Umm el Fahem, Israel
I am writing from Umm el Fahem, Israel, near the border with the West Bank. I am here spending six weeks volunteering at the Umm el Fahem Gallery of Art. So far, it has been an enlightening and delightful experience.
Umm el Fahem is an Arab city, and the gallery focuses on highlighting contemporary Arab art. They are also committed to preserving the history and memories of the city. An important goal of the gallery is to foster understanding between cultures through art. This is what appealed to me most in the GoEco description of the program.
I have a variety of different roles here, and the gallery staff is open to using the skills and ideas of the folks that come to volunteer. The gallery staff and many local residents are interested in improving their English skills. I run several English language groups for adults. Fostering an appreciation of art in children is also an important mission of the gallery.
On Saturday mornings the gallery runs art classes for children, and for the duration of my stay, we will be offering English classes for those who want to stay afterward. Last weekend, I had a large group of children, and some of their parents, playing I Spy, Bingo, and singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, together. What fun!
During the week, school groups visit, have a guided tour of the gallery, and then do an art project with gallery staff. I was fascinated, last week, to observe a group of children playing a game where one child hid under a veil, and another had to guess who was hidden. This took place in a gallery filled with self-portraits by an artist who explores issues of identity in her work. In some paintings she is wearing a headscarf, in others she is fully veiled, and in others is wearing no head covering at all. What a wonderful activity, having children be covered under a veil, to complement the works on display.
The gallery strives to be a cultural center for the community, and reaches out in a variety of ways. One day, I heard music, and followed it. In the large meeting room, there was a group of disabled adults, all dancing with obvious enjoyment. I joined in for a circle dance. The community has been quite friendly and welcoming. Often a group of kids will say “shalom” as I walk by, assuming, I suppose, that I am an Israeli Jew. (I am American.) I have been invited into people’ homes, for coffee or mint tea and sweets and nuts, and conversation, and have even been invited to visit overnight with one family.
The gallery hosts a fair number of Jewish Israeli groups, and some foreign visitors as well. They are interested in encouraging more. One project I am excited about is designing a day trip, from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Haifa, where people can visit the gallery, have a meal, and perhaps pay a visit to a local family.
Oh, and did I mention, I am living at the gallery! There is an apartment on the upper floor, above the gallery space. It has a roof deck with a spectacular view of the city, and, at least during the current exhibit, is filled with wonderful sculptures. The apartment can accommodate up to four, in two double bedrooms, and four is therefore the number of volunteers they can accept at any given time. There are two of us here now, and in another week, I will be the sole volunteer.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the right volunteer. You need to be self-motivated, and have some sense of what skills you have and what you can offer the gallery. If you do, you will find lots of support and a warm welcome, to the gallery and to the community. The ideal volunteer will be able to be on her or his own, be patient, and be aware that most people do not speak fluent English. (Everyone does speak Hebrew as well as Arabic.) Also, potential volunteers should be aware that things move at a different pace than what they might be used to. ( i.e. more slowly!)
I will return to this blog in another week or two, with a further update on my adventures.