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What Being in Israel has Taught Me About Being Jewish in the Diaspora

December 17, 2019

 

Leora is a current fellow with the Yahel Social Change Fellowship 2019-2020 cohort, living and volunteering in Rishon LeZion. Read her thoughts on recent tragedy in the United States and how it informs her experience in Israel. The Yahel community is deeply saddened by the recent events in New Jersey and holds the community in our thoughts and prayers. 

 

The author, far left, and her roommates with their Hannukkah cookies.  

 

 

     This past Tuesday night, I sat in my apartment in Ramat Eliyahu— where I’ve been living and volunteering for the past two and a half months— playing Hanukkah songs on YouTube, singing along to the lyrics with my roommates, and decorating sugar cookies in anticipation of the upcoming Jewish holiday. I was blissfully chewing on my third sugar cookie of the night when one of my roommates looked up from her phone, stared directly at me and said, “Apparently there was a shooting in Jersey City,” a city about 18 miles south of my hometown. As the only 2019-2020 Yahel fellow from New Jersey, people direct all Garden State-related comments to me. Unfortunately, her comment didn’t faze me— at first. In 2019 alone, there have been 409 mass shootings in the United States, with an average of 1.22 mass shootings per day. 

 

     “It was in a kosher supermarket,” my roommate continued. I sat up a little straighter and immediately started googling everything I could, to find out about what happened. Over the next few days, police confirmed that in fact, this shooting was a targeted, anti-semitic attack. I cringed as I watched videos of the assailant walking past people on the street and directly into the supermarket, where he opened fire and killed three people. I cringed harder when I watched a video of the local population blaming these Jews for the attack, and expressing delight at their neighbors’ murders. 

 

     It’s scary to know that such extreme antisemitism exists a mere 18 miles south of my house, and that it could also easily exist in my very own town, a place full of Jews and Israeli immigrants. 

                                                                                                                ***

     Over the course of the Yahel fellowship, our cohort has had many discussions about what it means to be Jewish in Israel. We came to the consensus that being Jewish doesn’t mean anything particularly special in this country. Out of 8.7 million residents, 74.2% identify as Jewish. So, when I walk the streets of Rishon Lezion, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it feels as if everyone is Jewish. If I see a supermarket, there’s a likely chance that it’s kosher. If I see a school, there’s a likely chance that it’s filled with only Jewish students. If I meet a random person on the street, there’s a likely chance that he or she is Jewish. 

 

     In the United States, by contrast, there are pockets of Jewish communities along the coasts, some southern states and a couple midwestern states. If you don’t live in one of those communities, you’ll  be hard-pressed to find any kosher food, synagogues or Jewish schools that are in commutable distances. And even if you do live in one of those Jewish communities, there will always be a majority of non-Jews in the surrounding areas. For instance, in my hometown, there is an Israeli-style kosher supermarket directly next to a non-kosher Chinese restaurant. It’s also a two minute drive from the public high school, which enrolls hundreds of students from all ethnicities and religions. So too, in Jersey City; the Hasidic community lives among a local non-Jewish population, and has opened a kosher supermarket and yeshiva in the midst of their neighbors. 

 

     After living in Israel for the past two-and-half months, I realize that I feel safer walking into a kosher supermarket here than I do in the United States. Yes— Israel is chronically under threat, but that’s been the case for the past 71 years, so the IDF is well-equipped and always prepared to protect its Jewish citizens. In the U.S. and throughout the diaspora, being Jewish is now a marker of otherness, of being a minority in your own country. If people want to find a kosher supermarket, a synagogue, or a Jewish school, they have to seek it out. And in doing so, they become a target. They never know if their own neighbors might turn on them, just as they did in Jersey City, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and too many more to count. 

 

     It’s easy for Jewish Israeli citizens, who have never lived in the diaspora, to take for granted the ease of walking into a kosher restaurant, a Shabbat dinner, or wearing a kippah out in public. Not long ago, it felt safe to do the same in the United States. Now, my own Synagogue, as well as every Jewish day school I attended, and hundreds of others across the country are on high alert with armed guards at the entrances. After the incident in Jersey City, all Jewish businesses in my area are also staying vigilant. Europe’s Jewish communities have been on even higher alert years before us. 

 

     This leaves me with one question: are Jews truly safe anywhere in the world? Although Israel isn’t immune to threats and attacks, it might be the closest thing we have as Jews to a safe haven. 


 

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