FRIDAY, JUNE 16, 2000*13 SIVAN 5760* 15 RABIA AWAL 1421

BEING THERE
A teacher and a student

By Todd Natenberg 

The elderly woman sitting alone at the table was speechless when I asked if I could join her for lunch.

The husband, wife, and adult son were shocked at my desire to dine with them for the community Independence Day celebration.

And the young Israeli man could not believe my audacity in asking him – a complete stranger – to play a game of basketball.

I was not the typical volunteer and they were not the typical kibbutzniks. 

When I first arrived at Kibbutz Yakum I had no idea what to expect.

All I knew was that Yakum is located about a half hour from Tel Aviv, near Herzliya is more than 50 years old; and membership totals about 500.

Thirty years old, Jewish, and a professional from Chicago in the US in a “mid-life crisis.”  I had decided just one month earlier to visit Israel and volunteer on a kibbutz.

I had quit my job as a sales manager and sales trainer for a telecommunications company to start my own sales-training company and was in the process of finalizing a divorce.

I viewed my adventure as an opportunity to help my fellow Jews and learn about Israeli culture.

I also thought it would provide me with the answers to the meaning of life.

I realized quickly that Kibbutz Yakum did not share my excitement.

While anticipation and the opportunity to provide all I had to offer filled my mind and heart,  the kibbutzniks had only curiosity and skepticism.

But less than one month into my journey, these same individuals who once questioned my every intention I now call friends.

Today, I am no longer the only one saying my five words of Hebrew to prove my sincerity.

Now it is commonplace for me to hear, “Hey, Chicago! What’s up?” at my important dining-room job where I operate and empty the kibbutz dishwasher.

The eight-year old girls at the swimming pool frequently shout “Ted!” and wave frantically hello when they see me.  (They still do not pronounce my name properly)  The other day, an older man asked for my assistance to translate a personal letter written to him in English.

But earning respect and providing mutual understanding has not been easy task for me or the kibbutzniks.

I truly believed from the onset that my offer to contribute physical labor for nothing more than room and board – a far cry from my suit-and-tie career in Chicago – would grant me temporary “residence” at Yakum.

As a fellow Jew, I assumed I would be welcomed into the world of my new brothers and sisters with open arms.  I was wrong.

Unfortunately, kibbutz volunteers sometimes have, as we say in America, a bad rap.  While my group here is wonderful and the friendships I have made will last a lifetime, some kibbutzniks view volunteers with a weary eye.

Rather than helpers, they sometimes see them as travelers without a care in the world for anything or anybody.

As they are here today, gone tomorrow, some kibbutzniks question the importance of establishing relationships with these individuals.

In some cases, their prejudices are not unfounded. 

In my case, they were wrong, dead wrong.

I wanted very much to learn their language and their customs, to be accepted into the Yakum family, I desired to help in any way I could, both as a teacher and as a student.

Recently, I traveled with the kibbutzniks to the north to visit Lower Galilee.  The trip included seeing a moshav and another kibbutz where mediation was the foundation of the community.

We also witnessed first-hand beautiful lands that had existed only in my mind.

It intrigued me how on this day, although they again viewed me as an intruder, the kibbutzniks were as much tourists as me.

Again by the end of the day, the skepticism of the kibbutzniks turned to the roles of good natured hosts. 

The elderly woman, whose name I now know is Dvora, has provided me an open invitation to dine with her at lunch.  She says it is an opportunity to practice her English.

The mother, Hava, whom I dined with on Independence Day, recently invited me for dinner at her home with her adult children.

 I also regularly get asked to play basketball with the younger and older kibbutzniks.

 They constantly discuss the NBA and say they miss Michael Jordan.  Although Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers are their team now. They note  they still follow the Chicago Bulls.

I even lost a bet to Ben, a 14-year old, on a Portland Trail Blazers Lakers game.  (The Lakers won, despite the greatness of former Chicagoan Scottie Pippen.)

He still razzes me on the loss, as it cost me an ice cream and a Coke.

  The young Israeli, Oshik, has become my best friend.  A non-kibbutzink himself, he works with the teenagers as a kind of big brother/guidance counselor.

We drink beer ride on his motorcycle, and discuss our purpose in the universe. 

Oshik, Ben, Dvora, and Hava, like many others, ask me frequently why I came to Kibbutz Yakum. 

“To help, to learn, to teach, and to see,”  I answer. 

Have I? You bet.