Embracing Opportunity (and Uncertainty) with JDC Ashalim

For JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow Rachel Mitchell, living in Israel feels like coming home.

By Rachel Mitchell - JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow | March 30, 2022

Rachel Mitchell (far right) is serving at-risk youth as part of Ashalim, a JDC Israel initiative.

As a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Israel, Rachel Mitchell is spending ayear with Ashalim — the JDC Israel initiative focused on at-risk children and youth. In this post, Rachel reflects on the challenges and opportunities that the pandemic has posed to vulnerable populations in Israel, as well as how COVID-19 has changed the country more fully. 

After nearly two years away, I looked out of the airplane windows at the glimmering lights of Tel Aviv. Around me was the same crowd as usual: ultra-Orthodox Jews trying to find a minyan to pray, diplomats sitting quietly trying not to get in the way, Israelis living in America who seem to grow in their Israeli-ness with every passing minute, and harrowed flight attendants wondering how they survived this 10-hour flight with so many demanding people aboard. As the plane hit the tarmac, there was an eerie silence as everyone looked around at each other, waiting for direction — were we going to clap? Is clapping still a thing we do? Slowly, the soft rumble of a couple of people clapping erupted into full-out cheering, as many passengers laughed in relief that finally, after two years away, they made it home.  

Rachel visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Getting off the plane was as chaotic as usual, airport immigration and customs much less so. Other than the masks, everything felt mostly the same. But at the end of the terminal of Ben Gurion Airport, instead of walking out with my luggage and heading for a taxi or the train, I turned left, and waited in a characteristically loud and pushy line to get my COVID test done.  

As the weeks went by, and I spent time rediscovering Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I was shocked by how normal everything felt. The cafes were still crowded, the market on Friday was still absolutely packed, the energy of these cities was still palpable at all hours. The world had changed in every imaginable and unimaginable way since I was last here, making my sense of familiarity feel out-of-place. Omicron has come and gone, but the vitality that defines these cities, and this country, is ever-present.  

It’s an energy that I had missed deeply over the past two years. There is something almost addictive to being a regular in this country. You know the place and your way around, you have your favorite restaurants and cafes full of memories, you know all the modes of transportation that take you between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the people you will encounter on your journey. And yet this country is also constantly changing, and those small changes define the dynamism of this small place. Each time I arrive, I see new restaurants cropping up on familiar streets and new faces in familiar cafes discussing recent and/or impending elections. There is always something going on, something to learn, something to experience.   

COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of life for the last two years, exposing frays in the societal fabric of many countries. In Israel, the fundamental questions of what constitutes Israeli society have come to the forefront as the country continues to battle the virus. Questions of who has to wear masks, who actually gets fined for violating public health laws, and who feels a responsibility toward their fellow citizens get played out here daily on the train I take to Jerusalem for work.   

This experience has allowed me to engage with Israel in a way that is difficult as a tourist.

As a JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Israel, I have the opportunity to serve in a place that already feels like home. But this experience has allowed me to engage with Israel in a way that is difficult as a tourist. At Ashalim, we are tasked with giving young people the tools they need to build a secure future and, in turn, a stronger, more equitable Israel. Issues of disadvantage and inequality are increasingly getting the attention they deserve both here in Israel and in America, and it is a privilege to spend the year diving into these issues instead of just talking about them in the abstract. Meeting young people whose lives have been changed by JDC programming, and the excitement for their future that they bring to these conversations, is nothing short of inspiring. The pandemic has created all kinds of uncertainty for the future, but with that uncertainty comes the opportunity to build a better, kinder, more inclusive “normal.”   

Rachel Mitchell currently serves as a JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow with Ashalim, theJDC Israel initiative that serves at-risk children and youth. Last spring, Rachel was a Donner Fellow through the JSC@Home Fellowship, serving remotely in the Jewish community of Mumbai, India. Rachel graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and plans to continue her studies at the Tel Aviv University next year. 

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