TEL AVIV (Jan. 9)
At the end of an alcohol-soaked alleyway where prostitutes from an adjacent brothel mingle with clients, a tall gate pushes open to reveal a day-care center. A smiling Asian girl in pigtails appears. Shouting "Shalom! Shalom!" she leads the way inside, where North American Jewish college students are painting the walls with hearts and rainbows
The students are part of a Hillel-sponsored weeklong visit to Israel which brings young Jews face-to-face with some of Israel’s toughest social issues. The students spent three days helping fix up several day-care centers for children of foreign workers in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods.
"It seems to me this is a much more ‘real’ way to see Israel," said Yael Hammerman, 21, explaining why she chose to spend her winter break helping Israel’s foreign workers and learning more about their situation.
Hammerman, who is studying for a joint degree at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, was one of 20 students who worked in the day-care centers, painting their walls in bright colors and indulging the children with attention, games and hugs as part of Hillel’s Tzedek program.
Hillel brought 350 students to spend their winter break in Israel. Over 1,000 students applied and underwent a competitive application process. The program offered students four tracks to choose from in Israel: advanced advocacy; business and hi-tech; Jewish learning and pluralism; and Tzedek, for those students with a special interest in social issues.
Students on the Tzedek track selected from among four volunteer projects, one of which was working with the children of foreign workers. The other projects were working with Bedouin in the Negev, Ethiopian immigrants in Kiryat Gat or elderly in the southern town of Dimona in a joint project with Israeli university students.
There are more than 200,000 foreign workers in Israel. Some of them spend many years here and become rooted, even having children who eventually attend Israeli schools. They come from countries such as the Philippines, China, Romania, Thailand, Columbia and Ghana, often working as house cleaners, in construction or as home health aides.
The Israeli economy began depending on them in higher numbers following the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, when restrictions were placed on the number of Palestinian workers allowed into Israel.
More than 6,000 workers were deported in 2005 — far fewer than the 18,000 deported in 2004 — as part of a recent crackdown on workers with expired work visas.
The Tzedek students attended lectures on a range of social and economic issues facing Israel. In Jerusalem, they attended salon meetings on various topics including hunger, environmental concerns and human trafficking.
Students working in the day-care centers also met the children’s parents, all of whom are in Israel illegally.
The parents work long hours. Many of them drop their children off not long after dawn and return only at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.
Taking a break from painting an orange heart on the wall of a room usually full of cribs, Meredith Herman, 20, said the program spoke to her.
"Unlike other Israel experiences I’ve been on, I think this trip teaches you what you can do for Israel and how you can use your skills to better the community," said Herman, who grew up in Toronto and is a student at McGill University in Montreal.
"We’ve been able to meet lots of different types of people who are often ignored," Herman said. "The trip has given me the opportunity to think about what it means to have a just society."
Wayne Firestone, executive vice president of the United States for Hillel, said the Tzedek track, which has the highest demand, is designed to attract Jewish students interested in tikkun olam, or social action.
"They may not be a student who participates in any other Hillel activity but what draws them is social action," Firestone said. By "giving them a program where they are looking at very difficult aspects of Israeli society with needs, we’re essentially saying, ‘we need you to help make an impact on your trip.’ "
A woman who runs one of the day-care centers said she was overwhelmed by the help and energy of the students.
"They are a big help to me," said the woman, herself a foreign worker, who would identify herself only as Myra.
The students also toured south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where many of the foreign workers live in small, cramped apartments amid drug dens and sex shops.
"It’s been a very honest trip, exposing us to many sides of Israel," said Allyson Marvin, 20, from Boston University, who came to Israel last year on birthright israel and was looking for a way to return and see more of the country.
Marvin, who grew up in Austin, Texas, said she looks forward to bringing what she has learned in Israel back home with her and into the classroom, where she teaches seventh graders about tikkun olam.