Blog

Backed by Hope

This blog post is written by Michael Cass, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in Lod.




I have been completely taken aback by communities across the globe, but few have had me questioning both myself and factors around me as quickly as the one here in Lod. The first few weeks have been a mixture of many things -- excitement, for the potential impact that us fellows can have here, meeting the people that will be our roommates for the next 9 months, exhaustion after busy days, the weather has been hot, I don't have a car here, and not many people speak English in Lod. I also feel appreciative to have Racheli as our Lod City Coordinator. There's also the feelings from settling in, learning all of the little cheat codes and short cuts for getting around and getting by, completing your first grocery shopping trip in a new city, and filling up your spice cupboard. Despite these emotions, having applied for the fellowship at late stages and with the intensity of the first weeks of orientation, I hadn’t really processed my overall emotions. I saw our day trip to Jerusalem, on our last day of orientation month, as a potential opportunity to ground myself.

I was sitting with a couple of the Lod fellows as we waited for our tour guide. One of us mentioned that they always felt super connected and present when in Jerusalem. I mentioned my own intentions to stay mindful and aware throughout the day in an attempt to find that moment that might ground me. We moved on to discuss how appreciative we are of our situation in Lod. We felt that we have a really great team of different people, coming from different angles and filling in each other’s gaps. Our Lod cohort seems like a reflection of the city of Lod itself, with the various amazing organisations here serving the diverse communities in totally different, but complimentary ways. As we were discussing this, the song “Better Together” by Jack Johnson came on the speakers in the cafe, a song I had suggested for our first Shabbat sing along with the theme of togetherness. Synergy was in the air. We were off to a good start.

The first thing that hit me as I entered the Old City of Jerusalem was all of the different aromas coming out of the small, tavern like restaurants around every corner, built into the rocks like something out of Flea Bottom in Kings Landing. Each scent, however, was cut through, then sewed back together again by the consistent smell of charcoal that danced through the air towards me. The next and most obvious thing was the diversity of the individuals making up this bustling city. Seen in isolation, you could be forgiven for thinking you were back in ancient times, as you looked up and saw a Chassidic Jew storming towards you, eyes down, or a jolly Armenian Christian, bobbing along with something up his sleeves.

As orientation month came to an end, with the start of our day-to-day volunteer work in sight, I wondered if positive change here in Lod could set the tone for Jerusalem and the wider conflict.

A world away, this also vibrant community in Lod has a gritty way about it. It’s not as despairing as some communities I have visited, in South-East Asia or India for example, but just as unapologetic. Keep your wits and count your change because if you get screwed over, it’s because you deserve it. Despite this, you do get a real sense of community -- that those same people that had just short-changed you would be there instantly in times of acute need. I thought back to similarities with Jerusalem as a melting pot of relations between the different communities and faiths in Israel. Tensions between Jews and Arabs have inevitably existed here since 1948 as a vast majority of the Arab community was displaced. In the 1980s, Arabs moved back into the Lod, taking up accommodation that was vacated by Jews who moved out when the city fell on hard times. Around 20 years later, The Garin Torani, a group of religious Jews that aim to reconnect communities to religious Judaism, and bring about a version of social change, moved into the city. Some claim this was done with the aim of attracting young religious couples to provide a kick start to the economy, with others claiming it was to inject a Jewish presence back into the area. Alongside all this, varying sizes of Ethiopian, Eritrean, Russian and Indian communities’ live side by side. As orientation month came to an end, with the start of our day-to-day volunteer work in sight, I wondered if positive change here in Lod could set the tone for Jerusalem and the wider conflict.

As we begin to find out where our volunteer placements will be, I am looking forward to integrating myself further into the daily lives of the people here. I've had my first snippets: meeting Lia at her garden and watching her eyes light up when she talked about how her incredibly cute, young friend, Toffee, had been helping in her garden for a number of years; negotiating a situation with the local bulldog shop owner, whereby my card was charged twice for a pair of scales; using my unparalleled charm to accrue friends in high places, like those working at the supermarket to assist with my many and frequent needs; and meeting the owner of a local Indian grocery shop and buying some Masala Chai and more spices than any one man needs. When discussing his journey here and how prevalent his Judaism was to him, he indicted his feelings of obligation to being here due to his faith.

The Indian shop owner, not outwardly presenting himself as a religious man, moved from Mumbai due to that feeling of obligation, a sense he could not escape. Our own mini community of six, holds a range of religiosity, but even the secular members of the Lod cohort have expressed desires of learning more about the religion, or observing some level of Shabbat. In the UK, I find most people are very much all or nothing. I am proud of my Judaism and recognise it most days. However, I struggle to reconcile my lack of belief in a Jewish god with the logic behind following specific rules, outside of a holistic attempt to be “good”. With this in mind, I question the reason behind integrating any of the laws or traditions into my life. This battle raged on inside me in the build up to Yom Kippur, early days in Lod that now seem like a lifetime ago. I did, however, find myself in Shul over the holiday. Siting with my new friends, Yankie and Dror, I witnessed a profound moment, not only between them but throughout the room of worshippers. It was a moment where I felt lucky to be there to just observe. During the High Priest’s blessing, fathers wrapped their sons in their Tallits. You could see hands clinging to each other in a moment of protection and embrace. It was a stunning moment of faith, but more-so of hope for their lives and futures.

This feeling of hope has resonated throughout my experience here thus far. Like the charcoal aroma swirling into your senses in Jerusalem, the hope might be the fabric that is sewing together different communities here, even if they don’t quite realise it yet. Despite the challenges, this hope is never more prevalent than in the minds and beliefs of the people we meet here every day. It seemed fitting that we visited Jerusalem the day after one of the most unprecedentedly, profound meetings in Lod. On our very last day of Lod based orientation, we met an ordinary looking woman, at an ordinary looking, one rack open library, in a square near one of the orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods. The library was being held up by green pillars of a seemingly incomplete, planned build that had been abandoned in favour of larger priorities. The woman who proudly operated this ordinary, but important structure, spoke to us of her own partial abandonment by her community, due to her progressive work in aspects of Orthodox life, such as encouraging women in sport. She also shared with us of her inspiration in establishing the library to bring together Jewish and Arab kids from around Lod. So far in Lod, we have met few, if any Orthodox Jews, actively making waves in bringing together these two eternally distant communities. Hope presents itself in some unlikely places if you look hard enough.

The hope that people here hold for the individuals within their communities seems based on a steadfast belief in their potential. We have been exposed to this throughout Lod, in places such as Tek’aryera an NGO furthering opportunities in the Tech industry for the Ethiopian community. Additionally, The Young Adult Centre, The Abraham Initiatives, and Harel School have presented their faith in young Jews and Arabs to be the light unto the older generations in working towards shared society. One important message Yahel impressed upon us from the beginning was that as service providers, we are there to support existing work being done by people who already know the needs and resources of the communities. Based on the passion these people have, I think this is an important message to remind ourselves of regularly during our time here.

Standing with my head against the smoother than expected Western Wall, I reflected on this hope, and the hope that I had for the fellowship in all three of our cities. In realising the support that we had from this infinite strand of hope that's running through every aspect of what we were doing here, a weight lifted and my feet finally touched Israeli ground for the first time.