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In Israel Independence Hall with the Breadth of Israel Tour Group May 2015

In Israel Independence Hall with the Breadth of Israel Tour Group May 2015

It’s wonderful; and, it’s also complicated. . . .

It is the end of a long but wonderful day – the first full day of our journey on our Breadth of Israel Tour. When we arrived last night we gathered for our opening dinner at a very special restaurant in the cultural heart of Tel Aviv. Liliyot is an upscale restaurant which presents the modern kosher kitchen at its best, with an innovative menu of the freshest and most beautifully prepared ingredients. But Liliyot’s real significance lies in its social action initiative for the rehabilitation of youth at risk. For this initiative, Liliyot collaborates with ELEM, the Organization for Youth at Risk in Israel. Every year Liliyot trains and employs 15 high school dropouts who receive instruction, supervision and employment for an 18-month period. The staff employs experts in the culinary world, of course, but also a social worker, and other professionals, to train young people for jobs in the highly competitive, and highly valued food industry – young people who were headed in the wrong direction – Jews and Arabs alike – until ELEM threw them a lifeline. To dine at this restaurant is a sheer pleasure. To watch these young people at work, one would have no idea that there was anything out of the ordinary without knowing the story. But the story is remarkable indeed, and is only one of a number of projects initiated by ELEM for the rehabilitation of youth at risk in Israel.

This morning, after a moving visit to Independence Hall, we visited another remarkable program, this one in Jaffa. In 2003, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Israeli counterpart of the Union for Reform Judaism) launched an invaluable program for young Israelis. “Mechina” means “preparation.” The “mechina” programs in Israel are voluntary programs for high school graduates that enable them to defer their Army service for a year, while continuing their studies. There are over 30 mechina programs in Israel. The Reform mechina program, however, is unique. It is specifically devoted not only academic studies, but also to religious studies from a liberal, Reform perspective. In addition, the participants in this program volunteer for various service programs within Israel. They work with mostly with senior citizens and children with special needs – Arabs and Jews alike, both of whom inhabit the city of Jaffa, the port city with a 4,000-year history. We heard from three of the participants in this mechina, and from their director as well. We were moved by their seriousness and commitment, and we look forward to telling you more about them when we return.

Our drive from the airport to the hotel yesterday, however, was not without its kinks. The Ayalon highway, which we were on, was closed for a time, as were other major arteries, due to a massive demonstration in the heart of Tel Aviv. It was a demonstration by the community of Ethiopian Jews against police brutality. After Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore, it is clear that racially charged problems with police and governmental policies do not stop at our shores. This was an outburst of pent up frustration on the part of this community for many of the inequities in Israeli society, and dozens of people were injured in the scuffling.

Sometimes our high expectations of Israel as a state built on Jewish values lead to disappointment and frustration when Israel falls short of fully realizing those values in the way it should. But expecting perfection of any nation, particularly one as complex as Israel, is unrealistic and unhelpful. What we do expect, however, is the maturity and courage to look at these problems squarely and take steps to ameliorate them. Hopefully the demonstration yesterday, and its continuation today in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s office, will place these issues front and center so that they cannot be pushed aside any longer.

I will end this installment with a note of hope. After lunch, some of us stopped at Abulafyiah’s Bakery, an Arab bakery of great and well-deserved renown in the shopping district of Jaffa. The young men working the counters all were wearing bright orange shirts, authorized by the Arab proprietors of the bakery. The shirts read: JEWS AND ARABS REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES. That is all I will say for now. There is much more to come.