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Shofars and Social Justice: An Exploration of Ramat Eliyahu’s Religious Communities

Today’s participant blog post comes from Jens Jacobsen, a participant of the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

When you decide to move to a foreign country, city, neighbourhood and community with the goal of having an impact for social change, the most pressing question hits you more or less right once you arrive; where do we possibly start?! Of course there are a lot of ways that we tackle that issue, and a big part of it is figuring just exactly where we are. Community mapping is an activity where in groups we walked through the streets of Ramat Eliyahu (which we’d lived in a few months), and created a map based on the things that really stand out (or are notably missing). While there are a hundred things to talk about from this process, one thing that each group made special note of is the high concentration of synagogues – when you walk street to street here they are entirely ubiquitous, it’s fairly rare if there isn’t at least one on each medium-size street. This isn’t to say this is a super religious neighbourhood – we do have a healthy mix of the secular and the religious here, just also a LOT of synagogues.

Coming as I do from a small city in Canada 100 km from the nearest Synagogue (which has service only once per month!), the experience of seeing a synagogue on nearly every block was quite an adjustment! There are a whopping 34 synagogues here in Ramat Eliyahu, of which 22 are Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern), 5 Yemenite, and only 2 are Ashkenazi (European). My home community is predominantly Reform/Conservative and Ashkenazi, so this is about as different as I could have asked for.

I’ve attended only a handful so far, but I can definitely say that the richness and strength of this community is much greater than is immediately visible. The diversity within these synagogues has surprised me as well; it’s not uncommon for an Ethiopian to pray alongside an immigrant from India, all within a synagogue built primarily for a Moroccan community.

Now for the question; beyond the obvious curiosity of the matter, why bother? Why are the religious beliefs of this neighbourhood anything more than a fascinating statistic? Don’t worry, I’m not about to get religious on you.

Natan Sharansky, a famous Refusenik and campaigner for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union writes;

“My interest in helping other persecuted peoples was an important part of my own freedom – a freedom that became real only after I returned to my Jewish roots… Only he who understands his own identity and has already become a free person can work effectively for the human rights of others.”

While this quote specifically refers to other ethnic groups in the USSR, this notion is by no means restricted a particular context. Whether we are relating with Sephardic, Ashkenazi or Ethiopian communities, with religious and non-religious, with Sudanese refugees or with our Arab neighbours, Sharansky posits that with a deep-rooted, confident sense of self within your identity, culture, and philosophical/religious tradition, you can unreservedly and with full respect support another human being, not as one who has all the answers, but as one who truly understands the complexity of another’s worldview.

Is Sharansky right? Unclear – though what is clear is that as our group continues to push the comfort zone, make more connections within our incredibly diverse community and put ourselves out there for what we believe is right, Jewish foundations of social justice are becoming more and more relevant to explore . To finish with another quote from Sharansky;

“The shofar is narrow at one end and wide at the other. Nothing happens if you blow into the wide end. But if you blow into the narrow end, the call of the shofar rings loud and true.”

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