This blog post is written by Daniel, a Yahel fellow living in Lod.
My first week out and about in Lod, I and a few other Yahelnikim volunteered with SAHI, an organization that brings youth from the city together to package food donations and then distribute them to those in need in the community. While volunteering there for just a few hours, we met local youth and chatted with them about their lives in Lod. In particular, I had a long conversation with one teenager, Evyatar.
A day later, our wonderful Lod coordinator, Tamara, passed along a message that Evyatar’s family was inviting us over for Shabbat dinner. A bit tired from our first week, we decided to rest and stay at the apartment for Shabbat. The next week, we received another notification that the same family was once again inviting us over for Shabbat. A second invitation from Evyatar and his family, after one short conversation two weeks ago.
Surprised and impressed by their persistence, I decided to answer the invitation and satisfy my curiosity. When I arrived, they greeted me, sat me down, and immediately started feeding me. During the meal, they explained how much they valued Yahel’s volunteer work, and that for the past few years they had taken to hosting Yahelnikim who needed a warm home for Shabbat. After finishing our delicious, multi-course meal, they invited me to return for Shabbat lunch the next day. A bit worried about overstaying my welcome, I graciously declined. The next week, they invited me over again.
After that, I became a regular guest at their house nearly every Shabbat, either for Friday night dinner or Saturday lunch—or both. Every weekend after finishing our meal, they would offer me boxes of extra food to take home. Though at first I tried to refuse, they kept insisting, until I was not only coming for large meals every weekend, but also receiving weekly “טייק אוויי” (takeaway), as they liked to joke.
One week, I texted Evyatar to tell him how much I enjoyed the leftovers they had given me. “Just so you know,” he responded. “It’s not leftovers. My mom cooks extra for you.” Dumbfounded by this realization, I barely knew how to respond to such generosity. Truly, what could I say or give in return; every week they devoted time and energy to feeding me a delicious meal and giving me extra food to enjoy at home, and every week the only thing I gave in return was my presence.
That’s not the only surprising generosity I’ve encountered. One night, I stopped in a small produce shop near my house to pick up some fruits and vegetables on the way home. After a short conversation with the owners, I checked out and picked up three full bags of produce to walk home. The owners immediately offered to drive me back to my house, despite my protestations that I was just a block away. I was unable to fend off their excessive kindness (per usual), and I took the short ride back to my apartment.
These stories aren’t unique. I’ve heard many similar stories from my roommates and other Yahelnikim. It has been a common theme in group discussions. Many of us have experienced incredible displays of generosity that we would normally reserve only for our closest friends and family. Some have tried to analyze or explain the generosity they’ve received to give it a context and make it comprehensible.
I’ve given it some thought too, and I’ve come up with my own post-hoc explanation: This is what it looks like when most of the people in a city see strangers as fellow community members, important and worthy of consideration—more specifically, that is, when a community of Jews feel a meaningful connection to their Jewish neighbors, enough to devote time, energy, and money to help one another.
It doesn’t just manifest through a different level of generosity, but permeates everyday interactions. The daily interactions and conversations I have with shopkeepers and community members here are simply different from those that I have in the US.
There’s the nearby makolet owned by immigrants from the USSR, who know and recognize me and all my roommates, since we regularly stop by to buy something for the apartment. There’s the local hardware store owner who tried to copy my key and failed; he recently opened the store and is still trying to grow the business. I returned several times to see if he could fix the problem, until after the fourth or fifth time he smiled ruefully and gave me my money back. And of course, there are the local shop owners who drove me back to my apartment late at night.
These moments reveal a different kind of personal interaction, where the roles of ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ come with different associations than they do in the US. I wouldn’t normally expect to have extended conversations with those I encounter in my daily business in the US, and I certainly would never expect a shop owner to offer me a ride home.
Of course, if I dig further, there’s more that can be said about these interactions. I could say, for example, that my Americanness sparks an interest and appreciation for Israelis that others might not benefit from. Moreover, if I recognize that my identity as a Jew creates a mutual connection with my Jewish neighbors, it leads to a natural extension—What does that mean for the residents of Lod, a mixed city, who are not Jewish? Do Arab residents of the city (28% of the population) receive the same warmth? What about Eritrean refugees living here in Lod? And on, and on.
There is always an inherent tension between particularism and generalism. Do we devote our energy to our fellow community members, those who share our same religious, ethnic, racial identity? Or do we take care of others, who may be very different from us? Many of us tend to feel an extra push to care for those with our same background. But can we put an extra emphasis on those who are similar to us, while also giving equally to those who are not? From the incongruous phrasing of the question, it may not be so easy.
The city of Lod faces immense challenges. Chief among them, is the challenge of ‘coexistence,’ if such a thing truly exists. Despite Lod’s title as a ‘mixed city,’ Arabs and Jews live in nearly exclusive neighborhoods, attend separate schools, and often experience everyday interactions laced with underlying tension. This reality stands in stark opposition to the personal generosity and sense of community many of us have experienced here. This generosity is truly special and so unique that it feels like it must carry with it a power to overcome the divisions in Lod.
And so I ask myself, if that incredible selfless giving and personal kindness could just be focused on all residents of the city—if the meaning of community could come to include our neighbors of other religions and other ethnicities—could we truly build a place of ‘coexistence’?
Why not? Then again, from the phrasing of the question, I’m forced to concede, it may not be so easy.