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Building Communities in Israel

Today's blog post is written by Claire, a member of the 2019-2020 Yahel Social Change Fellowship. Claire is living for 9 months in Lod.

This weekend marked our first contextual learning seminar of the fellowship, and we traveled to the Galilee region to learn about intentional communities and community-building in Israel. We visited places such as Kibbutz Hannaton, where members practice multiple streams of Judaism together, the Garin Torani community, which has sought to strengthen the Jewish character of Nazareth Illit (also known as Nof HaGalil), and the urban Kibbutz Mishon, whose members live communally and work for social justice in their neighborhood. Moving in and out of different communities and social spaces was hardly a new experience for us. In fact, the Yahel fellowship program prioritizes immersion with the many diverse communities that make up Lod through our various placements. On any given day, we might work with Arab Israelis, Ethiopian Israelis, Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, Eritrean migrants, Jews from the former Soviet Union, and so on. Focusing on intentional communities this weekend, however, left me thinking more deeply about the practice of community-building. In moving among these different spaces, hearing and seeing how different groups work to create their own spaces, I became increasingly aware of how structures of power have a deep influence on who gets to build community and how.

As a part of the seminar, we sat down in a religious school in Nazareth Illit and spoke with a member of the Garin Torani movement there. Members of the Garin Torani movement settle in underdeveloped neighborhoods and cities and run social and religious programming aimed at lifting up struggling Jewish communities there. In places such as Lod and Nazareth Illit, the Garin Torani community works closely with local governments to advance development in the city by strengthening the Jewish community there. One example that stuck out to me in particular was how the Garin Torani community was able to establish the only state-religious school in the city in partnership with the local government. The story caught my attention because it contrasted sharply with another story that I had heard about Nazareth Illit only a few weeks earlier through my placement with The Abraham Initiatives, an organization that seeks to ensure full political and social rights for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. I attended a panel in Haifa called “Mixed Cities, Different Circumstances,” during which Nesreen Morcus, activist from the Arab community in Nazareth Illit, spoke about the difficulties her community has faced in opening an Arab school for the approximately 2,500 Arab youth living in the city. Despite laws requiring the establishment of an Arab school given the size of the community now living in Nazareth Illit, the previous mayor and municipal council repeatedly refused, and the legal case put forward by parents remains tied up in the court system.

The contrast between the two stories of education in Nazareth Illit highlighted the ways in which structures of power influence how communities are built and maintained. Morcus described how the Arab population of Nazareth Illit barely constitutes a community since they are scattered throughout the city without a central space, like a school, to bring them together. The Garin Torani movement, on the other hand, was able to leverage its shared ideology with the local government to quickly establish its own institutions through which members can strengthen their community. Though community-building is inherently a grassroots effort, it quickly becomes clear that building from the bottom-up becomes far easier and more effective when a movement already has connections up high.

Seeing how structures of power influence community building in Israeli society has also made me reflect on our own position as Yahel fellows in this country. I heard these stories and have begun to recognize inequalities between various community-building efforts in Israel because I was welcomed into both a state-religious school in Nazareth Illit and a panel in the Arab-Jewish Cultural Center of Haifa. As an American on a program that has strong connections across Israeli society, I am able to live, work, and affect social change among different communities in Lod and across Israel. For me, recognizing my privileged place within Israeli society comes with a responsibility to continue learning about different communities in Israel, models for social change, and ways to advance social justice.

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