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2015 Middle East: Behind the Headlines team

Jerusalem: The First Days

Written by Sarah Castellanos, 2015 Middle East: Behind the Headlines.


Everyone has finally arrived from the airport. Rooms and beds have been chosen, bags have been unpacked and introductions have been made. We are all exhausted at varying levels but the general ambience is that of excitement and it seems we’re all anxious to get started. The wonderful thing about this program is that we all seem to be in the same mentality – purposely putting ourselves in a place where most tourists are too afraid to see, willing and excited to help where we can, and anxious to learn about a culture that has already intrigued us and fascinated us on Day 1.  Tomorrow we will tour the Old City, get some basic background information on Jerusalem, and meet with Rabbis for Human Rights. We’ll keep you posted on what’s happening!


Coffee in the Old CityIf I had to sum up everything we saw and learned today in a single word, I would say “overwhelming.” For many in our group, it was the first time they’d ventured out into Jerusalem. We walked, according to some of our apps, a total of 8 miles and climbed the equivalent of over 30 stories, so altogether the day left us exhausted as well as overwhelmed.

The first thing we did was head to the Old City, first to receive a brief history review on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then to tour the different quarters within the city. We entered through the Damascus gate to see the Muslim Quarter first – an area that is impoverished, under-visited, and interlaced with a tense undercurrent of anti-Semitism toward the few Jewish homes located within. In stark contrast to the dirty streets, barefooted children, and begging old women, the Jewish quarters were covered in white-washed walls made with the typical Israeli stone seen all throughout Jerusalem. Modern stores with air conditioning and western products lay in rows around the market – utterly different from the medina-like markets of the Muslim Quarter.

Though this was impacting in and of itself, for the majority of us the Western Wall was the most powerful place we visited today. Split between men and women, the Western Wall was evidently equally as powerful to the many other people visiting it. Hands reached out, eyes closed, and tears shedding, it’s not difficult to see why this monument to ancient spirituality has been protected by all cultures and maintained safely.

Hannah Kirzinger at the Wailing Wall

Hannah at the Wailing Wall

After our tour of the Old City, we visited Rabbi Yekuyel at the headquarters for Rabbis for Human Rights. We learned about his journey from Australia to Israel and about his work towards peace. He also gave us an introduction to the work we would be doing at the Bedouin Camp at the West Bank. To top off our day, we went to a market and carried dozens of bags home to set up our apartment with the things we would need for the week. Exhausted, bellies full with makeshift paella, we headed to bed and prepared for an early day of volunteering in the West Bank.

Engaging in dialogue with our partners, Rabbis for Human Rights

Engaging in dialogue with our partners, Rabbis for Human Rights


Today was our first day with the Bedouin camp’s summer school. The Bedouin are some of the most disenfranchised people in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are essentially invisible. Historically a nomadic people, they are now being settled into the least desirable areas. This camp we are working in partnership with is an initiative started by a local Bedouin woman named Iptisam with the support of Rabbis for Human Rights. This camp gives the children of this community engaged and safe during at least a few days of the week.

Because this is technically in the West Bank, we had to cross checkpoints draped with soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and stopped vehicles. Once on the other side, the differences were noticeable. Desert land was prominent and the buildings slowly disappeared. Pieces of metal and trash became structures where people slept and ate. One similar structure was where our bus finally stopped.

We were greeted shyly at first by a handful of little girls, and as the time went by, the number of children grew and grew until we could barely hear each other over the ruckus. Though the kids were altogether charming, they also showed us  fundamental beliefs and values, readily visible even through the language barriers, that were so incredibly different from our own.

Girls at the summer camp

Girls at the summer camp

It was quite chaotic as the little boys stole broken scissors and threw them at each other, the little girls would push each other and pull each other’s hair. Lunch time was a chaos of who ate first and last.

And though all this might sound unappetizing, I know I speak for all of us when I say we loved the children. Juju the sweetheart that stole Issie’s heart, Nadia the fire cracker who greeted us all, Farah who braided my hair better than I ever have, and Mesu who rode around the school on Jeremy’s shoulders for most of the day. We were put in touch with these Bedouin children who are real human beings.  They live in terrible conditions with parents that must work all day, and with no one to guide them or care for them at least by Western standards. And yet, through all of our relative ideals of right and wrong, these children are worthy of love and affection and kindness. Needless to say, we are all very excited to head back and see them all again on Thursday!

what are you waiting for?