Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Chanukah and Co-existence

Despite what you’re probably hearing in the news, peace and co-existence is alive and well in many communities in Israel.  I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of conflict to go around, but I think that the many people who consciously choose paths towards peace and social justice deserve just as much attention. During the Chanukah break I traveled to Haifa and Akko.  Both are considered “mixed” cities, which is to say that there are a sizable number (compared to other Israeli towns) of both Jews and non-Jewish Arabs living there, mostly peacefully.  In Haifa, approximately 14% of the population is Christian, so it was odd to see so many Christmas decorations after spending the rest of December in places where Christmas holds no significance.  Haifa takes particular pride in its diverse demographics and each weekend in December hosts a festival called the “Holiday of Holidays” which was started by Beit Hagefen, an Arab Jewish Cultural Center, 21 years ago.  Utilizing the confluence of Christmas, Chanukah and Ramadan (the start date of which varies greatly on the Gregorian calendar but was in the winter the year the festival started) as inspiration, Beit Hagefen started the festival to “cultivate and advance tolerance and mutual respect through culture and art.” I walked around the festival and feasted on treats including ful (fava beans), rice and lentils, and roasted chestnuts. My eyes also feasted on many Arab sweets and pastries, which were plentiful.  If peace could be brokered through food alone, Israel and Palestine would both be more than adequately equipped. Eventually I found my way to the Beit Hagefen art gallery, which specifically features art and artists focused on co-existence and dialogue work.  There I viewed several rooms of drawings, paintings, and installations, and watched a short film that drew a comparison between the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Israel.

Another highlight of Haifa was the Bahá’í Gardens.   Founded in 19th century Persia, the Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion whose core teachings are (1) unity of god, (2) “unity of religion – that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same god”; and (3) unity of humanity – “that all humans have been created equal, and that diversity of race and culture are seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance” (Wikipedia).  More points for religious tolerance and peace in Haifa! The Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa are composed of 19 terraces surrounding a shrine to one of the religion’s founders and are a very beautiful site to visit. Wisely, the tour is arranged to start at the top and walk down.  

View from near the top of the gardens.
The shrine and gardens in the background.  The roundabout contains a chanukiah, christmas tree and Muslim crescent moon.

My favorite day of the trip was the one I spent in nearby Akko, a port city which is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world.  The “Old City” features tall city walls, narrow winding streets, and numerous historic sites.  It’s definitely a beautiful trip back in time.  On my way to the Old City I visited Or Torah Synagogue, also known as the Tunisian Synagogue.  Built in 1955, a project to cover the interior walls in beautiful mosaics made from locally produced tiles continues to this day. I met the founder and caretaker who explained to me in Hebrew where to look for the various mosaics, including the location of the sanctuary, the mosaics inside the ark, and the mosaics that continue up the stairway to the women’s section and then to the roof.  I’m sure he explained a lot more, but my Hebrew is still pretty limited, so I was just excited to understand as much as I did. It’s hard to do it justice in photographs, but I’ll share a few shots below. 
The floor of the sanctuary

Floor of the Beit Midrash (or maybe the entryway - I don't remember)

Stairwell in mosaic from floor to ceiling

Eventually I tore myself away from the beautiful mosaics to tour the Old City. Upon arriving in the Old City I headed straight for the shuk to look around and take my place in line at the “best hummus restaurant” in Akko.  It’s the sort of place where they only serve hummus (and ful), they close for the day whenever they run out, and you have to wait in a very packed line of people to get a seat at a table. It was a good chance to practice my Israeli line (amorphous blob) waiting skills, which is to say give up on any notion of personal space, don’t let yourself get pushed around too much, make it clear to anyone who tries to get in front of you that you were there first, and hope for the best. The hummus was delicious and after stuffing myself completely, I strolled down to a local spice and coffee shop I’d read about.  The shop itself is a site to see, as it is full of gourds, pottery sherds, old knives, photographs, and many other artifacts.  I would have taken a photo, but as I spoke with the owner, Hamudi, and watched other tourists bound in for a quick photo, I quickly deduced that he didn’t appreciate it, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.  Hamudi invited me to drink coffee with him before learning about his spices.  Normally I don’t love coffee but his Turkish-style coffee with fresh ground cardamom was delicious and I joined him for several cups while we talked about our respective travels (we both love Spain), Israel, and Akko. Eventually, he gave me a sensory tour of his spices (i.e. I got to smell everything and taste a few). He sources very high quality spices which he grinds himself and he makes several of his own Thai and Indian curry blends.  After more chatting, I bought some spices, observed the coffee making process which led to enjoying one last cup, and then headed out to wander around the Old City and take in the sunset over the bay. All in all it was a perfect travel day complete with beautiful sites and beautiful interactions with wonderful people.

View from outside of the Akko Old City

Minaret in the Old City

Friday, December 26, 2014

Mapping Ramat Eliyahu

As it has been pointed out to me by several people, it’s been a LONG time since my last post.  I arrived in Israel on September 28th and was a bit overwhelmed by the adjustment for a while, and then I just got out of the habit.  Recently in Yahel, we have been completing a community mapping activity as the first step of a year-long group project.  We’re mapping the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood on the periphery of Rishon LeZion where we live, volunteer, learn, and play.  The ten of us Yahelnikim were divided in to two groups to draw the maps and my group’s map was a mash up of literal neighborhood map and assets/challenges identification.  We mostly focused on the Ethiopian community within the neighborhood, as that is the population of focus in Yahel.  The actual map would be hard to post here but I thought I’d introduce you to where I’m living by way of describing our map.

Of course, our apartments were the first places we drew on the map.  Five of us live in each apartment, just a few minutes walk from each other.  Our Yahel neighborhood coordinator lives in the same building as the other Yahel apartment (“other” defined as the one where I don’t live), as does the Kes (Ethiopian religious leader – Ethiopian Judaism is pre-rabbinic).  Down the street is the Matnas (community center) where we take Ulpan (Hebrew) classes, conduct most of our Yahel learning sessions, some people volunteer in the youth open space and learning center, and most importantly, where I go to swim in the early morning hours. Across the street from the Matnas are the Chainayot (small shops) where we and everyone else in the neighborhood buy their fruits and vegetables, spices, nuts, grains, beans and other groceries. Ramat Eliyahu is definitely not a food desert and this might be the most centralized area in the neighborhood.  Almost everyone shops there whether they are young or old, religious or secular, Ethiopian or Russian or Moroccan. There is a grocery store on the edge of the neighborhood, but for many people the Chainayot area is closer.   For the first few weeks of living here, the radius around these four locations made up our primary living zone.

Pedestrian street connecting several of the
residential streets, including mine.

My apartment complex
The Matnas (Community Center) that remains one of the
primary centers of our lives in Ramat Eliyahu.
One of the produce stores, busy with pre-Shabbat shoppers. This intersection
also features one of the only traffic lights in the neighborhood.

Fortunately, little by little we expanded our radius.  Additional assets on our map include the Dome youth center, a satellite of the Matnas open space, where a couple of my housemates and I volunteer.  We’ve also had some challenges at this site as the younger kids seem to be under-stimulated by the space and constantly fight over the one pool table.  We’re hoping to work with the staff to develop some structured activities this year.  Another asset on our map is Project Aztmaut, a key Yahel partner serving Ethiopian families who need a little extra support in education, employment, and family matters, such as navigating the Israeli school system.  On Monday nights we all teach English to children whose families participate in Atzmaut.  Near Atzmaut, the community garden also held a place of honor on our map.  The garden is mostly utilized by older Ethiopians, the majority men. It has helped them reconnect to agricultural traditions which were their livelihood in Ethiopia. For the men who are often underemployed in Israel, it is a venue through which they can provide food for their families, thereby reinstating a sense of pride.  Additional community assets on our map: streets are well-lit at night for safety, the road and sidewalk infrastructure is decent, there are tons of little pocket parks and playgrounds, a fair number of pre-schools, many synagogues including two serving the Ethiopian community, a health clinic (disagreement ensued among the locals about whether or not it provides sufficient services) and a neighborhood pharmacy.

Some of the challenges we identified: there are few pedestrian crossing lights at intersections and no bicycle infrastructure; there are some lottery and gambling establishments mixed among the shops; there’s a fair amount of trash in the neighborhood; and some adults often drink outside the apartment buildings at night.  We identified the Moked Klita (Ethiopian absorption center) as a challenge and asset.  While it provides support services to the Ethiopian community in their neighborhood, it also segregates these services from those received by other immigrant groups, typically at the municipality offices, and therefore does not build the Ethiopian community’s knowledge and capacity to access other governmental resources and services. In our readings and learning, Moked Klitas prove a bit controversial, so we’re still trying to better understand how the one in Ramat Eliyahu impacts the community.  Israel largely struggled with the absorption of the Ethiopian community, which is evidenced today in higher poverty rates, lower employment rates and other socioeconomic indicators.  That topic is rich enough for its own post at a later date. After completing our maps, we also identified a long list of questions, demonstrating that after 2.5 months in the neighborhood, we still have a lot to learn. The Monday before last we presented our maps to the staff of Project Atzmaut and received positive feedback on our maps as well as suggestions of other challenges and assets in the community. Next up for the group project: needs assessment.  Next up for this blog: you’ll have to stay tuned to find out.