Yesterday, we met with several people in Yerucham who were talking up how far Yerucham has come in the past few years. Where it only recently was a hole in the middle of the desert, now it is a financially stable town with parks, community centers, and a sense of civic pride.
But, there is still work to be done. Today, we had the opportunity for two meetings with people and organizations that are working to build upon the success of stabilization in Yerucham and really make the city shine. To do this, we had to go to two places that would be at the bottom of the list of places that one would think would be beacons of progress and visionary thinking: an unrecognized Bedouin village and a school for Orthodox girls.
The Bedouin have been part of Israeli society from before the founding of the State. Some Bedouin helped fight in the War of Independence. Over the years many, many Bedouin have served in the Israeli Army, most of them in special tracker units which capitalized on a skill that is developed through their semi-nomadic, shepherding culture. Yet, Bedouin have not fully integrated into Israeli society in ways that other minority groups, like the Druze of the north, have. This is especially true for the Bedouin of the South; in the North, they are more involved in Israeli society.
Of the just under 300,000 Bedouin in Israel, about 100,000 live in one of the seven Bedouin towns, 100,000 live in recognized Bedouin villages, and 80-90,000 live in unrecognized villages. Both types of villages look similarly- tents made of wood, tin roofs, and canvas sides, separate from other communities, spread out in a relatively large geographic area for the population. But, while the recognized communities are on the electricity grid, water and sewage system, and have paved and maintained roads into and out of the communities, the unrecognized communities have none of this.
We left Yerucham for Rachma, an unrecognized Bedouin village just outside of town (both get their name from Be’er Rachma, Well of Mercy, the well located nearby that, according to tradition, was the site where Hagar despaired as Ishmael was dying of thirst, until an angel showed her the well). There, we met with Salima, a wife and mother of six who told us that she could be giving birth to her seventh child at any moment. Salima has been studying Hebrew and general studies over the past four years, hoping to get her GED and go to university. Why did we meet with her? Because she is a trailblazer in her community. Most girls do not go to school past the age of 12 or 13. Most boys don’t last much longer. The Bedouin are a very patriarchal society. When she decided to go back to school, she had to deal with her father and brothers, essentially requiring their approval (interestingly, her husband’s approval was not as important; in traditional Bedouin culture, the “honor” lies with the father and brother. If the husband felt that she got “out of hand,” he could just send her back to the father and brothers, and that would bring shame upon them). But, Salima overcame this, and has been studying for herself, teaching her sons and daughters, and remains committed to education in the Bedouin community. Ironically, while her husband is supportive of her teaching their daughters, her sons are not. As she explained, the youth in the Bedouin community are feeling a stronger and stronger influence of Islamisicm, which reinforces the patriarchal nature of the community. Additionally, living in an unrecognized village severely inhibits the job and life prospect of these young men. They become disenchanted with education, get into drugs, alcohol, Islamicism (although probably not together).
It was both sad and inspiring to meet with Salima. Sad to hear her say that her boys have asked her to cover her face when they ride in a car with her, because they fear her having a reputation as a woman who is trying to better herself through education. But inspiring because despite all of that, she is still commited to education for herself and for her daughters.
A side story to our meeting with Salima. When she received us in her family’s guest tent, she had tea ready for us, which is customary. The pot was there, with small glasses arranged on a tray. She poured a bit into the first glass. Then she poured that bit into the next glass. Then the next and the next and the next, until that first pour of tea had been in each glass. I was curious about this, and kept thinking of reasons she might have done that. My “every tradition must have a really cool explanation” mind was circling around something like leaving a bit of the first pour of tea in everyone’s glass, underscoring the shared experience of the tea. While I didn’t get a chance to ask her about it, I was able to ask Yoram, our representative from Yerucham who facilitated our meeting. He smiled and told me that pouring hot tea into a cold glass might shatter the glass. By pouring that small first pour into each glass, it warmed them a bit so they could hold the hot tea and not break. I guess in this case, form follows function.
After lunch in the park, we had an unexpected detour: the Indian synagogue in Yerucham. Indians were one of the larger groups (after Romanians and Moroccans) that were located to Yerucham in the 60s and 70s. This synagogue was the first Indian synagogue in the State of Israel. It wasn’t that large, but it was beautifully furnished and decorated. Yonatan, who is a lay leader of the community, told us a bit about the history of the community and the building. He showed us the various Torah scrolls they have. But, what was most intersting was that they have their haftarot, the readings from the Prophets that are read on Shabbatot and holidays, on scrolls as well. Most communities read those readings out of bound books, not from scrolls like the Torah. He gleamed with pride as he described his community, pride that is well deserved.
This afternoon we went to Midreshet Be’er. It is a gap-year school for Orthodox girls who have just graduated high school, before they do their army or national service. But, the school is more than just learning; the girls spend half their time doing community outreach and service in Yerucham. There are only a handful of schools like this in Israel, schools where girls who are committed to studying and learning Torah and to serving their community can do that, all while preparing them to serve their country. While army service is required for all Israelis, there are some groups who do not serve in high numbers. Israeli Arabs are exempt, and very few opt to do national service, which is a non-military alternative in which people work in civil or national offices, communal service providers, etc., in lieu of serving in the military. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve; there is an arragement that if they are learning full-time, they are exempt from service. Yet, there are small numbers of ultra-Orthodox who do choose to serve in the army. Modern Orthodox or National Religious men serve in the military. Most National Religious women choose to do national service. And that is what makes Midreshet Be’er interesting; most of their graduates, who generally are National Religious, choose to serve in the military, usually in their educational units. So, not only are these students choosing to further their education for another year of study, commit to serving a community, Yerucham, that many of them have no organic connection to, they then often opt to serve in the army. These are inspiring young women with a sense of commitment to making their lives, their communities, their nation, and their world a better place.
We sat in on their weekly Bible class. Today’s topic: Haggai and Zachariah. It was taught in Hebrew, and although our faculty did translate when they could, I was able to follow most of the lesson. I had a harder time following the questions the students asked, but then again, most 18 and 19 year olds are hard to understand. But I was impressed that a) their conversation about the Bible was so similar to what our classes at HUC might have sounded like, and b) at one point, their gifted teacher Elkanan described what it might look like if today’s Jewish community were to return to the Temple. He said you would have Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews all milling around, trying to figure out what do to. Why was I impressed? I would not have expected an Israeli of his background (long beard, tzitzit hanging out from his shirt) to have such a varied description of the Jewish community. Many Israelis, Orthodox in particular, do not consider Reform and Conservative Judaism forms of Judaism at all; they would not have put them on the Temple Mount in this hypothetical return. Especially not while teaching 19 year old Orthodox girls.
After a fabulous dinner at the home of a local resident from Tunisia, who often opens her home to groups like ours to share Yeruchami culture, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we are meeting with the mayor of Yerucham, then heading back to Jerusalem to prepare for Shavuot.