I’m writing this on my BlackBerry
while sitting on an intercity bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, so I apologize for typoos.
We have had an extremely busy week. A day after decompressing from our trip to the Gush we headed out on a 3 night trip to the North and Tel Aviv. We spent two nights in Akko (Acre) and a night in Tel Aviv. Where did we go?
To a kibbutz, Eshbal, whose business is education. Unlike most kibbutzim that manufacture or grow a product, they just develop and distribute educational expertise, focusing on schools with intercultural populations and non-traditional educational approaches.
To visit with an Arab Israeli woman who teaches English in her local school in Majd-al-Kurum, near Karmiel. We heard her story and her hopes, concerns, and feelings about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel and with Israel’s neighbors.
To a school in Eshchar that is trying to mix secular and religious students together, and be “just Jewish.” Not an easy task when the curricula of the secular and religious school systems are so different.
To an evening walking tour of Old Akko with an Arab Orthodox Christian, to hear some folktales of the community…with a special treat of a total lunar eclipse.
To a “circus” class for Arab and Jewish youth. Apparently circus means. tumbling, juggling, balance tricks, and other similar things, but it is a successful cooperative and mixed-living experience.
To Yemin Orde, a community and high school for youth at risk (some orphans, some lone immigrants, some just were unable to succeed in more traditional communities) that suffered some damage during the Karmel fires last summer.
To Kehillat HaLev, a new Reform congregation in the middle of Tel Aviv, lead by a student at HUC Jerusalem’s Israeli Rabbinic Program.
To Beit Daniel, the big Reform congregation in Tel Aviv (Kehillat HaLev is a “franchise” of Beit Daniel). To the beach in Tel Aviv, and a swim in the Med…glorious.
The overall message of this trip was two-fold. First, that the Galil is an example of intergroup (Jewish-Arab, religious-secular, Israel-Diaspora) cooperation. No just co-existence, but true integration. Second, that the definition of Israeli-ness as an expression of Judaism is not so simple. Interesting, that definition was complicated from a few directions. When we met with Iman, the Arab Israeli English teacher, she explained that she loves living in Israel, wouldn’t want to love in any of the neighboring countries or in a yet-to-be-established Palestinian state, but she hopes that in the future that Israeli culture and identity would include parts of her Arab culture. In a sense, that Israel would become the melting pot that America once thought it was. Others with whom we spoke- Arab and Jew- agreed. For me, that problematizes the definition of Israel as the Jewish State. I would be the first to say that Israel mistreats its Arab citizens (not Palestinians in the West Bank, but citizens of the State of Israel, with Israeli ID cards, passports, etc.) by subjecting them to second class status when it comes to health care, education, infrastructure, community development, and other areas. Because Jews and Arabs live in separate communities, it’s easy to do this; Israel doesn’t invest in those areas at the local level in Arab communities. But the solution, in my eyes, is not an amalgamated identity. It’s somewhere closer to what other progressive nations with official religions (think the UK) do with their religious minorities. They allow for separation when necessary, but do not discriminate against that minority in the process. And those minorities are able to retain their unique identities. But, admittedly, it’s not easy.
Second, towards the later part of the trip and our trip to Bina, the secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, we heard from people who are really concerned that secular Israeli’s have lost all connection to Judaism. They participate in civil life in Israel which does follow the Jewish cycle, but they have little understanding of the tradition and the origins of Jewish life as they see it in Israel. Why is this problematic? One, as a Jewish educator, it’s difficult to see Jews who don’t know their heritage, don’t understand the basics of what it has meant to be Jewish for thousands of years, and not really care about it. But more importantly, it jeopardizes the connection that Israelis have with Jews everywhere else. Their entire identity is based on the Zionist narrative that Diaspora Jewry didn’t live. If we don’t share the narrtive of Exodus from Egypt, Revelation of Torah, and rabbinic Judaism, what connects us? Are we one People without that connection?
Fortunately, there are many non-religious Jews in Israel that are interested, learned, and actively engaged in Jewish life. And, as we saw, there are people and organizations dedicated to redeveloping a commitment to Jewish learning on the part of secular Jews. Time will tell what that will mean for their Jewish identity.
Another interesting approach to this concern is the idea of bringing Israelis to the Diaspora to experience non-Israeli Jewish life. This “reverse birthright” model is based on the notion that Jewish identity and Peoplehood is fed by personal connections, both to the land of Israel and to similar Jews living Jewishly. Birthright brings Jews to the land, this model would bring Israelis, firmly connected to land, in contact with peers living Jewish lives elsewhere. The experienece of Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) to Jewish camps and communities has shown how this can be successful. But more of a focus was put on Israelis learning about Diaspora Jewry, and not just teaching Diaspora Jews about Israel, a stronger connection might be created.
We are in Jerusalem now for the rest of the trip, including a visit to the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory for ultra-Orthodox girls and our final presentations of our personal stances on Peoplehood. Shabbat together, and then I fly home.