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Growth Under Concrete : Footprints of a Ghost

This blog post was written by Ethan Harris-Riggs, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Lod.

I’m a Yahel fellow volunteering for nine months in the city of Lod with a focus on shared society through a social-justice-oriented lens. It’d be appropriate for this article to focus on the impending judiciary reform or criticize the negligible processes of refugee resettlement in this country… We could cover the occupation of Palestine or the mechanisms of the school to military pipeline… Honestly, there's plenty we could cover about this young, explosive, developing country. We’d probably come out on the other end feeling a bit more informed, concerned, and even proud of ourselves for taking the time. But, I am not going to pretend to have a voice in any of these matters. I’m an artist and educator from Los Angeles and I don’t know much about any of that. So, let’s focus on something closer to home. Let’s explore something I’ve found to be both sacred and fundamental to a community here in Lod and perhaps, to every community.

Let’s talk about Shelter.

Shelter: Someplace beneath, behind, or within in which a person, animal, or thing is protected from adverse conditions.

The Ancient and Modern Landscape of The Old City, Lod. 2016.

Lod possesses a very unique landscape, in large part due to its ancient history. The city is located in the Mercaz and has a population upward of eighty-five thousand. It is one of eight mixed-cities in Israel. Next to Jericho, Lod is the most ancient city in the world. Today, however, there are only a few remaining visible relics of its eight thousand year old history.

In order for an ancient site to be preserved, it must first be considered as “historically significant” by the state of Israel, and it’s important to note the historical sites which have been preserved. There’s a Mosaic Museum which dates back to ancient Rome as well as several places of worship which have been preserved for centuries. Aside from a handful of these ancient landmarks, which are primarily intended to draw tourism, the city’s most visibly ancient remnants can be found in the dirt roads of The Old City. A former fellow, Josh Socher, said in his post, Lod is “…an iceberg of a city… its true nature is below the surface of what is visible”.

In 1951, three years after Israel declared its independence, the country instituted a civil defense law requiring all homes and workplaces to be equipped with “safe rooms”. In May 2021, politically and racially motivated protests broke out in the streets of Lod. Simultaneously, rockets struck down upon Lod from Gaza. Within days, the protests turned into violent riots. Naturally, many residents attempted to flee the city. Unfortunately, for many, it wasn’t so easy to flee straight away. Most residents required police escorts and military aid to evacuate, but law enforcement was negligibly unresponsive. As the riots escalated on the streets, civilians had no choice but to seek refuge in their respective shelters.

The chaos of May 2021 lasted for two weeks in Lod. When it subsided, the available real estate of the families who moved out incentivized many young families to move in. There is speculation as to whether incoming residents are migrating to Lod in order to maintain Jewish majority of the city, or if they’re moving for more practical reasons such as a means to bolster the economy, which is already governed by Jewish municipality. Regardless, the influx of residents is demanding of the real estate of Lod at large. Lod is now becoming one of the most rapidly developing cities in Israel.

For you number freaks out there: there was a 50% spike of residential sites that went under development in Lod from July 2021 - June 2022. Today, development is still underway and it’s apparent the moment you step foot outside your door. There is construction around every corner. It’s absurd. We are looking at over 11,500 apartments, 600 assisted living units, 4,500 housing units, and upwards of 45,000 square meters of employment area and commercial space, all being developed as I am writing this.

Take a look at The Old City circa 2021.

Old City, Lod. 2021.

Compare to its projections of the same location in 2024.

You can use the mosque as a point of reference.

Old City, Lod. Projected for 2024.

When I first moved to Lod, I knew that I’d be adapting to a new environment and would have to take into account its atmosphere and its pace. I figured that if I hit the ground running, I could always slow down later on. Alas, the pace only escalated. The first day, I took a jog to and from The Old City. The street was crowded with construction workers and their heavy industrial equipment. People just weaved their way around the construction like river water courses its way around a rock. I noticed a certain intensity to the way people moved. It was as though everybody was hyper-focused on moving towards their targets and completely indifferent to the industry encompassing their city. The energy was bustling. Lod is a city of business and industry, after all, so I could only assume that most people were coming to and from work.

After six months, however, it’s become more clear to me just how people in Lod may be adapting to the rapidly developing cityscape. Over time, I began to start making connections between Lod’s political climate and its relationship to the geographical landscape. As the basic task of commuting to and from work has proved to be an undertaking; the moment one steps into the street, they begin the dance of evading both social and physical obstacles. I can’t help but wonder if the impending futuristic landscape will smooth out Lod’s rough crevasses, or if it will only deepen the cracks underneath the surface.

Navigating the city under these circumstances can feel intense and myopic. I’ve felt it personally and I’ve only lived here for six months. My sociable personality has been callused. In fact, as I’m writing this article, geopolitical tensions are escalating among Israel’s neighboring nations and the military reserves are being deployed to Lod to perform reconnaissance. The soldiers presence is intended to mitigate the physical relationships between the neighboring communities within Lod. The idea is to reduce the likelihood of another flare-up. In times like these, the looming threat of another flare-up is truly daunting.

It isn’t until I arrive at the safety of my destination that I feel able and willing to be vulnerable and uninhibited. It’s a feeling of release. It’s not an easy feeling to come by and it’s even more challenging to foster. More so, I’ve deduced that the feeling of safety has more to do with the people who create a sense of shelter than the physical shelter itself.

I’ve been partnered with some truly exceptional community leaders: educators, entrepreneurs, farmers, artists, just to name a few. Yahel’s partners consist of welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and inspiring humanitarians who lead with care and respect for their communities. I don’t have room to get into all of the beautiful work that our partners do, so I’ll just share one key observation I’ve made: every organization has a leader and each one of them shares a common goal. That goal is to fill in the various gaps of their respective community by supporting the needs of each individual within the community.

I’ve observed leaders go above and beyond to care for their people in times of duress and uncertainty. When somebody in their community feels stagnated, they create pathways towards mobility. If someone feels insecure, they inspire hope and love. If somebody feels silenced, they provide a place for them to be heard and take the time to hear them.

This ethos of compassionate community building isn’t unique to Lod. It’s probably essential to build and sustain any productive community. The dualistic nature between the exterior and interior worlds of Lod's community centers, however, is unique. As the streets increasingly grow and fester with cultural, political, and industrial developments, the interior ecosystems of each community become that much more prominent. While the notion of impermanence engulfs the social-stratosphere of the city, it simultaneously challenges the status of the establishments which intend to remain. In turn, care towards the individuals within a community develops in relationship to the development of that community’s exterior landscape.

I want to turn towards one particular woman who devoted herself to this way of working. Those who knew her equally admired and adored her. She possessed emotional depths to curate intimate, dramatic, and immersive experiences as well as light-hearted, alleviating, and comedic ones. She was beloved and cherished by many as an inspiration to all who were blessed to know her. She founded and operated Lod’s first and only community theater. Her name was Pnina Rintsler.

I never got the opportunity to meet Pnina. During my first week of orientation in mid-October, I was made aware that the founder and director of the theater where I’d be volunteering had leukemia and would soon pass on. The incoming director of the theater, Gilad Chen, had told me a week later that Pnina said that she was glad that I was working with them and that she wanted me to know. Immediately, I felt accepted and blessed by her.

October thirtieth was Yahel’s first day of volunteering at the theater. It was telling to see how many members of the community ensemble showed up. The community ensemble is filled with talented, playful, intellectually curious artists. The theater itself is composed of three branches: a children’s theater class, a professional ensemble, and a community theater ensemble. The theater hosts live performances and events as well as workshops which range from teaching basic vocal and movement techniques, to workshopping technically advanced theatrical laboratories.

Lod’s Community Theater, 2023. המרכז לתיאטרון לוד

The theater is housed inside of a functional, renovated, underground bomb-shelter.

Lod’s Professional Ensemble, 2021. המרכז לתיאטרון לוד

Upon arriving at the theater, I couldn’t deny the energy reverberating outside of the place. I sensed a feeling of a mother’s warmth and an ecstatic vibrancy all at once. There was a vast and soulful essence breeding throughout the space that permeated through me as I made my way down those stairs, into the shelter. Step by step, I gradually felt that I was entering a very sensitive atmosphere. It was palpable; a post-mortem energy mixing with a budding wonderment of what the future brings. Admittedly, I felt skepticism as to where I would fit in. And yet, there was an air of possibility circulating around that underground theater — like a breath of fresh air wafting through us all. I later discovered that they got a nice AirCon, but that’s neither here nor there

As I became acquainted with the ensemble, I felt an urgency to uncover the theater's history and understand Pnina’s legacy. How, despite her passing, does this community continue to follow her as a leader, a teacher, a guide? What were her goals for the theater? For the ensemble? For each individual? The community? How could I follow the trail to discover the answers? Where even is the trail? Are there footprints pressing in from the world above the shelter? Did she actually anticipate this kind of development of the city? Is this why she chose to build the theater in Lod?

Five months later, many questions are still unanswered. Although, what does seem clear is that the pace of development within Lod may indicate the basis in which the city must measure its own necessity for arts and culture. The release that is felt from coming into a creative space from a construction site suggests the metrics of the need for creative spaces. When our paradigm of reality is changing, when our sense of identity is being challenged, when our emotional life is expanding beyond our own depths, we must choose to witness each other. We got to hold space for each other. I believe that this is what Pnina fundamentally imparted upon her community, inside of that shelter.

I wasn’t there when she built the theater. I won’t be here to see how it adapts to the future. But when I'm there with our community, I can feel her spirit at work, even through all of the transformation above and around us. Perhaps there is no afterlife, but just a life which is ongoing.

Lod Community Theater, March 2023. המרכז לתיאטרון לוד.

“Look Who’s Talking” performed at The Young Adult Center התחנה



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