accomplishment that came out of nothing. As I look around me at the situation in Israel and the Middle East, living here at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam gives me hope that the futures of both the Palestinians and Jews living here in Israel can be a brighter one.

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