Thursday, July 2, 2009

Living is learning: Israel Lessons at the Y

Dr. Lisa Grant Associate Professor of Jewish Education on the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a member of my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT is my guest blogger this week. This was originally posted on Tze L’umad, a blog for the continuing education for the alumni of HUC-JIR. The editor of that blog wrote: “Her reflections remind us that it is not just curriculum and content that shape education; experience is a critical element in our learning, solidifying and challenging the knowledge we acquire in more formal settings.”

Currently, I’m in Israel as part of the faculty for the culminating seminar of this year’s cohort of Mandel Fellows, a group of seven HUC rabbinic-education students from New York and Los Angeles. Since I’m here for almost all of June, I decided to join the pool at the YMCA for the month. Navigating these waters has been a lesson in cultural literacy.

First there are the hours. I swim first thing in the morning. On Monday and Shabbat (or more accurately in the Y world, Saturday) there is mixed swimming. On Tuesday through Friday, men and women alternate between the early shift (5:45-6:25 am) and late (6:25-7:05). I discovered this after arriving at 6:00 am on a Tuesday to find the door into the pool from the women’s locker room locked up tight.

In good Christian fashion in this Jewish state, the Y is closed on Sunday.
Then, there are the people. By far the friendliest face is that of the Arab man who sits at the desk. Then there’s a cast of regulars who come at these early hours, older women who are rather fixed in their ways. My first day in the pool, I was stared at but no one said a word. If there was a pattern to how these women swim, it was beyond me to figure out. It seemed where ever I swam I was in someone’s way. I basically wove my way through the lanes, trying to avoid the onslaught. This went on for a couple of days. Then I decided to hug the wall and take up as little space as possible. That worked for about 6 laps and then a woman arrived who immediately told me to move.

“I swim back stroke so I need this space,” she said.

“But I’m swimming here now,” I said.

“You are in my space,” she replied emphatically.

So I acquiesced and moved over. Not only did this woman take my lane, but her stroke was so wide that she spilled over into my lane as well, resulting in inevitable bumps and brushes as we swam past each other. After a few laps, she stopped me and started yelling in Hebrew.

“Don’t you see I’m swimming here! She said.

“But I am staying in my own lane. You come over into my space!” I replied.

“You keep hitting me. You must stop. This is unacceptable,” she said.

“But, you are hitting me as well,” I said.

“Just stop it!” she yelled.

“I’m trying, you try too” was my retort. And then I swam off.

The next day, I was waiting with three or four other women for the women-only time to begin.

“Are you from the hotel?” one asked.

“No, I’m here for a seminar.”

“Are you from the hotel?” another asked.

“No, I bought a membership for the month,” I replied.

“Are you at the hotel?” the first woman asked again.

“No.” I said, and thankfully the lifeguard unlocked the door and we could go to the pool.

On the morning of my seventh visit, the women greeted me more warmly. One said good morning; two made eye contact.

Two others whispered, “I thought she was from the hotel.”

My adversary wasn’t at the pool that morning. I swam against the wall, uninterrupted. It was a much better workout, no weaving among the lanes, no glares, no strife. Serene, contemplative, and ordinary.

My experiences in the pool could be seen as a parable about the Israeli street - the erratic traffic behavior, the vacillation between rudeness and kindness in interactions with strangers, and in a much more significant way, the self-righteous and intractable claims on space and territory that different peoples make on this land.

I could leave it at that. Indeed, it’s that Israel that we often encounter in the news and as tourists through our brief encounters with Israeli society. Far from serene, or ordinary, and far more heated and contentious than contemplative.

We have been privileged to delve deeply into a much more hopeful and inspiring side of Israel during this seminar. Throughout the year, this group of HUC Mandel Fellows has been studying issues of leadership, vision, and community building. For our Israel seminar, we added a fourth dimension, the question of Jewish peoplehood. We have been exploring various conceptions of peoplehood through text study and encounters with scholars and through a variety of site visits at innovative organizations that are working to address different tensions and imbalances in Israeli society.

We visited Bet Yisrael, an urban kibbutz, a group of young adults living together and volunteering in a low-income neighborhood in Gilo, a neighborhood in the southernmost part of Jerusalem. The primary “industry” of the kibbutz is a mechina, a gap year pre-army study program for high school graduates. This mechina includes both secular and religious Israelis, and also a few Americans who’ve come to study Jewish texts and volunteer for the year before college.

In Yerucham, a development town in the Negev, we visited Atid Bamidbar, a Beit Midrash that focuses on bringing together the residents of this isolated area through a variety of programs that attempt to bridge the social gaps between secular and religious, and Ashkenazim and Sephardim through study and song.

Debbie Golan, Director of Atid Bamidbar, and some of our HUC Mandel Fellows, and some of the students in one of the sessions we observed (learning and singing mizrachi piyuttim)!

In Tel Aviv, right across the street from the central bus station, we visited Binah, a secular Yeshiva, another study program for young adults either before or after the army. The goals of this institution are to link social action with Jewish study, exposing young Israelis who lack any substantive Jewish learning to the riches of the Jewish bookshelf. Along with study, they work in this difficult, run-down neighborhood that is home to poor Israelis, foreign workers and hundreds (if not thousands) of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea.

These institutions are examples of the many third sector (non-governmental) initiatives to bridge the divides in Israeli society - between rich and poor, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Arab and Jew. While each are situated in different contexts and have different missions, what they share in common is an active commitment to social change linked with Jewish learning.

In our seminar we’ve have many conversations about what makes us a Jewish people, what binds us, what divides us? We have struggled with definitions and with questions of obligation and commitment to the mixed multitude that makes up the Jewish people and that is so evident in Israeli society.

While ideas are still in formation, we have come to a strong consensus around at least one big idea. Jewish learning is something that all Jews share. Jewish study provides opportunities for rich encounters with our sources, with Jewish tradition and with others who may not share much else other than a willingness to engage with the text and those others sitting around the table. Through Jewish learning we have the opportunity to understand ourselves and others better, to join in a share enterprise and perhaps to discover or forge shared commitments.

Swimming in the sea of Torah together may start out like my swimming at YMCA pool, but once we really make eye contact and listen to our study partner, we break through those barriers of suspicion and tension, and find a way to calmer waters that can nourish us all.

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