Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Importance of Religion Post-Paris

Stunning views into Lebanon and the Golan Heights

Enjoying a wine tasting at the Dalton Winery

Here in Israel, it is undeniable that religion encompasses a central part of daily life. From all the people I have met here, even the most secular Jews, I have found religion significantly influences essential aspects of identity in contemporary Israeli society. I have found this topic fascinating, and I think it is especially important to think about at this time. After horrible events occur in the name of religion, like the attacks that recently occurred in Paris, it is easy for people to frame religion as the enemy with a destructive and polarizing nature. However, through a Yahel seminar I participated in last week, I discovered evidence that is entirely contrary to this claim. This experience traveling through Northern Israel and meeting with diverse religious communities taught me that all of these groups, and religious communities as a whole, have transparent values that stand to enhance and benefit any person regardless of their background.

From the Ethiopian Jewish community, I learned the importance of dreaming. For many generations, the Ethiopian Jewish community focused their tradition on a single dream: to someday reach the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. Now that their dream has come to fruition and there is a sizeable Ethiopian community in Israel, Ethiopian Jews can freely celebrate their culture with the comfort of being settled in their promised land. I was able to witness this remarkable sight last week when I attended a celebration of the Ethiopian holiday Sigd. Sigd is considered the holiest day on the Ethiopian Jewish calendar, and is a day devoted to spiritual contemplation through fasting, reading Jewish texts, and celebrating with an end-of-day festive community meal and dance. When living in Ethiopia, the Jewish community marked the Sigd holiday by hiking to the highest point of elevation in the village to read from the Torah and face Jerusalem. Now that they are in Israel and can actually travel to Jerusalem, Ethiopians from around the country host a communal Sigd celebration at an elevated spot in Jerusalem directly facing the Old City. This was truly inspiring for me to see because it showed me how when religious beliefs influence you to dream big, the outcomes when these dreams come true can be overwhelming and monumental.

From the Druze community, I learned the importance of hospitality. When arriving at the Druze village of Yanuch for a 24-hour stay, I had no idea what to expect from this religion I knew very little about. Nevertheless, not only did I come out of this visit with a much deeper knowledge of the Druze religion and culture, but I also left this village feeling like an intimate part of the community. This is undoubtedly due to the elaborate hospitality I felt for every moment while visiting Yanuch. For our entire stay in the village, my group was joined by a dozen young community members who took time out to bond with us and get to know us. Each young Druze person I met was very friendly, and I have remained in touch with many of them through Facebook and WhatsApp. There was not a moment that went by when they were not offering to make me more comfortable through offers of snacks, tea, coffee, or simply engaging me in conversation. Something that helped me build relationships with these people was my willingness to communicate with them in Hebrew, which was much more widely known in the village than English. Because I allowed myself to be vulnerable and exercise my Hebrew skills, I introduced deeper levels of conversation that in turn made my new Druze friends more comfortable engaging with me about a variety of topics. My knowledge of Hebrew became particularly useful with my host family, since they knew very little  English and Hebrew was the only way I could communicate with them. Much of their hospitality also came from their patriotism toward Israel and their enthusiasm toward Israel-related topics I am passionate about, such as Israel's mandatory army service and religious diversity. The elaborate warmness and generosity I received from this small Arab religious group I knew nothing about was unbelievable to me. My experience staying in a Druze village reminded me of the essential religious value of caring for strangers, and that even in our messy world kindness and hospitality can come in the most unpredictable of places.

Olive picking

From the pluralistic Kibbutz Hanaton community, I learned the importance of compromise and sticking to your roots. After hearing continuous discussions about the prevalence of dati (religious) and chiloni (secular) Jews in Israel, I assumed that it would be difficult to find a middle ground that matched my Conservative background. Nonetheless, I ultimately found a community that contained the values and customs I grew up with while still including pluralism and diversity, and that community is called Kibbutz Hanaton. Situated 20 minutes away from Nazareth, Kibbutz Hanaton was established by Conservative Jews in 1983 to revitalize a traditional Jewish presence in Israel with a focus on social awareness and communal responsibility. As soon as I walked onto the kibbutz, everything started to remind me of home. From the beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat tunes that I was accustomed to hearing growing up to the stunning views of nature and Jewish community that reminded me of my summers at Camp Ramah, my Shabbat experience at Hannaton was like a mind-out-of-body experience for me. I truly felt that though I was still in Israel, my soul was being transported back to home and my cherished Jewish roots that have made me the person I am today. It was also refreshing that so many of these kibbutznikim were American immigrants and their American accents gave me a strong sense of comfort after two months of living in a culture largely different from my own. However, while it was good to be in my own religious environment, it was also great to see the compromises made so all types of Jews can feel at home at Hanaton. A prevalent compromise I noticed concerned driving on Shabbat, which entailed that on Shabbat no one can drive within the parameters of the kibbutz, regardless of their level of religious observance. The community definitely has serious issues to be dealt with, but its inspiring message of compromise leading to cooperation and coexistence is one of tremendous merit. Both Kibbutz Hanaton's similiarity to my Jewish upbringing and its message of unity between different Jewish traditions possess tremendous moral value in my eyes, and I will definitely continue to consider it as I contemplate my plans for starting a life in Israel.

View of Nazareth from Hanaton

A famous cemetery next to the Kinneret 

From the different religious communities I met with last week, I gained a deep appreciation for what religion is and what it is not. I saw religion as something that brings people together, no matter how similar they are to one another. I also saw religion as something to be celebrated because of the cooperation it brings to the world, and the dreams it helps come to fruition. When looking at religion, I did not see an idea that creates divisions or incites hatred toward the other. Though I had nothing in common with the Druze villagers who hosted me, they still went above and beyond to welcome me with open arms. Though there is much tension between the different Jewish communities in Israel and in other countries, the Kibbutz Hanaton community puts those differences aside to create and sustain a peaceful environment through which everyone benefits.

After what happened in Paris last week, it is very important to think of religion along the lines of what these communities in Israel envision. Though there are some people who try to use religion as a way of delegitimizing and even murdering those who disagree with their practices, we must see how far removed they are from the nature and purpose of mainstream religious teachings. It will be hard to move past what we have gone through, but it is necessary to look for a way forward, and that way can most definitely be found through religious communities. Let us learn from one another and grow from each other's teachings and values, and appreciate that each of our religious neighbors hold messages of hope that greatly outweigh those who try to deface them.

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