The highlight was clearly this encounter...me and my twin brother Dan, who naturally had done Otzma back in 1994.
We first visited a town called Segev Shalom, one of 7 Bedouin Arab towns that have officially been incorporated into Israel. In the 70s, the Israeli government encouraged the Bedouins to settle in 7 specific towns in the Negev, rather than continue with their nomadic lifestyle. Some Bedouins agreed and are currently living in those towns, but some did not, and they currently live in towns and settlements the government considers illegal. Additionally, many of these communities have created problems for the Jewish towns in the Negev because of drugs and crime. There’s also a big problem with Bedouin men attracting Israeli teenage girls and showering them with money and gifts and encouraging them to leave home to live in the Bedouin community. Then, when these girls leave, they marry the Bedouin men and become trapped: they’re not allowed to leave their house, they don’t have a cell phone, they don’t have any money and it’s very hard for them to escape.
From there, we visited Yerucham, a small developing community that’s trying its hardest to expand and become an attractive place for people to live. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, had a vision to “make the Negev bloom” and to populate it with people. There are some sizeable cities and communities there, but while the Negev makes up 60% of the State of Israel’s land, it contains just 8% of its population. Some of the small towns there, like Yerucham, are making a push to attract people and jobs by portraying themselves as tranquil oases where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a very interesting situation, because at one point in Israeli history, the Negev was considered their “Wild West”, a frontier full of exciting new adventures. But as beautiful as the landscape is, the reality is that currently, many Israelis see nothing attractive about living in an oppressively hot town in the middle of nowhere. The land and the housing there is much cheaper and the government provides some economic incentives to live there, but with public transportation becoming increasingly efficient, people can still live in a suburb of Tel Aviv and commute an hour and half to work in a desert city like Be’er Sheva. We saw a very nice, state of the art community center there, but it seemed that while the Yeruchamites were telling us about their town, they were trying to convince themselves just as much as us that it’s a great place to live. I’m sure it is great for some people, but they still have a lot of work to do to convince most Israelis to move from the cities.
But the most interesting and best stop of the day was meeting the Black Hebrews at Kibbutz Shomrei HaShalom, or the Peace Village. They’re a community who see themselves as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel who fled the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE and moved to various parts of Africa. They lived all over Africa until many were then sold in slavery and came to the United States. Their spiritual leader had a vision when he was living in Chicago in 1966 that it was time for them to return to their homeland in Israel. So they traveled to Israel by way of Liberia and have a community in the town of Dimona.
The Black Hebrews have a holistic and independent attitude towards life. They don’t consider themselves to be Jewish but take all of their teachings and rules directly from the Torah. As part of their belief system, they are vegan, and they served us an amazing meal of salad, rice, pita and hummus, soy burgers and soy shnitzel, and a very tasty chocolate pudding dessert (apparently it’s very easy to make!) We spend just over an hour there, but pretty much everyone on our program wished we had more time to learn about the beliefs, history and lifestyle of the Black Hebrews because it’s something none of us know about. They invited us over to spend some more time in the future, so a few of us are hoping to spend a weekend there in the coming weeks to learn more about their culture.
I had a nice and relaxing Shabbat – it’s weird to think that I’ve been here a month and a half and this was only my 2nd Shabbat in Ashkelon because of all the holidays. Friday evening, a few of us went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Netzach Yisrael, the conservative synagogue in Ashkelon. We had been there before to help them build their sukkah and they have a very nice congregation. The service was exactly like the kind of Kabbalat Shabbat service I’m used to at home, where almost every prayer is sung. I always find it a peaceful and reflective service so I always enjoy going and seeing how different congregations choose their different tunes. We came back to our absorption center and had a potluck Shabbat dinner (or to use Becca’s term, a Shabbatluck dinner). We’ve had a few of these already and this one was by far the best – everyone’s really stepping their game up. I started things off strong with my Handsome Salad, and then there was grilled chicken, a gulash stew, pad thai, mango rice, mashed potatoes, and about the best banana bread I’ve ever had (certainly the best parev banana bread I’ve ever had).
Hopefully I can get my camera situation all figured out before the weekend. On Sunday, we’re getting a tour of some of the holy sites in Jerusalem. We’ll walk down the Via Dolorosa, the path which Jesus took to his crucifixion and then go the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he died. And then we’re going to Har HaBayit, or the Temple Mount and see where the Two Temples once stood and where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosques are today. Then at night, we’re all going to see Idan Raichel live in concert – he’s so talented and he and his band put on such a great show.