Beyond Labels

September 9, 2013

Justin Hayet blog

By Justin Hayet

This past July, I traveled to Israel with the National Diller Alumni Task Force. I decided to arrive in Israel a few days early so I would have time to return to Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city and my home away from home in Israel. After a fun weekend filled with much needed time at the beach and long hours catching up with old friends, it was time to get my hands dirty and volunteer. Professionals in the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership connected me with Meitar, a center for at-risk teens. Meitar’s newest program is its candle making factory, which fosters a meaningful yet challenging teamwork environment for its participants.

Admittedly, at first I was scared. I hadn’t previously spent time volunteering alone, I wasn’t fluent in Hebrew and I didn’t know what to expect from the label “at-risk.” After five minutes with the teenagers, who were merely a year or two younger than myself, all fear and anxiety disappeared as they worked hard to teach me how to make candles and the gift baskets they were assembling for Rosh Hashanah. I was overwhelmed by how dedicated and passionate the teens were about the arduous task of making candles from scratch.

It was rather obvious however, that these teens did not have easy home lives. I felt sad as I realized that the peers I was creating connections with were labeled “at-risk.” After sharing many laughs and making a lot of candles, I began to see beyond the label. Yes, these teens are “at-risk,” mostly for reasons outside their control, but when I looked at these teenagers and their teamwork to create candles for the community of Ashkelon, I did not see “at-risk” teenagers. I saw people overcoming obstacles I could not imagine overcoming. I saw people striving to make a better life for themselves through working with others. And I saw, perhaps most personal for me, The Associated’s partnership with Ashkelon at work and excelling in its effort to break the cycle of poverty and create a brighter future for the entire community in Ashkelon.

I could have easily spent the day on the beach, soaking up the sun and taking in the award winning beaches of Ashkelon, but the famous Talmudic phrase is at the forefront of my mind every day when I am in Israel: Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh; All of Israel is responsible for each other.The money and efforts by The Associated, in partnership with the city of Ashkelon, are making a difference and it was incredible to see that in action at Meitar.

Israel presents myriad opportunities for touring and learning, but volunteering in Israel, especially in Ashkelon, brings the experience to a personal and impactful level that no tourist attraction can compare to. Volunteering in Ashkelon pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I am better because of it.

For more information about volunteer opportunities in Ashkelon, contact Rebecca Weinstock at rweinstock@associated.org or 410-843-7566.

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