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Namasté

Namasté. My soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty, and peace within you, because it is also within me. In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one.

Thursdays are yoga days. One of the most wonderful things I have been able to do with some of the students at Helen Keller is to lead them in a weekly yoga practice. Like most other aspects of this experience, this is something completely new for me. I have been interested in yoga for a while, but have only become more serious in my own practice in the past year or so, never really thinking that I would teach others. Thanks to my yoga instructor Aunt Sue, I was gifted with a wonderful set of yoga cards specifically for use with children. With their help, I have slowly introduced Child’s Pose, Mountain Pose, and Butterfly Pose among others to the two oldest groups of English classes with whom I work. That is until today.

Today, I decided to try something new and do yoga with the nine and ten year olds. I was able to take them two at a time, which made it less daunting, but I was still nervous about how we would be able to communicate. As I led them downstairs to the sports room, I told them that we would be doing yoga today. That statement was met with blank stares, neither of them knowing what yoga is, but excitement about trying something new. We got to the room, took off our shoes, and pulled out our mats. From the first moment of sitting together, my relaxation playlist coming through the speakers, I knew that this would be special.

Both students I was with this morning are visually impaired, with one being nearly completely blind. We are fairly limited in our communication, none of us being strong enough in each other’s language to use it completely to explain things. It was so beautiful to experience showing one student the picture on the yoga card and watching her turn to the other student and coach him verbally and physically into the next pose. We fumbled through some of the poses and giggled a little bit when everyone needed a break to get a tissue at the same time. When we got to the end of our practice, the final seated position, I thought I had come to the hardest part of our time together. How on earth was I going to explain what “Namasté” means? I figured that I would wait until a time when I was with another teacher and have her help explain the word. The only explanation I gave to them was that at the end of our practice, I say namasté, and they say it back to me. I looked to them and said “Namasté”, and without missing a beat, one of the students said back, “Salaam, namasté”. I was completely taken aback. What he had said to me was, “Peace”. Without anything but the music, movement, and our breathing, he had understood. Even with the barrier of our language, our limited conversation, we had indeed been united in this time together and had come to experience a profound connection, just a little bit of peace in our complicated lives.

While putting his shoes back on, this same student said to me, “Ms. Sarah, the yoga is beautiful.” I could not agree more.

Salaam, namasté

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A Christmas Eve Adventure

This year, I spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, which is still a little strange for me to say. I attended Christmas Lutheran Church’s service, which included leaders and congregants from the Arabic, English, and German speaking congregations of the ELCJHL and guest, visitors, and pilgrims from all over the world. The service was beautiful and it was nice to be surrounded by new family and friends for the evening. However, the service was not all the evening had in store. After the service, I had made plans to go back to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem with a few friends to enjoying some time together, but there was just one little hitch.

I left the church with Abby and Steve, and we walked toward the main road called Bab Eskak between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, which is where Steve had parked his car. As we were walking, Steve started to look a little nervous and finally realized that the car was no longer where he had parked it. What now? It just so happened that this street was lined with soldiers and police officers on patrol for the local and foreign dignitaries who were making their way into Bethlehem. We stopped and talked to an officer who informed us that the car had been towed, simply to make room for the dignitaries. He told us to take a taxi to the Nissan Circle, which is where we would find the car. So as a group, we scrunched maybe one too many people into a taxi and took a six minute ride over to the car lot.

As we bailed like clowns out of a clown car at Nissan Circle, we were greeted by more officers and soldiers who were more than willing to help us. But as we looked around the lot, the white Chevy Aveo was no where to be seen. When we inquired about it, the gentleman who looked in charge got on his radio and told us that it was being towed in right now. Success! So we waited and a minute or two later, the flatbed pulled up with a white Chevy on the back. We all started rejoicing and the soldiers even stopped the tow truck for us so we could snap a good picture. But you know it can’t be this easy. It wasn’t until Steve walked up to the car and tried to unlock it with the remote that we noticed the “Middle East Car Rental” sticker on the side. This was not our white Chevy Aveo. The temperature was getting colder and we were now all wondering where the car was and how we would get back to Jerusalem.

At this point, it seemed like the entire fleet of soldiers at the car lot was gathered around us, trying to help. We eventually were led to a Palestinian police car, which we were told would take us to the car. We still didn’t have any idea where the car had disappeared to, but we got in, again in squishing one to many people, and the officer started driving back toward Beit Jala. We pulled onto Bab Eskak, and lo and behold we see the car! It had been moved into a small parking lot not 200 feet from where Steve had originally parked. And that my friends, is how I ended up riding in a police car on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. It was an absolutely hilarious way to end my Christmas Eve celebration and an experience I will never forget!

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Lessons in Interfaith

For those of you who really know me, you know that in addition to crossword puzzles and the color grey, one of my true loves in life is interfaith. When I say interfaith, I don’t just mean the study of comparative religions, although I do find that facinating. In the words of religion scholar Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, interfaith (or pluralism) is “the energetic engagement with diversity and the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” (Read more here!) Living in Jerusalem, I am in a place where the lines of religious difference can be stark. The concrete separation barrier, in addition to depriving people of land, employment, and family, keeps many Muslims, Jews, and Christians from encountering one another. Although I don’t necessarily believe religion to be at the center of the conflict of this region, I don’t doubt the role it can play in dividing people. However, this week has been full of a couple beautiful lessons in interfaith, lessons that have renewed me and my hope that maybe religion can also play a role in reconciliation.

Lesson #1
On Sunday, the first day of December and of Advent, a few friends and I headed to Bethlehem for the annual Christmas tree lighting. The lighting is held in Manger Square, outside of the Church of the Nativity. This church is built on top of what is traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. My friends and I were there a bit early because we wanted to check out the holiday bazaar that was set up around Manger Square. As we walked around, eating cupcakes and admiring the handicrafts, we saw both Christians and Muslims walking around with us, enjoying the festivities. It was amazing to see not only the tolerance of this Christian event, but the acceptance, appreciation, and mutual celebration. While we were walking around, there was Christmas music blasting from the loud speakers. We heard Jingle Bells in Arabic more times than I can count. But while we were roaming around, a really amazing thing happened. Directly across Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity is a mosque and five times a day, the call to prayer is sounded from every mosque reminding Muslims to pray. While we were walking around, the call to prayer was sounded twice and each time it began, the Christmas music was stopped. Although this might seem like a small gesture, the way that this action witnessed a much larger sense of respect and coexistence was truly beautiful.

Lesson #2
One of the implications of living in Jerusalem is that for the first time in my life, I am a religious minority. Christians comprise only 1-2% of the population in Israel/Palestine, a very small number. Coming from North Dakota where religious diversity often means Lutheran or Catholic, this is quite a different experience for me; one that I am really cherishing. Helen Keller is no exception to this as the majority of my students are Muslim, along with quite a few of the teachers. However, this week began the Christmas preparations for everyone in the school. We decorated the big tree for the lobby, made Christmas crafts, and blasted the Christmas album of Fairouz (a very popular Lebanese artist) across the entire PA system.
On Monday, I printed out a Christmas tree coloring page for one of my classes and while in class, the teacher asked me if I would tell the Christmas story to the students. All of the students in this class and the teacher are Muslim. So, I told the story and she helped to translate it into Arabic for the students. When I got to the part about the angels and the shepherds, the teacher looked at me and asked if I would sing the song. I assumed that she meant “Angels We Have Heard On High”, so I obliged and began singing. The students were busy coloring, not paying much attention to me, until I got to the Gloria’s. It was at this moment that the students realized they knew the song, stopped coloring, and began singing with me. It was such a beautiful thing. After I was finished, they sang the entire song back to me in Arabic and I was speechless. I do not think that I will ever forget that simple moment and the exchange, the sharing of our cultures and our faiths that happened there. It is so enriching to experience my faith through the eyes of another, particularly the eyes of these children. In these moments, I am the student and they are my teachers and I hope that we can continue to learn together.

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Fall Retreat!

Two weekends ago, the J/WB YAGM 6 headed out on our fall retreat with our fearless leaders, Julie and Jeff, and our trusty van Bernadette for a few days of reflection and relaxation in the Holy Land. We had a full itinerary traveling to Nazareth and Tiberias, the region known as the Galilee, and I’d like to share a few photos with you from our time there!

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This lovely photo is from our tour of the the Old City of Nazareth. We were given a tour of the Old City by Linda, a woman who has been working at the Fauzi Azar Inn, a hostel in the Old City for four and a half years. Our tour included stops in a coffee store, an amazing spice shop, and this clothing shop. Kevin and I volunteered ourselves at a local shop to be the models for some first century dress and it was so fun! It was great to get a tour that included meeting and talking to some of the local shopkeepers and not just seeing the sites.

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This photo is of a mosaic from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The Basilica is the largest church in the Middle East, which actually made me a little anxious to visit. As one of the traditional sites of the annunciation, I was expecting lots and lots of shine. Although I can appreciate the grandeur, I’m not always a fan of huge churches whose every inch is covered in gold. However, this church was not that. The courtyard of the church was almost completely surrounded by multi-cultural depictions of the Mary and Jesus. The majority of the pieces were mosaics and some of them took my breath away. Although hard to capture on a camera, I am in love with this depiction from Thailand.

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One of our mornings was spent at the Sea of Galilee, with time for journaling, reflection, and taking in the peaceful sound of the water. This was one of my favorite parts of the entire retreat, it was exactly what I needed to recharge.

We also spent time at Capernaum, where Peter’s house is traditionally thought to be; Sepphoris, an ancient town where many believed the adolescent Jesus spent a lot of time; and The Mount of Beatitudes, traditionally celebrated as the site of the Sermon on the Mount, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was a full weekend, but as a group we spent time reflecting on the context of the theologies of Jesus in light of life in the first century and how those theologies still challenge us today. I am so thankful to be surrounded by a group of thoughtful young adults and for the guidance of Jeff and Julie as we continue to navigate this year together.

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Something Strange

To begin, it’s been awhile, so I apologize. Life here has been moving full speed ahead, I’m hoping to get in a few posts today…sorry if I flood your inbox! I want to tell you a little story about something strange that happened a few weeks ago. I got to school right before 8:00am, like usual, and was informed that there would be a tour group from the UK coming to visit the school that morning. Alright, good to know. I was then informed that I would be giving half of the group, numbering about 30 total, a tour of the school. Ok, I can handle that. Then, I was told that I would be giving the entire group the PowerPoint presentation about Helen Keller School, a PowerPoint that I had seen once. I am certainly learning to go with flow here. The group arrived and I gave them the presentation. It was one of my less stellar performances, but no matter. After the presentation, the group was divided and we headed out for the tour. We visited a few English classrooms, a special education classroom, and the kindergarten and in each classroom, I felt something so weird.

As I was introducing these strangers from England to the students, I realized that I was thinking of them not as THE students, but as MY students. Not mine in the sense that they belong to me, but mine in the sense that I belong to them. I have now been at Helen Keller for about three months, and these kids have started to get to me; they are becoming a huge part of my community. The strongest sense of this came when I took the group into the kindergarten. The littles were sitting down in the kitchen for their mid-morning snack and when I walked in, they all yelled, “MISS SARAH!” It is hard to put into words the feeling of a welcome like that. Once the group had made their way in, the kindergarteners wanted to sing for them. What song? The Wheels on the Bus, of course. I spend one day a week in the kindergarten and knowing about my love of music, the teachers have asked me to use music to help teach the kids English. And what song have I been teaching them? The Wheels on the Bus, of course. Watching the students sing and do the actions for the tour group brought me such a sense of pride, but not in the way you might think.

I was so proud, not just because the kids were showing the group something that I had taught them, but because they were showing them something they had learned. We had done it together. The smiles on the kindergarteners faces while they were beeping the horn on the bus was more than enough to sustain me for quite some time. That morning was one that reassured that although life here is difficult on so many levels, I have community. Sometimes that community is my fellow YAGM’s and country coordinators, sometimes it’s the congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and sometimes it’s a group of four and five year olds who still don’t really know how to blow their noses. I don’t think that I could be more grateful for that.

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A Few Photos!

Here are just a few photos chronicling the events of the past few weeks here!

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Although fairly unassuming, this is one of the caves at Qumran where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found! At Qumran, the religion geek in me was freaking out because it was here that the earliest known manuscripts of parts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were discovered. There is far too much information about this to write here, but if the history interests you, you can read more here!

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This is a photo of me conquering my fear of heights while helping our friend Salameh harvest his family’s olive trees. The olive trees are a large part of the culture here and it was such a wonderful experience working together with the YAGM and Salameh’s family to get the job done. To harvest the olives, a team of workers is needed both in the trees and on the ground. The folks in the trees strip the branches of their olives, which fall to the ground and are gathered by the other workers. It was hard work, but it felt so good to get a little dirty and to know that our 6 extra pairs of hands helped his family tremendously.

The following pictures are from the wedding of our host Antoinette’s nephew’s wedding last weekend. In preparation for the wedding, several pre-parties were held at Antoinette’s where Abby and I were introduced to extended family, ate a TON of delicious food, and danced until we thought we would fall over. I’ll tell you right now, Palestinians love to dance. The wedding was absolutely beautiful and it was such a blessing to be invited to be a part of the celebration.

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There is no way for a picture to do any sort of justice to the amount of dancing that happened this evening. It was marvelous.

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No need to be concerned, these kinds of fireworks are standard for celebrations here!

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From right to left: Abby, Antoinette, and myself. This photo was snapped at the end of the evening, all three of us ready to fall into bed with tired feet and full hearts from a night of joy and celebration.

Lastly, this week I accompanied the older students from HKS and their teachers to the zoo in Tel Aviv for a field day. The kids enjoyed it tremendously and it was a nice change of pace from being in the classroom. And to top everything off, I saw baby elephants, which made me so happy!

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Little baby!

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Ms. Hanan and a portion of the special education class that I work with once a week in front of the tiger.

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The tiger was staring right at me! So beautiful!

I hope you’ve enjoyed some of these photos!

God’s Peace,
Sarah

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A Contrast in Hello’s

Marhaba!

I know it’s been a while since I’ve added something new, but life has been moving at full speed here, which has been great! School, church, wedding parties, olive harvesting, confirmations, and the list goes on! This place is slowly becoming more familiar and I am so thankful for the people who have welcomed me here with open arms and hearts. With that being said, everyday here is filled with challenges and successes, things that break my heart and things that lift my spirit. The following two stories happened a few weeks ago and are both seemingly small, yet significant, pictures of life here.

Hello #1

As I have started to get myself incorporated into life and community here, I have joined a Bible study on simple living, started by the women of the English-speaking congregation at Redeemer Lutheran. A few weeks ago, heading to Bible study, I was looking forward to the bus ride and the 45 minute walk that it would take me to get to the top of the Mount of Olives; time that I would use to think and reflect on the past few days, time to prepare myself to think about the Word. I wisely put on my tennis shoes, fully prepared for the hike. Walking around Jerusalem is not like the walking I am used to in the flatland of Moorhead, MN. I only thought that I was fully prepared. As I was walking, doing my standard speedwalk, I encountered a few people, mostly Jewish Israelis because I was walking through a predominantly Jewish area. Coming around a corner, I noticed that about 25 feet in front of me was a middle-aged hijabi Muslim woman, which to be honest, surprised me. There is nothing that prohibits this woman from walking around in this neighborhood, nothing that says she should not or cannot be there, yet things are so heavily separated here in most places that I found myself wondering why she was here and what her story might be. And then the following interaction played out, right in front of me. Up ahead of the both of us, a middle-aged Jewish Israeli man approached us. As I watched him approach her, he not only avoided eye contact, but he physically turned himself away from her. As he passed her and looked in the other direction, she moved to the other side of the trees that were lining the sidewalk, a physical barrier between the two of them. And then he got to me. As he passed me, he waved, looked right in my eye, and said, “Shalom, mah nishmah?” (Hello, how are you? in Hebrew). I answered with “Shalom” and kept walking. Along with being the standard “Hello”, “Shalom” in Hebrew translates into “Peace”. In that moment however, the last thing I felt was peace.

Hello #2

Living in Beit Hanina is certainly a different experience from living in Beulah, North Dakota or even Moorhead, Minnesota. I am used to being in a small town or on a small college campus where people recognize you and say hello. The eastern section of Beit Hanina is within the borders of the municipality of Jerusalem, a city with over 800,000 people. There is a much greater sense of anonymity here than I have ever experienced. Despite that, I walk the same street to and from Helen Keller everyday and now that I have been doing it for over a month, there are some familiar faces. There is the owner of our favorite grocery store, who always says hello and asks how I am. There are the school children that I see every morning walking to the bus. There is the shop owner who I’ve lovingly nicknamed “grumpy grocery man”, who always acknowledges me, but never smiles. One of these days, we are going to exchange a smile. Then there are people like Hamad and Omar. I saw Hamad, a middle-aged Palestinian man, and his very young son Omar, on my first day walking to Helen Keller. Walking to my first day of school, I was filled with apprehension and anxiety, not truly knowing anyone at the school or what my role would be there. As I rounded the final corner to the school, I saw them. Omar was wearing a tiny backpack and holding the hand of his father who looked at me and gave me a huge, genuine smile. I thanked God for that smile, knowing that Hamad will never know the comfort that gave me. A few days later, after a few more smiles were exchanged, Hamad said “Sabah lher” to me and I responded “Sabah nnur”, the good morning greeting in Arabic. The next week however, was even better. After turning that final corner, Hamad and Omar came into view. It is really amazing how a familiar and friendly face, even one of a relative stranger, can make a place feel like home. Hamad smiled and said “Sabah lher” and then stopped and continued to speak to me in Arabic. With a panicked look on my face, I tried to explain, “Shway Arabi” (I only know a little Arabic!). He immediately understood and began to speak in English. He introduced himself and his son to me and asked me where I was heading. I told him that I am a volunteer at Helen Keller for one year and he looked at me square in the eye, with a huge smile on his face and said, “I’m so proud of you.” I was so taken aback that I could barely get out a “Shukran” (thank you). We chatted for another brief minute, and as we were getting ready to head our separate ways, he told me again that he is proud of me and said that we would see each other again soon. I do hope that is true.

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