Shul hopping, Kibbutzim, Bedouins; Different ways of life in Israel

Simchat Torah could be my favorite holiday of the year. Arriving on the heels of the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, Jewish people all around the world finish reading the Torah and start again from the beginning. A new friend Aliya and I stayed over at a family’s house who lives just outside of Jerusalem in order to go to a renewal synagogue called Nava Tehila. I would say that the family’s brand of religion was unconventional. It was more spiritual than strictly observant, adherent to Jewish law but more liberal in lifestyle. The son and I quickly connected over music, but we couldn’t jam for long because they observe the rule that prohibits work- and thus music on the holiday. The mother and I had very interesting conversations about religion, philosophy and politics. I asked her why she does not write or play music on shabbat and she suggested a spiritual explanation. Creativity, she explained, is a one way exchange between G-d and man. For six days out of the week, G-d imbues within us inspiration. It seems to come out of nowhere. However, on the seventh day, we give to G-d through prayer and meditation. 

Throughout the weekend, we went to three different synagogues each with a different flavour. One synagogue was held in a school gym with lots of chanting and dancing mostly of young folk. The other was a carlebach synagogue where we carried the torahs in the streets and danced joyously. That morning we went to Nava Tehilah. Over 95% of the people at the synagogue were dancing and fully involved- a level of participation I have never before seen. Its difficult to explain the spiritual energy that electrified the air as concentric rings of people spun and swirled around the instruments and torahs in the middle. Voices chanted, sweat pooled but we; young, old, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardic danced on. The joy of worshipping together was undeniable.

Last week, we went to a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. A kibbutz is a socialist commune- essentially a closed neighborhood- where members live, eat together in a dining hall, and work in what they want to pursue. All of the money they earn goes to the Kibbutz Collective- whether you are a scientist who manages their high tec algae operation or the date picker, you receive according to your needs not the amount you make. All in all it was a fascinating experience to understand why socialism continues to work. The answer is that it is goal oriented community who is capitalistic on the outside and socialist on the inside, made of people who elected to take part in this lifestyle. 

When you drive out of Jerusalem into Area C of the disputed territories, little collections of shacks dot the arid hills on the side of the highway. These are bedouin villages. Bedouins are Arabs who were nomadic up until 60 years ago when they settled in semi permanent shacks. We visited one of these villages and talked to a journalist and a smokey man who was the village leader. 

The bedouin village is below a settlement up on the hill. At one point both were considered illegal constructions until the settlement was granted legality. Although the Bedouin village was not a permitted construction, it also was not a permanent construction and thus it’s legality was hard to define in court so it was left alone. 10 years ago, an NGO built the first permanent structure, a school, which thus made the village illegal. The settlement then petitioned the government to remove the bedouin village given its status as an illegal construction, eyesore, and impedance to settlement expansion. The Israeli government proposed eminent domain with little just compensation to be able to purchase a legal home (worth much more than their current shanty.) The smokey village leader told us: we were masons, laborers, and the roofers who built the settlement. Even though we predate them on this land, our existence is at stake. 

Complicating the matter, the bedouins are a stateless people. They are not Israeli citizens and they are not citizens of the Palestinian Authority. They will fly the Palestinian flag when the Palestinian Authority helps them, and will lower the flag when the Israeli government comes to help them. The teachers in the school are paid by the Palestinian Authority and the lawyers fighting the court battle to help the Bedouins are Israeli. 

Some Israelis may say that the Bedouins have it better; that no government at all is better than a government that can’t work for peace- or at all (By the way the Israelis won’t have a government until after the third elections anyways.) For others, when capitalist Israel didn’t work, they created their own semi autonomous government within Israel with Kibbutzim. And the Bedouins…well, they’d rather stay Bedouin; out of this statehood and citizenship madness.

Week 6-7- High Holy Days Madness, Travel, and Embracing Our Differences

The high holidays in Jerusalem have been so full of activity that I have missed a week in my journaling. It’s times like these: Just as you are ready to process your experiences, you are hit with something else that draws your attention. 

So here goes a short update and reflection. Yom Kippur made Jerusalem as quiet as the suburbs- seriously, I could hear the leaves rustle in the park in the center of town during a soft breeze. The city stood still for a day of contemplation and atonement without the usual car horns, shopping, or work. People in white roamed the streets and the kids took over every hill in order to test out the speed of their big wheels and skateboards. I fasted and spent my morning in a Reform service, afternoon in a park, and evening at the Orthodox great synagogue of Jerusalem.

While Israel provided the safe haven for millions of Jews to worship in peace on the holiest day of the year, a shooter in Halle Germany was driven by anti- Jewish white supremecist Ideology to attempt a mass shooting at a synagogue, bomb a gravesite, and kill innocent bystanders. I was met with this reality on my first day back to work when I had to research, fact check, and gather quotes in order to report the devastating news to Stand With Us’ social media following.

Last weekend, I had multiple interesting Jewish experiences like going to a Chabad synagogue where we danced in circles and chanted prayers. It was a joyous take on judaism. The next day, I had lunch at the house of a family who was Haredi or Ultra Orthodox- the people who have side curls and wear funny hats. I heard his answers to questions such as how to make religion relevant to today, and to what extent we can interpret our books and teachings versus taking them as they are. I left with more questions than answers but with a greater respect for people who devote their lives to religion and learning.

That night, Spontaneously, a group of friends and I decided that we would get an airbnb in Haifa, a city in the north, and hang out on the beach. We had a great time on the beach and the next day went to Akko, a beautiful and ancient city where Muslims, Jews and Christians put their differences aside and continue to live together. The skyline of the port town includes a Mosque, Synagogue and Church and represents the face of coexistence in Israel. A highlight of that trip was a beatbox battle I had with a local Muslim kid… he may have shown me up!

Failed jump photo but it’s cute
What a view!

Today, there was the Jerusalem March, which draws groups from over 50 countries to Jerusalem in order to express their support for Israel. Groups came dressed in their countries clothing and held their flags while singing or dancing in a march from Gan Sacher to the Old City. Christians and Jews alike of many colors and cultures were effusive in their love, attempting to speak Hebrew in order to connect to the parade watchers. A han Chinese woman wished me a Chag sameach, an Angolan man in a dashiki said shalom, a group from Papua New Guinea sang the Shema. Such a display of multiculturalism and world unity is enough to get me feeling all warm and fuzzy- but multiculturalism and world unity FOR the purpose of supporting Israel… well that’s enough to be a tear jerker.

Week 5 In Jerusalem: My Adopted Family, Lost in Translation, and Eating Well

Happy new year for those who celebrated this past week. Just like I have been adopted by Jonos family at home, I have now been adopted by his family in Israel.

On Friday, he and I took the bus to Tel Aviv to stay with the same family we had stayed with when we first got to Israel. Jonos aunt, Milka has a son named Ariel and a daughter named Lee who are in their early twenties and recently out of the army. This means that they are in the same life stage as Jono and I; leaving their parents house and deciding about college. 

Like most holidays, our weekend was filled with good food, lots of sleep, and of course family time. I played surrogate cousin to Jonos two 7 and 9 year old boy cousins who climbed on me and yelled at me in hebrew. Luckily in the month since I had seen them I had learned more hebrew and I could communicate with them a little more! The key word is “dai” which means enough! Rather funny hearing mothers walking down the street and yelling “die” to their kids. I’m sure American mothers would like to do the same but It wouldn’t be socially acceptable.

Ariel is a very talented Jazz guitarist with an eclectic music taste. He showed me the first Israeli artist that I vibe with which is super exciting. He and I also recorded a song together in his home setup. On Saturday night we went to his friends house for a pool party and then we all went to the park to play spike ball. They played like a well oiled machine and were impressive. Needless to say, I did not perform well, although everyone was super nice and willing to teach me. At 12am we left the park to get burgers and didn’t get home until 2. Such is Tel Aviv time. 

Building a table for Rosh Hashanah dinner with Jono and Ariel

I had some interesting conversations this weekend, particularly surrounding language. Jonos family are Uruguayan immigrants to Israel- so I may have spoken more Spanish this weekend than I did Hebrew. Hebrew on a level is a simple and direct language. While in Germanic languages such as English and Spanish we have the words “to be” or “estoy,” in Hebrew there is no “to be.” to say that I am good, you say ani (I) tov (good.): “I good.” Lee says that when she journals, she does so in English despite it not being her first language, because she says there are more words with nuanced meanings from which to express herself. We wondered if maybe some of the directness of Israeli culture comes from the limitations of a developing language (hebrew has only been spoken for 100 years.) 

When we got back to Jerusalem Tuesday night, the good food and company did not stop. I went to dinner with Jonos uncle from the states on Wednesday and met up with family friends Carianne and Tito on Thursday for dinner. They couldn’t fit the shuk on their itinerary during the day so unfortunately for them I showed them the shuk on a Thursday night (Comparable to a Friday night in the U.S!) We made it out in one piece and picked up some rugelach! 

The shuk on a Thursday with Carianne and Tito

My roommate and I team cooked chicken fajitas last night and we combined with room four for a raucous friday night dinner.  

I’ve had a great time this week collecting new family, and showing old friends a city new to them. 

Hi Mom! Look at me in the kitchen 🙂
Recording a little music

Week 4 in Jerusalem: My IDF Squad, Antisemitism From Home Hits Home Here, A lesson That the Others are Human

Chag Sameach, Happy New Year. I am writing this from Jono’s aunts house where I am staying for the vacation. It is located in Telmond, a suburb in the middle of fruit fields outside the limits of Tel Aviv. 

I’ll start with how I spent Shabbat last weekend. Through my friends on the program, Jono and Amit, I have connected with a group of Lone soldiers who have come from abroad to join the IDF. On Friday night a week ago, we went to a free shabbat dinner at the Lone Soldier Center which was full of interesting life stories and good food. The next day, we were invited to a Shabbat lunch at another Lone soldiers’ apartment. Where Amit is drafting and Jono is exploring the possibility- I am not. Frankly I fall into “the army is not for everybody” category, although I’m sure I would feel different if I was an Israeli citizen where there is compulsory service. Apart from awkwardly finding ways to explain “I am not drafting but I still hang out with the army guys”, I am grateful to collect a new group of people. There’s a lot to learn from others who have a different life story and a different mindset.

On Sunday, my day at the office started with red wine and Apples & Honey, the typical foods of the Jewish New Year. It ended with cake to celebrate a coworkers birthday. Again, Israeli office culture is joyous, not dour. I read the Jerusalem Post every morning with my coffee. On Wednesday I read that the Beth Israel Sinai congregation of Racine Wisconsin had been vandalized with the Nazi symbol and the word Jude. Racine is the small town of 100,000 (at the time) where my parents grew up and Beth Israel Sinai was my dads childhood Synagogue. It’s strange when the Jerusalem Post and The Stand With Us social media team also now know of your parents small town- and not for not a good reason 

On our Tiyull this week, we went to Gush Etzion, a collection of settlements in Area C of the West Bank. Area C implies that it is under joint Israeli Palestinian control. The formal settlements were lost in bloodshed from Israeli control after the 1948 War of Independence and gained back in 1967. Despite this, the region remains full of tension and has been privy to a host of terrorist incidents in the last 20 years ranging from kidnappings, to stabbings, to car rammings. Feet away from the Infamous Gush Et Zion junction where 3 Israeli hitchhiking teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in 2014 is an organization which is sowing the seeds of peace between Israelis and Palestinians by bringing them together in the same room. Since the intifadas, border walls, checkpoints, and gates enforce separation in the interest of security and create a negative image of the other; the Israeli who spoke to us said that his friends believed that all Palestinians were terrorists. Converseley, the Palestinian who spoke to us explained that his friends thought that Israel was just a giant military base where bloodthirsty soldiers enforced Israeli sovereignty. The conflict is so hard to understand from the outside and calling it Apartheid is a misnomer because among many things blames only Israel and confuses race and nationality; the Israelis and Palestinians are nationalities and Apartheid is a racial subjugation system. However, walls artificially seperate people and it is clear that the unintended social, political and economic consequences of separation will last lifetimes.

Gush Et Zion Junction despite it’s tragic history is a place of coexistence where both the yellow Israeli and green Palestinian license plates drive side by side. If a green or yellow licensed car breaks down, you best bet that a yellow or green License plate will pull up and they will fix the problem together.

See, we have the same human problems on both sides; a broken car, dreams unfulfilled, helplessness against governments who don’t share our interest of peace. We need to look over the mental and physical walls that separate us so we can understand that ‘the others’ are humans just like us.

The peace initiative
The infamous Gush EtZion junction

Week 3 in Jerusalem: I can cook! The real life “office.” What’ll it be; Unity or Elections?

I’ve gotten to know people on my program better through cooking and having dinners together- last night I teamed up with my roommate to make Korean Bim Bim Bap with Marinated beef, rice, fried egg, and assorted vegetables which was a favorite for the people at our table. Although I may be a college aged kid, Food is still fuel for the soul and ramen doesn’t quite cut it.

Bim Bim Bap was a crowd favorite

Working in an office has been an awesome experience, and I think working in an Israeli office has certainly spoiled me. Half the time people are up making themselves coffee, laughing, chatting, multitasking. One time my co worker on the social media team quipped that “it is too quiet,” to which I responded “Of course it’s quiet, people are working.” a minute later, I hear Sir Mixalot shout “I like big butts and I cannot lie!” He played baby got back to get people laughing. The whole office was in stitches. Additionally, people want to get to know you; I’ve gone to lunch with different people from the office and heard their stories. And yes, It’s a bit like an israeli version of “the Office,” sans a Dwight Schrute. On Thursday I finished a project at work that I had been working on since the beginning. Although certainly it was the type of mundane work only an intern should have to do, I am confident that what I did is productive to the Stand With Us social media operation.

In the nighttime, the Shuk switches over from greens to good times or vegetables to vice- however you want to look at it. While being the legal drinking age is fun and all, my understanding is that I am a guest in Israel. If myself (or people in my group) have had drinks and become boisterous In the streets, the israelis start looking at us as disturbers of the peace. This isn’t right. So I’m always searching for the right group to go out with and some nights I have found this. Sometimes though, the right group turns out to be just me and my guitar.

Tuesday was elections day, and with my interest in politics I talked to everyone I could, from Israeli citizens to my age, to co-workers, to my RA’s, to people who made aliyah, religious, secular- the whole 9. It has become clear that Israeli citizens have very different views on the future of Israel. I had to be careful that my own biases did not color my understanding as an American acquainted with a two party, right and left political climate. The facts on the ground here are so different, and thus the platforms of the American left and right don’t transfer. It has been argued that this election is a referendum on religion and state; while Bibi’s likud believes in catering to the increasing influence of the religious by enforcing shabbat as the day of rest (mandatory store closures, no busses on saturdays), Gantz’ blue and white caters to those who want to preserve the opportunity for a secular society. This divide is uniquely Israeli as it harkens back to the early days of Zionism when the question was raised; what should be the nature of a Jewish state? Should it operate under Jewish law so that it may become a safe place for jews to live as they are commanded? Or alternatively, should it be a safe place for Jews, but operate under secular values as to preserve freedoms for those who wish to live in their own way? Today, Israel is a multicultural society; 70% Jewish, 30% of other faiths. Even given that the state is majority Jewish, being Jewish is not defined by religious observance. It is defined under Jewish law as having a Jewish mother. Thus, many ‘Jews’ are not so religously and support a secular society. With this being said, the religious haredim and their parties are gaining in numbers and political influence, voting in the israel they want which follows the commandments. With a divided view on the future of Israel, The vote ended in a near tie between the two biggest parties. This means, either the parliament will become a unity government wherein Gantz, Netanyahu and the other parties come together in one giant coalition, or citizens are off to the polls again. Of course, politicians make promises they can’t keep. Before the elections, Gantz said he would never join a unity government with Netanyahu. Currently, Netanyahu says he won’t go to elections again. Time will tell who will break their word.

There’s so much more to share. If you ever have any questions, or want to talk, contact me.

Week Two in Jerusalem; the Plot Thickens

Good sabbath to those celebrating. To set the scene I am sitting on the balcony in the morning light, listening to the about 30 combined orthodox kids in the two apartment buildings next door make havoc before breakfast. It is neat to be part of a city as it wakes up. This week has been a big week full of classes, experiences and my internship. I am taking four different classes; the Arab Israeli conflict, social psychology, the faces of politics and Hebrew.

The Arab Israeli conflict class will help me better understand both the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but also geopolitical conflicts in the region both historical and current. Social psychology is focused through the lens of how social interaction works in a diverse society between people with clear differences. The faces of politics will help me understand the Israeli government including its actors and what elections are in a parliamentary system with over 30 parties in the Knesset (Israeli parliament.) Our first session on that blew my mind… I thought our congress was zany. And lastly, I am taking a Hebrew class which I certainly desperately need- I’ve gotten by so far on words and phrases; Ken (yes), lo (no), ani rotze (I want), but those ain’t gonna cut it for long- now that I work at an Israeli company.

StandWithUs is an Israeli education organization that advocates against BDS. I am interning in their social media department which has already been fascinating. Before our internships we had a session to explain Israeli work environment which is much more casual and very different from anywhere else. To help us understand what we were about to encounter, our teacher shared a psychological study. A psychologist named Hofstede, upon noticing the trend of different relationships between boss and employee in different cultural contexts, created an index of power distance. This index described per country the extent to which difference in rank plays a role in workplace interaction. The U.S ranks a 40, meaning that you may not be friends with your boss and perhaps you may not speak their mind fully you don’t agree with your bosses’ decision. Israel however, has one of the lowest power distances in the world. Sure enough, when I went into the workplace I was treated casually and respectfully; the people responsible for me immediately asked me about my personal life, looked up my Spotify, invited me to lunch and joked around with me.

There is so much more to share from the week, and most of it is written in the journal that I write daily. I will end with a few observations and experiences both good bad and human. we had an impromptu potluck sabbath dinner last night with over 25 people. We made tacos- yes, my jewish mother sent me with bags of Old el Paso Taco Seasoning! It was awesome to share in a meal and singing together. On a serious note I have been disturbed by the Anti Muslim and Arab prejudice from some people within the program. Whether it’s a joke, or a comment it disturbs me that American society has failed to teach tolerance and we as a minority oft plagued by prejudice don’t always combat prejudice when we see it. A person who has family in France spoke about the Muslims and Arab refugees bringing crime to France, purposefully having a ton of children, and not assimilating adding that France was now over 50% Muslim. In reality, Muslims only make up 10% of the population. I urged him to be cautious in his judgements. When you judge another people by a stereotype of their immutable characteristics rather than individual merits, and in language that is used to oppress the Jews as outsiders, you lose capitol to be able to fight antisemitism when you ultimately fall victim.

The other night I had an indescribable moment. I went up to the roof alone to watch the sunset. The city’s Jerusalem sandstone shone in gold, the sun kissed the pines on the hill, and for a moment the chaos of the kids, and cars, and shopkeepers below seemed to disperse. I told my parents yesterday that I had fallen in love with Israel but not to worry- I hadn’t decided to make aliya (the act of a Jew becoming an Israeli citizen)… yet.

Smiling with my StandWithUs swag (cool fold up sunglasses not pictured)
Laundry mat photo shoot with Jono (we are learning)
The dome of the rock from Temple Mount
When your mates come back with frozen chicken for dinner because they don’t understand you can’t defrost chicken in 30 minutes… time for the emergency chicken nuggets ????

My First Week in Israel: wow

I am currently writing this Saturday morning which is the sabbath day of rest. I am sitting out on the balcony in the sun with my coffee and peanut butter toast listening to the apartments across from me come alive. When Jono and I arrived in Israel we got a big hug by two strangers I had never met- such is israeli friendliness. For the first few days in Israel Jono and I stayed with those strangers who were of course his Israeli family. They brought us back to stay in their moms house outside of Tel Aviv. We had a great time at the beach, talking, eating local food (of course), and even making a song with Jono’s cousin who is a talented Jazz guitarist.

On Monday, we met up with the Aardvark program people and moved to Jerusalem to settle into our apartments. We are centrally located in nachlaot- a 5 minute walk from machne yehuda market. I live with 3 other boys, only one of whom knows how to cook… we have lots of learning to do about living on our own in addition to living in a foreign country. The past few days have been orientation; we’ve done explorations of the shuk; in the day when the vendors and commotion are exciting and in the night when the nightlife and music gives the place a wholly different face. For two days we took a trip to the north where we hiked and got to know to each other.

Back in Jerusalem for the Shabbas, we went to the western wall and prayed- a moving experience full of song, dance, and spiritual energy. The collective passion and prayer creates a power in the air unlike any other. The western wall is the holiest spot for the Jews because it is the closest place we can get to the holy of Holies- the rock upon the Temple once stood. This rock is the rock from which we believe the earth was created. I pressed myself against the wall and spent a moment feeling the connection between body and spirit.

Next week, we start classes and internships- so much excitement and new experiences await. Stay Tuned!