By Miriam Haimowitz
On Monday morning, I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport with a group of 40 young people from all over North America. They are here to experience Israel so that they can conceptualize and activate their Jewish identity.
As is the way with Taglit Birthright trips, we hit the ground running and within two hours of landing, we made our first stop in Tzippori.
Located in the north of Israel, Tzippori is an ancient city that served as an example of Roman-Jewish coexistence from 1 CE through 10 CE. Our excellent guide, Ronen, walked us through the ruins, ending in the theater space, which allowed us to begin a conversation about the differences between the two cultures. This raised questions such as: What does it mean to be a Jew in a Roman city? Should a Jew live in a city featuring a Roman theater, where many disenfranchised populations, including Jews, were slaughtered? How can a person live a life of mitzvot when the neighbors are praying to idols and otherwise behaving contrary to Jewish values? What exactly are those values? How does a Jew define him or herself? Is there room for an influence of different cultures? Does the Jewish experience in Tzippori provide insight as to how a majority population should behave towards religious and cultural minorities? With this in mind, how should Israel behave not only towards Arab minorities, but towards its own Jewish people living in Israel? Needless to say, these are big questions to ask after only two hours on Israeli soil.
My costaff, Jesse Paikin, and I were challenged to address these questions while keeping everybody awake (and partially cognizant) through the afternoon. Our question was, how do we discuss these heavy ideas about identity when each person is still a mystery to each other? We had everybody pair off, answering questions that reflect their own individual identities. When we discussed the different conversations as a group, the most striking item of note was that each participant noticed similarities with their partners before noticing the differences. The goal was not necessarily to search for common ground, yet each group consistently highlighted their similarities. We then related how these types of personal and cultural identifiers might have translated for the Jews and Romans living in Tzippori over two millennia earlier. In many ways, North American Jews can relate, as we are constantly seeking common ground with our neighbors so that we can balance our Jewish identity with our local culture. In contrast, Israel’s challenge is to consider how to govern Jews and minority populations while observing the mitzvot and living according to Jewish values. Jews, with experience as a minority, are in a unique position to understand both sides. We have the responsibility to protect and govern our citizens while respecting the rights of others. In many ways, Israel as a Jewish state has been successful (which is why it is so awesome), and in other ways it needs some work.
This morning, we toured the security barrier in Jerusalem and stood in a spot in front of an apartment building where, in 2002, snipers from the Arab quarter targeted residents. Ronen did a great job of presenting various perspectives, highlighting the complexity of life in the region. The participants absorbed this new information and engaged in lively conversation that was honest, intelligent, and conveyed a sensitivity that is admirable in such a varied group. It was during this point that Jesse mentioned Tzippori, and the responsibility that we have as a Jewish state. This sparked some “Aha!” moments for quite a few participants.
Each day, the participants engage in more informed conversations with each other, and I am confident that upon their return to North America, there will be more young Jews comfortable with their Jewish identity and maybe even the Z- word.. Zionist.
Miriam Haimowitz is ARZA’s Administrative Assistant/Office Coordinator.