Today’s participant blog post comes from Benji Bernstein, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. The group is living, learning and volunteering in Rishon LeZion, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Benji’s personal travel blog.
Just wanted to start out by saying that I am very excited to be starting this blog to record my thoughts and experiences this year. I was not initially planning to keep a blog, but after being here for just over two weeks, I have decided that I really do need this place to reflect on, and record, some of the most meaningful and eye-opening moments over these next nine months.
For those who may not know, I am currently in training to serve for the year as a volunteer community organizer in the developing Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion, Israel. The community is largely comprised of Jewish Ethiopian immigrants, many of whom came to Israel by way of the covert Israeli military evacuations of Ethiopian Jews from both Sudan and Ethiopia (due to famine in Sudan and political instability in Ethiopia). Operation Moses, the mass evacuation from Sudan, occurred in 1984, while Operation Solomon took place in 1991. As a result, much of the millennial and post-millennial generations of Ethiopian Jews in Israel are first-generation Israelis, and in the short time that I have been here, I am already starting to pick up on the subtle cultural identity divide between the native Ethiopian parents and their Israeli-born children. Once the year here really gets going, I will definitely be posting more on that, and many more related topics.
For now, I just have to write about what’s been on my mind the most. The last few days in the region have seen an uptick in violence across Jerusalem and the West Bank. While many of us volunteering here were planning to visit the Old City of Jerusalem for the festive and celebratory holiday of Simchat Torah, myself and several others decided at the last minute not to make the trek to the holy city amidst all of the tension and uncertainty. As someone who has a strong connection to the people and culture of the State of Israel, this decision has been weighing heavy on my mind for the past couple of days. Just two years ago, I was in Jerusalem, studying abroad for five months at Hebrew University, and while there, I never felt any real sense of threat or danger. Although I guess that these two different experiences of Jerusalem are part of the nature of living in Israel. The problems are fluid. Life and society go on no matter the situation on the ground. Sometimes they proceed in surrounding quiet. At other times, there are battles being fought just a few miles away from the hip neighborhood of Tel Aviv where you are relaxing with your coffee. This is part of the authentic Israeli experience.
Another more beautiful part of the Israeli experience is the unparalleled and sustained societal warmth–a warmth that is truly inescapable. For instance, last night when I told one of the Yahel staff members that I would no longer be traveling to Jerusalem, he and his family instantly invited me over for the holiday dinner at their house. Of course I took them up on the kind invitation, and I am now so glad that I did. The parents and siblings welcomed me into their home with open arms. They were curious about my life in America–about my local Jewish community, and what I thought about being in Israel. I tried to explain everything as best I could in my still developing Hebrew, but what was so special to me was the way they truly made me feel a part of their home. The mother shoved food onto my plate, and of course insisted that I take more after my first two helpings. The conversation ranged from politics, to the local community, and even to Tupac for a few minutes. I felt as though the common roots we share were enough for them to treat me like a true cousin–not just a visitor from overseas. Out of the four siblings, the youngest brother was the one cracking all the jokes and making trouble at the table, and at one point I even turned to everyone and said how much he reminded me of my own youngest brother (whadup Coby?!). Anyway, the company was great, the Yemenite cuisine was delicious, and the strong sense of family and community was infectious.
On a deeper note, I think that the spontaneity of this night was a true metaphor for the nation of Israel. When things here become unpredictable, and when tensions begin to heighten, they do not become what define the country. People improvise. If plans need to be changed, so what? HaKol beseder (which roughly translates to “it’s all good.” The warmth and beauty of the community and culture of this country are still there–through thick and thin. It’s part of what makes this place strong, and what enables it to endure. Right now, strangers in the street are still saying Chag Sameach to one another, and the exquisite smells of multicultural holiday meals are still wafting throughout the streets.
I just want to be clear that this thought was not meant to be political in any way. I understand that there are a host of difficult and complex reasons for the increased tensions in Israel at this time, and would welcome a long one-on-one conversation with anyone who would wish to discuss. This was simply a reflection of my current thinking on Israeli culture and society. Thanks so much for taking the time to read.