On Tuesday afternoons a number of Pardes students volunteer with organizations throughout the Jerusalem area, and I’m working with a community called Yotzer Or. Yotzer Or is composed of mostly immigrant families, many from Ethiopia, who are living in housing projects in the neighborhood of Talpiot directly across from the wealthy neighborhood. They come to Yotzer Or for community, for help finding jobs, for after-school care for their kids, for bar mitzvah tutoring, for Jewish holidays, and much more – it’s really hard to label them as a synagogue in the traditional sense, but the rabbi, Uri Ayalon, is presenting a vision for how expansive Jewish community can really be.
Anyway, all of that background is to tell you about my particular experience today at Yotzer Or. We’re tutoring kids ages 6-16 in English, one-on-one, and my student’s name is Batel (or Betty, as she likes to be called). She and her four siblings are from Ethiopia, and they’re all involved in the tutoring program. Many of the kids in the program have pretty minimal English speaking skills, but Batel’s English is amazing – she’s 12, and more or less fluent. I help her with her homework (which she breezes through), and then we talk – about boys, music, annoying teachers in school, and of course, boys.
Today Batel asked me if I had ever been in the army, or if I would ever be. When I told her that in America, high school grads aren’t required to join the army like they are in Israel, she was a bit shocked – how did they get people to serve if they weren’t required to? I asked her if she would join the army one day, and she said “Of course!” and already knows what unit she wants to serve in – מגבניקות, or border patrol. She’s already learning Arabic (in addition to her Hebrew, English, and Amharic), which she’ll have to master in order to serve in that capacity. I thought back to the 12 year-olds that I know in America, and I’m not sure if I could find one with these same kinds of life experiences and questions.
Later on, Batel asked me what I was going to do when I got back to America. I should be used to this question now – I’ve been getting it practically every day since I arrived here – but still, I stalled:
“Well, I’ll go see my family, of course…”
“And then…I’m going to start studying to be a rabbi.”
“You know, a rav.”
“Ohhh, you mean a rabbanit! So wait…will you wear pants?”
(I was wearing pants today – it was pretty cold. I do wear a lot of skirts though, here and at home. But of course, I deflected with a question.)
“Do you think I should?”
“Well, I know a rabbanit who wears pants… but she knows EVERYTHING about the Torah, and can answer any question I ask her. I think it’s more about the person you are on the inside, and if you’re true to yourself, that’s what matters.”
I’m beginning to think that I’ll be learning much more from her this year than she’ll be learning from me.