Renée Barasch, Volunteer

Thoughts from brilliant, energetic volunteer, high school student RENEE BARASCH.

Renée Barasch is a high school senior at The Metropolitan Learning Center, a public magnet school in Portland, Oregon. She will be 18 in November, and after her graduation in June, plans to study abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has developed into a powerful, effective advocate for Hand in Hand; in this article, she reflects on her time spent volunteering in Israel at Project Harmony summer camp. She was the youngest counselor there.

I have never been an emotional individual. I am, however, passionate. Parts of me have always craved those sincerest expressions of love, inspiration, and courage that rarely brave themselves to be known.

Almost three years ago, Hand in Hand Cofounder Lee Gordon approached my family and asked if we would be interested in hosting a foreign student. I was a high school freshman at the time; someone who, although I wouldn’t admit it, was still wrapped up in an artificial world of hair products and her own “uniqueness.” I wanted more than anything to be an adult, yet somehow I was still stuck in that awkward limbo between middle school and real astuteness.

Sure, I thought, hosting a student would be fun, but I had no idea of the effect it would have on my life.

That spring, I made my first international friend. Her name is Gali Evan, and this past June she made history as she and her classmates became the second class to graduate from Hand in Hand’s Jerusalem high school.

During the time Gali stayed with me, I didn’t truly understand the significance of her school or the country she was from. All I knew for sure was the connection we shared. I have always believed that one of the most important aspects to life is human bonding. It spawns relationships, learning experiences, new ideas and, ultimately, growth. Although I wasn’t able to pinpoint it then, building a friendship with Gali represented not only the strengthening of our relationship, but also the strengthening of peace and the tools to building coexistence.

It was a year later that a group of students from my school traveled to Jerusalem for a three-week visit with Hand in Hand students and their families. I stayed at Gali’s house. The time I spent in Israel that spring changed me forever. It was not only my first experience abroad, it was also the first time I was able to see the world outside of an American lens. Experiencing a new culture, new religions, new people, and a new piece of myself caused a shift in my perception of the human condition.

Never had I been so out of my comfort zone and still so curious. I realized then how important this “new” me was. In three weeks I had gone from a confused high schooler to a more motivated, more educated, more aware being.

If just those few weeks with the Hand in Hand families had caused such growth in myself, what did that mean for the student’s growth after spending years in the school?

During the next nine months after my return to the U.S., I read countless books on the history of Israel, Palestine, the “Six-Day-War,” and the seemingly endless struggles between Arabs and Jews. Reading articles in the paper and seeing updates on the news, I now had a personal connection to those communities.

I was thousands of miles away in a country that, really, was in the dark when it came to understanding the middle east, and I still wanted to be a part of it all. That’s when I called Lee to ask about staying involved with the school.

I am proud and inspired to say that I spent five weeks this summer in Jerusalem working as a counselor at the Project Harmony Day Camp hosted on the Hand in Hand campus. I met some of the most incredible kids, the most incredible adults, and learned more about the politics of friendship than I ever could have imagined.

Part of what touched me so much was seeing the campers just be themselves. To quote from my blog, “To truly recognize the significance of Project Harmony, you have to take a step back and look at the big picture. Every day over the past four weeks I had frustrating moments—maybe they were brief or maybe they lasted until the campers left at 3:00, but looking back I see how wonderful that frustration really was. It meant that the kids were just being kids. They’d throw balls at each other and slam doors and curse and talk back to counselor instructions; but having them act like pre-adolescent maniacs meant that they were really comfortable with each other.”

Growing up in the United States, it can be hard to envision what life would be like without equality. As someone who was raised in the Pacific Northwest, and in a school environment that emphasized the arts and community projects, I was never exposed to a world in which children were judged based purely on race and religion. The idea that my next-door neighbor might have completely opposite views than me had no effect on how I greeted them.

Spending time in Israel, however, the deep separation between entire communities astounded me. Coming into the country with an American bias, I had to work to open myself up to an understanding of why such a separation was so widely accepted. It may have struck me as wrong, but it was also part of a routine.

Of course Jerusalem was divided. A land with so much history and religious importance was almost destined to a future of social complications... but at what point did that exclusion become too extreme?

The truth is that Hand in Hand’s mission is simple—but effective. In a country where almost every argument regarding politics has some twist, the clear and worldly definition of love is the simplest basis for any solution. The acknowledgment that I am human and that each person I meet in my lifetime shares the same basic scientific build-up and potential for goodness levels the playing field in a way that no law ever can.

I am honored to know that such a school exists. I am honored to be a contributing voice in their fight. I am honored to have been given the opportunity to write this short piece. More than anything, though, I am honored to have been touched and changed by a program rooted in the same morals as those I witnessed here at home every day throughout my youth.


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