Saturday, July 9, 2016

Bridging the Arab-Jewish Divide

This is the transcript of a speech I presented about my Yahel experience at Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT on July 8, 2016.

            As you all probably know, I have spent the past nine months in Israel living in the city of Lod, a place that is very different from here. Now that I am back home, it is difficult to adjust to the many differences between Lod and Stamford. On the most basic level, I am confused by the lack of signs in Hebrew, and I am feeling a deep urge to communicate in Hebrew whenever possible. I am also attentive toward the lack of fresh burekas and rugelach at the local bakery, the fact that I am no longer waking up at 6:30AM to catch a shared taxi to work that may or may not come, and the apparent absence of my fellow Yahelnikim, community partners, and supportive Yahel staff. But most of all, I clearly notice the completely different atmospheres that distinguish the cities, especially in regard to feelings toward diversity.
           
            I feel very lucky to have grown up in a community where I could constantly interact with people who look different from me. I can still recall my days at Westhill, where I could not pass by one room or hallway without seeing a large array of cultures and ethnicities. I knew that in whichever class or activity I took part in, I would always have the chance to interact with many people who had backgrounds and life experiences very different from mine. Some of the best friends I made in high school were people with life experiences that are entirely foreign to me, and I have greatly appreciated learning about their lifestyles.
           
            In Israel, I have found that people view diversity very differently. In Lod, unlike in Stamford, it is not largely encouraged to spend time in places with individuals from different backgrounds. Though Lod is considered a mixed city and there are public spaces like the outdoor market or the mall where Jews and Arabs can coexist, I hardly saw social, non-business related interactions between Jews and Arabs during my entire time living there. In fact, from what I observed from the children I worked with, it seemed that such interactions were strongly discouraged and seen as dangerous. I distinctly remember the reaction I received from the little Ethiopian Jewish girls I taught music to at a community center once a week, after I told them I worked at an Arab school. They were completely in shock that I would interact with Arabs, even though there are many Arab kids who attend that same community center. One girl even went so far to say that the Arabs want to kill all Jews and they should leave the Jewish state and make their own state, because it is too dangerous to be around them.
           
            I will also not forget a conversation I had with my 5th grade students at Elrazi, an Arab primary school I taught English at three times a week. It was Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, and during the school day we heard the nationwide siren to commemorate Israel's fallen soldiers and terror victims. I wanted to know how Arabs felt about this day, and I thought I could have an enlightening conversation with these kids, who were at very high levels in English. In a surprising response, Hassan, one of my favorite students who I always joked around with, said to me that he hates soldiers, he hates Israel, and he hates Jews. I then asked him if he hated me because I am Jewish, and he said that I am good but the rest of the Jews are bad.
           
            I was definitely shocked by these responses, but at the same time this was one of the main reasons why I decided to work in Lod. After studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in college and starting to learn about Palestinian perspectives on the major issues, I wanted to enhance my understanding of the conflict and contribute to efforts on the ground to advance conflict resolution. To me, the best way of doing this was to immerse myself in a Palestinian community and get to see life through their eyes. This is why, when I first learned about Lod and Yahel's yearlong volunteer program there, I was instantly glued to this opportunity. I knew that I wanted my next work experience to involve intimate work with Arabs and a chance to promote coexistence between Arabs and Jews, and I was confident that living in Lod would help me accomplish both of these goals.
           
            This is also why when it came time to choose volunteer placements, there was no question that I would be working at an Arab school. From the first moment I walked into the building, I had a feeling the Elrazi school would be one of my most meaningful placements, and I was so right. The entire staff immediately welcomed me and Jodie, the other Yahel volunteer placed there, and the kids were so happy to have us. In all of the lessons I managed, my kids were very enthusiastic about playing with me and showing me their ability (albeit sometimes limited) to speak, read, and write in English. My kids knew I was Jewish, which was sometimes confusing for them, but ultimately that was not important. My kids were able to see that, Jewish or not Jewish, I was there to help them learn English in the most fun and productive way, and I was someone they could easily relate to and enjoy being around.
           
            However, my position as a Jew working at an Arab school did not come without its challenges. In fact, there were moments that scared and tested me unlike anything else I have ever experienced.  At the time I started working at Elrazi, the "stabbing intifada" was becoming more and more prominent. Day after day, I would hear on the news about multiple stabbing attacks by Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and even in more central cities like Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva, and Rishon L'Zion. Even though the entire country was on edge, I was confident that I had no reason to feel at risk at Elrazi. I felt that my school was a sanctuary, a place where everyone was committed to nonviolence and where the national wave of violence could not penetrate.
           
            All of these thoughts were put into question one day when I had a startling interaction with one of my kids. I was walking down the stairs with some of my students, and I saw that they were playing with plastic knives. Suddenly, one of my kids placed his knife on my stomach. When this happened, I was in total shock and did not know how to respond. I knew that this kid was probably just playing with me and did not even think about the current events his action related to. However, I could not get it past my mind that he intentionally put a knife to my stomach because he thought it would be a fun game to stab a Jew. With the idea of my sanctuary being somewhat shattered, I could not help but question my decision to work at Elrazi, thinking maybe my kids were not as peaceful as they originally appeared.
           
            Luckily, all of the doubt I had toward the school's position on violence quickly went away after communicating with the staff. Immediately following the incident, I told the English teacher Adel what happened, and she assured me she would tell the principal and implement consequences for the kid with the knife. The next day, I had a meeting with Adel, the principal Zaher, and my Yahel coordinator Mike. To start, Adel told me that she talked to the kid and he apologized and said his actions had nothing to do with the stabbing intifada or the fact that I was Jewish. Then, Zaher revealed that she told the boy's mother about what he did, and the mother denied it, saying her child was innocent and could not do something like that. When Zaher told the mother about impending consequences for the kid's violent behavior, the mother said she would complain about her to the municipality and get her fired. In response, Zaher told her that she could complain to the Prime Minister if she wanted, but that was not going to change Elrazi's zero tolerance policy toward violence. Throughout the meeting, Zaher emphasized to me that she appreciated what I was doing at her school and she wanted me to feel safe there.
           
            The immense support I received from the school's staff in this instance showed me a side to Israeli Arabs that I had never seen before. These individuals were willing to go through tough conditions in order to defend me and make me feel secure. This occurred in other instances as well, when I was going through dilemmas and the entire school staff was prepared to unconditionally support me. In my mind, this is a great example of how kindness surpasses cultural differences, including in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was no thinking about the fact that I was Jewish; the school staff saw I needed help and they had my back in the best possible ways.
           

            I have considered experiences like this in every situation I have encountered involving Arabs. Every time I hear of Arabs as violent, Jew-hating individuals, I think of my coworkers at Elrazi who were willing to defend me against violence and condemn violence altogether. Every time I hear of Arabs as backward individuals who disregard human rights, I think of the Arab university students I befriended through weekly meetings with the Arab Student Union in Lod. Every time I hear of how corrupt the Arab education system is, I think of how I actually worked in an Arab school, and the "corrupt" details people mention were nowhere to be found. I am so grateful to have had this eye-opening, life-changing experience that has given me a much more nuanced worldview and openminded perspective on life.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Yom Haatzmaut vs. the Nakba: A Contradiction in Terms?

A valuable lesson we can learn from the film "Pocahontas" is that it is possible to view people in a completely different way than how you originally perceive them. After John Smith expresses to Pocahontas his belief that her people are inferior savages who are undeveloped in their ways of thinking, Pocahontas explains that just because one is different does not mean that he or she is better or worse, and that every group has something to offer. As she articulates clearly in the song "Colors of the Wind," ""If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you'll learn things you never knew you never knew." John Smith carries this lesson throughout the rest of the film, and he learns that Native Americans indeed are not savages and they have a fascinating culture that can provide much intriguing insight and helpful tools to implement in life.

This is a lesson I have taken to heart during my time in Lod. Something I have loved about my Yahel experience is how it has made me view aspects of Israeli society in a totally different way than what I have grown up with. As I have mentioned numerous times on this blog, my experiences working in Lod and meeting Israel's diverse populations has allowed me to gain multiple perspectives on what it is like to live here.

One of my most meaningful experiences came around the time of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. While growing up in a traditional Jewish and pro-Israel community, I always viewed this day with a very joyful and celebratory attitude. When I lived in Jerusalem for a semester two years ago, this attitude persisted as I was surrounded by Zionist Jews who discussed with me the significance of the day, and as I attended gigantic parties during the holiday to acknowledge its momentous meaning for the State of Israel.

This year, while celebrating Yom Haatzmaut in Lod, my holiday celebration was very different. True, I was still surrounded by Jewish Israelis, and there many big parties including a giant concert near the center of the city that held tons of people. However, the day still felt very different because Lod is different from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and most other cities, it is easy to find yourself surrounded by a Jewish population that celebrates your holidays and shares a collective Jewish culture. Lod, however, is a mixed city, and wherever you find Jews you can also find many Arabs. In this regard, the Arab population of Lod played a large role in my understanding of Yom Haatzmaut this year, and this completely changed my perception of the day's overall meaning.

I knew that working with Arab kids at this time of year would mean being exposed to opinions and perceptions of Israeli society that were drastically different than what I was accustomed to. I did not expect, however, to be so profoundly impacted by these different outlooks. One moment that particularly shocked me was hearing the two-minute long memorial siren on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for soldiers and terror victims. The siren sounded during the school day, just as I was beginning one of my small group lessons. It was right after the bell rang, so it was hard to hear, but I was awaiting it and took notice as soon as I heard it. I went to the window of my classroom in order to hear the siren better, and I asked my students to be quiet so I could pay attention. At first, my kids got confused, and some even thought that the siren was from a rocket that was fired. I then explained that this day was a sad day in Israel and the siren was meant to help us remember fallen soldiers and other people who were killed.

I could tell that my kids were reluctant to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I took this moment as one that could teach me a lot about how Israeli Arabs view Israeli society, and I started pushing more for a response. Eventually, some of the fourth graders I had during the siren felt comfortable sharing that they do not like Israeli soldiers and they do not feel they should be remembered in a positive way. They also carry this feeling of disdain to other Israeli officials in uniform, especially policemen, because they feel like they cannot trust these officials to treat them fairly or see them as anything but criminals.

The responses I got from my fifth graders the same day were much more surprising. This group of fifth graders is very bright with great knowledge of both English and Hebrew, so I thought they would feel more positively toward Israel than some of my other groups of students. The response I received, however, when asking about Yom Haatzmaut in particular was not the response I hoped to receive. When asked how they felt about Yom Haatzmaut, one of my kids, Hassan, said he hates the holiday because it marks the beginning of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. He also said that he hates Israel, he hates Jews, and he would prefer to live in Palestine. This is the type of response I would have expected in the beginning of my time in Lod, but after eight months of getting to know the Arabs in this mixed city, I was flabbergasted by this extent of negativity. I was especially surprised when Hassan said he hates Jews, because I have perceived my role as a Jew working with Arabs to be a bridge between the cultures and a way to show the Arabs I work with that not all Jews are bad. I followed up to this statement by asking Hassan if he hates me since I'm Jewish, to which he responded that I am good but all other Jews are bad.

Though this response left me confused and a bit discouraged about my impact on building bridges between Jews and Arabs, it was also very telling for me about how many Israeli Arabs view their roles in Israeli society. Though many Israeli Arabs gather in public spaces and make use of all their society has to offer, especially in Lod, on the inside many feel great animosity toward the events of 1948 when the State of Israel was established, and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. While the exact events are 1948 are contested between the different sides, it is understood by Israeli Arabs that when Israel won the territory for its state it also conquered Arab lands and violently drove out the Arab populations living there. This is why even if I see Arabs at the beach or the movie theatre enjoying the same space as me, in many cases they cannot help but resent Israel for its destructive acts toward the Palestinian people. Due to this, these Arabs cannot feel fully Israeli and take part in Israel's independence celebration. I did see multiple Arabs enjoying themselves at the Yom Haatzmaut concert I attended, so I am sure this does not speak for the whole population. However, from the responses I received from my kids, it is clear that many Israeli Arabs hold hard feelings toward this holiday in particular, in large part due to the detrimental impact it had on their history and identity.

You would think receiving feedback like this would create a negative, pessimistic perception of Israel's future conditions regarding relations between Jews and Arabs. However, one thing my Yahel experience has taught me is in Israel, nothing is as clear as it initially seems, and there are always efforts underway to make the impossible possible. When efforts like this are occurring and multiple sides can have their stories told, I have found that multiple opportunities can arise for dialogue and understanding. My fellow Yahelnikim and I were lucky enough to be exposed to multiple examples of such efforts during a recent five-day seminar in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The first example of such an effort came when we traveled inside an Israeli controlled section of the West Bank near the Gush Etzion Junction, which has been the site of multiple terror attacks recently. There, we visited the compound of Roots, an organization that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to engage in dialogue and learn about the other while developing a mindset of empathy and nonviolence. While at Roots, we spoke to the founder Ali Abu Awwad, who told us much about his fascinating life story and how it motivated him to become active with nonviolence. As you can see here in a TED Talk he presented, Ali grew up in a political Palestinian family and was taught from a young age to hate Israel and rebel against it at any cost. This is why he participated in the First and Second Intifadas, which led to his subsequent arrests by the Israeli police. Ali's animosity toward Israel intensified in November 2000, when his brother was murdered by an Israeli soldier. This event made Ali bent on revenge, thinking an Israeli's brother should be killed so an Israeli can feel the pain he felt.

Ali's thinking fundamentally changed a year later, when he received a phone call saying bereaved Jewish parents wanted to come to his home and help him grieve for his brother. Up until this point, Ali had never heard of Israelis wanting to come to his house, and he never thought it was possible for Jews to cry and grieve just like Palestinians. This is when Ali started to realize that Israelis and Palestinians have much in common and both have much suffering, and instead of acting out through revenge it is possible to end both sides' suffering through nonviolence and dialogue.

Through his work with Roots, Ali has truly been able to make the impossible possible. Not only has he eliminated his own prejudice, which reached an extreme level during his involvement in the First and Second Intifadas, but Ali has also been able to reach out to multiple groups on both sides in order to incorporate many sides of the conflict and achieve a compromise between these different perspectives. For example, Roots recently began including Jewish settlers from the Gush Etzion area in its dialogue sessions, and Ali is confident that these settlers will begin to see Palestinians differently as people with rights and will "add [his] truth to their truth." Another inspiring story Ali told us was one when he was at a security checkpoint and the Israeli soldier present was giving him an unusually hard time while passing through. Ali could have responded with anger and frustration, and spoken out against his unjust treatment. He, however, chose to respond by saying that he acknowledged the soldier has suffered just as much as he has. The soldier, in shock, replied, "This is the first time a Palestinian has recognized my suffering." I am inspired by this story because it shows how it is possible to cross divides that seem so rigid and join together for the sake of a mutual interest in peace. I admire Ali so much for his courage and commitment to nonviolence, and I am hopeful that through people like him peace can occur.

Ali Abu Awwad speaking to us at Roots
Group picture at the Roots compound, near Gush Etzion

I also witnessed this sense of open-mindedness and compromise through the efforts of an organization called the Middle East Religious Peace Initiative, spearheaded by the efforts of Rabbi Michael Melchior. Like Roots, this organization attempts to reach across the political spectrum to engage different groups in dialogue that can encourage greater understanding and recognition of the other. However, what distinguishes Rav Melchior's work is his unconventionality and his willingness to make drastic and risky moves in order to move closer to peace. Throughout his career as a peace activist and social change maker, Rav Melchior has met with representatives from every Israeli and Palestinian group imaginable, including the Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) community, West Bank settlers, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Rav Melchior adamantly believes that in order to create a sustainable peace, each party needs to be actively involved, especially the skeptics.

Just like with Ali, I was inspired by Rav Melchior's motivation to make the impossible possible. Never before had I contemplated sitting with members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad to talk about Israeli-Palestinian peace, let alone having right and left wing Israelis sitting around the same table. However, Rav Melchior's vision of having open dialogues and incorporating all perspectives into a final solution has opened the door to this inclusive, open-minded type of thinking. Rav Melchior has developed many strategies in order to gain the cooperation of all these parties, and I admire how skilled he is at playing to each group's interests in order to motivate them to contribute to his mission (in other words, he is the master at sucking up). One of his techniques that I found particularly interesting was how he utilizes Jewish values without relying strictly on halacha (Jewish law). Since Rav Melchior is an Orthodox rabbi, I expected him to have a much more rigid interpretation of how a Jew should act. However, he mentioned that from his perspective, halacha is not the sole source that guides one to live according to Jewish values, and it should not be the dominant influence on Israeli legislation. Rav Melchior explained that in his mind, having a Jewish state means more so grappling with Jewish texts when contemplating government decisions like taxation and foreign policy, and not preemptively imposing religious will on all citizens. This inclusive discourse allows for more representation and equality among citizens under the law, which has translated into an increased willingness for Jews and non Jews in Israel to collaborate with other groups under Rav Melchior's guidance. In this sense, I believe Rav Melchior has a profound vision that has great potential to foster a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

At the same time, the things I witnessed during my time in Jerusalem and the West Bank also fostered messages of separation and exclusivity. A primary example came from my visit to Susya, a Jewish settlement situated south of Hebron. Our visit to this town began in the ancient Jewish settlement of Susya, which is believed to date back to 1600 years ago (around the 4th century CE). While walking around the historic ruins including a large, beautifully constructed synagogue, I was impressed by how well preserved the structures are and how deep the Jewish connection is to this area I had hardly heard about. While talking to Rav Ariel Rokach, a Susya resident who runs a yeshiva in Rishon L'Zion that Yahel works with, and watching a video describing Susya's ancient artifacts and importance as a sizable population center during the Talmudic era, I got even more intrigued by the town's relevance to Jewish history and how this land had been inhabited by Jews so far back in history. However, I have been taught by my experiences with Yahel to always consider different narratives, and at the same time as looking at these ruins I knew that this strong Jewish narrative was overshadowing a Palestinian narrative to this land that needed to be explored.

Ancient Susya




Susya's ancient synagogue




Listening to Rav Kokach in the new synagogue of Susya

Though I did not know much about Susya prior to my visit, I had been exposed to an article in Haaretz that discussed a pending demolition of a Palestinian village called Khirbat Susya located adjacent to the Jewish settlement. The Israeli government intended to demolish the village because it was built without a permit in Area C, the area of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. The international community was in uproar about this decision, with many foreign governments putting pressure on Israel to rethink its decision. The rationale against Israel's intention to demolish was just as there is a historical Jewish connection to the area, the Palestinians living there also have historical ties. This claim was legitimized last year when a document was found describing Ottoman land ownership in the Susya area dating back to the year 1881.

It is always hard to contemplate competing narratives to the same land, but when thinking about both the Jewish and Palestinian connections to Susya, it was especially challenging to grapple with how this point of contention can be resolved. There has been a lot of talk of Israel giving away certain parts of the West Bank as part of a peace agreement, but how can Israel give away land that has such a deep historical connection for Jews? At the same time, how can Palestinians accept relinquishing their claim to land they also have a strong historical connection to? This dilemma became even more problematic for me when my group went to Rav Rokach's home and spoke to him and his wife. Throughout the conversation, they were both adamant about Samaria being the land where the Bible took place and a place where Jews have a "rooted connection" that compels them to live in their historical land. They also consistently mentioned their desire to have Jews "be sure in [their] way" and unapologetically recognize their right and religious duty to live in this land.

Something that was sorely missing throughout this conversation was the notion that not everyone has the same "way" as Rav Kokach, especially Palestinians, and those people should not be expected to follow his way. While listening to Rav Kokach amd his wife speak, I was looking for a willingness to be open-minded and compromise that was present in my conversations with Ali Abu Awwad and Rav Melchior. I found, however, that the residents of Susya feel more compelled to stick to their own community than branch out and collaborate with their Palestinian neighbors. Rav Kokach's wife explained that she remembers having "friendly relations" with her Arab neighbors until hostilities during the Second Intifada increased tensions. She also mentioned that when settlers first came to Susya, it was important for them to get the land legally and "not ignore the people who were living [there]", in order to prevent one from saying that they took other peoples' land.

From this statement, I could infer that Susya residents have good intentions toward their Palestinian neighbors and do not want to provoke hostility against them. However, the ways Rav Kokach and his wife spoke about Palestinians as the conversation progressed presented a very different tone that contradicted their seemingly friendly and receptive demeanor. Having witnessed Palestinian villages and towns in Area C prior to our visit to Susya and seeing their lack of infrastucture and resources compared to neighboring Israeli settlements, our group was very interested in the reasoning for this disparity and how Jews in the West Bank think about this issue. This seemed especially relevant concerning Susya, which has a developed system of roads, holds a large and beautiful synagogue, and supports dozens of religious families with children. In response to our questions about this issue, Rav Kokach said that the Israeli government has tried to provide more water and infrastructure for the Palestinians and they simply do not want it. One of my fellow Yahelniks, Devon, followed up to his response by proposing the idea of a communal swimming pool in Susya that both the Jews and Palestinians there could benefit from, which could also allow Israel to help improve the Palestinians' quality of life. Nevertheless, Rav Kokach replied to this by saying it is pointless to attempt such a collaboration with the Palestinians because they "do not want help" and would resist any effort by Israelis to provide them with services. From this message, our group gathered that Rav Kokach and other Susya residents are unwilling to take initiative and help create more sustainable lifestyles for their Palestinian neighbors who lack basic resources.

The situation I observed in Susya, with the residents unwilling to approach their Palestinian neighbors with an open-minded attitude, seemed very discouraging regarding the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Just like my student on Yom Haatzmaut, these people were presenting a very one-sided narrative that ignored the possibility that other perspectives could also be valid. With this in mind, it is easy to consider that there is no way to negotiate a sustainable peace when so many refuse to be open to other people's narratives. However, my meetings with individuals like Ali Abu Awwad and Rav Michael Melchior have allowed me to think otherwise. From these meetings, I have learned that even when another group's narrative is perceivably in total opposition to your own, it is entirely possible to listen to what that group has to say and arrive at a common goal that both groups can work toward. If Ali, after everything he went through, was able to find a way to trust and engage in dialogue with Israelis, other Palestinians and Israelis should be able to find a way to come together and develop a mutual respect that can lead to a lasting peace. True, there will continue to be tensions, and these challenges will encourage people to say that peace is not possible. However, my experiences on Yahel have showed me that there are initiatives in place that are successfully engaging groups in dialogue and understanding, and I am confident that if these initiatives continue to spread there will be a very bright outcome in the near future.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

How Many Types of Israelis Can You Name?

One of the most common games we play with our Lod program coordinator, Mike, is called splategories. Participants begin this game by sitting in a circle and having one person say, "How many types of ___ can you name?" The participants then go around the circle naming items in that category until someone messes up, at which point we say, "SPLAT!"

I love Mike and the activities he presents to us. However, with all the matters I am facing in my work here, there have been days when I have lacked the motivation to participate in an activity that seems childish and counterproductive. While I have been focusing on helping my kids and dealing with Lod's major problems, with particular focus on school violence, I have occasionally found it trivial to take a break from this important work and have a day dedicated to playing games. What I have begun to realize, though, is that there can be significant meaning found in the most simple of activities. True, when I am playing this game I am just thinking of naming fruits, cities in Israel, or types of trees (thanks to my roommate Becca J). However,  the nature of this game also reflects the notion of diversity, which is especially relevant to my work in Lod and Israel in general.

While living in Israel, I have been especially fortunate to explore the significant diversity among my fellow Jews in the ways we think and act. At the same time, observing the groups of Jews from around the world who are living in Israel has shown me that even though we have different traditions, there are still central ideas that unite us as members of the Jewish people. Luckily, there has been no better time to capture these two notions in Israel than the past couple of weeks, during the observances of Pesach and Yom HaShoah.

While spending Pesach in Israel this year, I had so many chances to feel connected to my fellow Jews and different components of my Jewish heritage. I loved having the chance to travel around the country and explore the unique areas of Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Beer Sheva, Kfar Saba, Caesarea, Akko, and Rosh Hanikra. The trips I took were very special because they reminded me of the main reasons I came to love Israel in the first place: its insurmountable importance in the history of the Jewish people and its ability to contain so much diversity in terms of landscape and Jews from all walks of life.

For these reasons, the places I probably enjoyed the most were Beer Sheva and Rosh Hanikra. I loved Beer Sheva because it is one of Israel's many great examples of a city that combines ancient and modern. When walking through the streets of Beer Sheva and looking at its big malls, cozy cafes and restaurants, and intimate pedestrian walkways with shops and entertainment venues, it is hard to imagine that this city also held importance during the Biblical period and was home to Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. The place I cherished the most in Beer Sheva was Abraham's Well, which according to tradition is the place where Abraham and Sarah settled when they lived and received guests in Beer Sheva. The ancient well is surrounded by a massive visitor's center that contains different attractions for visitors about the life of Abraham, including a short movie, and actors dressed as Abraham and Sarah who greet the visitors and share the site's story. While making my way through the site, I was inspired by how prevalent the Jewish history and stories I grew up with was featured in the middle of this modern city, and how relevant it was for all the Israeli vistors I saw walking alongside me. At moments like this, I know I am in a country in which the society as a whole is uniquely connected to my identity and my heritage, and this makes me feel very much at home.





Another place I went to that truly left an impact was Rosh Hanikra. I had been to Rosh Hanikra many times before, but like with many sites in Israel, it is so special that every time feels like the first time. Located on the Mediterranean coast next to the border with Lebanon, Rosh Hanikra is comprised of beautiful marble cliffs and breathtaking grottoes where the waves of the Mediterranean smash against and completely engulf the rocks. I always used to go here as part of group trips to Israel, and it was always a reminder of the awe-inspiring beauty that exists in the Jewish state. I have been to many beautiful places in my life, but nothing has ever compared to the feeling of being right next to the waves crashing on the rocks in the grottoes. The fact that this beautiful sight exists within a short distance of other beautiful spots in nature, such as valleys, mountains, and desert, within a small country has also always amazed me. The diversity of natural beauty in this country has inspired me to maintain a strong connection to Israel and is one of the biggest reasons why I keep coming back.








Over Pesach, I was also inspired by the people I met and the Jewish traditions I was able to take part in. Of course, one of the most prominent rituals that occurred during the holiday was the Pesach seder. This year, I decided to stay in Lod and go to seder with my host family. To my surprise and interest, I did not notice any drastic differences between how the seder was conducted with my host family and with my family in the US. True, there were some foods like rice and lettuce that were featured more prominently on the seder table this year (though now more Conservative Jews in the US are accepting rice and legumes into their Pesach diet) , and the readings from the haggadah went a lot quicker because everyone except for me was a native Hebrew speaker. However, the songs, readings, and rituals were all the same, and there was at no point where I felt unfamiliar with the customs. It made me feel very comforted to know that even though I was halfway across the world from home, I was in an environment where there were other Jews practicing my customs and I could also feel at home.

At the same time, I was also inspired by my exposure to Pesach customs that are very different from the ones I grew up with. One of my favorite traditions I learned about was that of Mimouna, a celebration that occurs at the end of Pesach when Jews can start eating chametz. Mimouna is a tradition brought to Israel by Moroccan Jews, and at the center of it is a sweet dish called a mufleta, which looks and tastes similar to a crepe. After having five of those (as the hosts made sure I did), I definitely felt the joy of finally being able to eat chametz again! The family that hosted me, which is friendly with family friends of mine who live in Kfar Saba, also had tasty cookies, cake, and beer, and of course lively conversation. While sitting at the table, I listened to the family's father figure speak in Hebrew about his early life in Morocco, coming to Israel as an immigrant, and keeping his traditions intact while living in his new country. I felt really special that instead of having my usual end of Pesach celebration with tons of pizza, I decided to learn about a unique tradition that celebrates the same holiday I celebrate but in a different and creative way. Attending this celebration also gave me the sense that I was allowed this opportunity because I was in Israel, the Jewish homeland where so many Jewish cultures from around the world can exist together.

My entire Pesach celebration was very special because it provided me many examples of both Jewish interconnectedness and diversity among Jews. It also reminded me of the strong Jewish connection I have with Israel and the initial bonds I formed with the country, which is not something I have had the chance to think about much through my participation on Yahel. My time on Yahel has exposed me greatly to the periphery of Israel, especially the Arab and Ethiopian populations, and the many pressing issues Israeli society is facing. While learning about these aspects has been very rewarding, it was great to have some time to reflect on what made me fall in love with Israel in the first place.

Another special way I connected with Jewish Israeli society was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was very meaningful to know that the entire country came together on this solemn day to remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This was especially apparent during a two-minute siren, at which the whole country stopped and everyone on the roads got out of their cars to pay tribute to those who died in the Holocaust. I witnessed a siren next to a busy street in the center of Lod, and was shocked to see how many people actually stopped their cars and stood in the middle of the street for the full two minutes. I was similarly impressed by the conviction young Israelis have in signifying the meaning of this important day. On the evening of Yom HaShoah, I attended a student-organized event that featured a Holocaust survivor telling her story. From the large number of university students in attendance, I knew that these generally cheerful individuals understood the solemn mood of this day and took this oman's story very seriously. I was able to gather this even more after the event, when I was invited to watch "The Boy with the Striped Pajamas" at one of the students' apartments. I had seen the movie before and knew how sad it was going to be, and I expected my fellow American Yahelniks to feel the same. I did not expect, however, for the Israelis present, especially the young men who had to serve in the army, to get so emotional. As I looked over at the Israelis, I saw many either crying or curled up next to each other during the most provocative parts of the movie. Though the subject matter was far from happy, I really appreciated seeing how strongly I could relate to these young Israelis through our common remembrance.

My experiences during Pesach and Yom HaShoah in Israel have showed me the beauty of unity: as a Jewish people, as the State of Israel, and as humanity as a whole. However, these experiences, as well as my time on Yahel in general, have also taught me of the beauty that diversity holds within a community. This is a message the Lod Yahel group is trying to get across through our community project. To solidify our legacy in Lod, each Lod volunteer is reaching out to his/her volunteer placements to spread the message of yofi b'givun (beauty in diversity). We have begun conducting discussions at the schools, nonprofits, and community centers we work at about what Lod means to each individual and the value of diversity in Lod. We are also planning on having representatives from our different placements come together to create a big mosaic in the center of the city. With this beautiful creation coming from Lod's many different groups, we hope to capture the notion that diversity truly is beautiful.


From living in Lod and through my exposure to different aspects of Israeli society, I can truly say that Israel is a diverse country with so many components, and that is one of its most beautiful and unique aspects. From now on, whenever I play splategories (which has become a group favorite among the Yahelniks), I will appreciate the many items in each category as an indication of the diversity that lies in our world. As I approach my final month on the Yahel Social Change Program, I am taking this notion to heart and am trying hard to appreciate the diversity in my city as much as I can. After I leave Lod on July 1, who knows when I will next talk to an Arab or Ethiopian, or make an effort to interact with a Jew with very different customs from my own. I do, however, know that the time I have had meeting people from diverse backgrounds over the past eight months has allowed me to learn so much about humanity and life, and that is something I will carry with me. I know for sure that after I leave Yahel, I will forever be the champion of the splategories category, "How many types of Israelis can you name?"