Experiencing JDC's Israel by Anjelica Ruiz

The first time I went to Israel was on Birthright. It was only three months after my conversion was completed and I fell in love with the country almost immediately. In my mind, Israel seemed like a better version of the U.S. in terms of social and racial equality. This was crucial to me at the time, because as an atypical American Jew (Hispanic-Filipino Jew-by-choice, which I sometimes jokingly refer to as a “super minority”), I desperately needed to know that there was a place where the characteristics that made me stand out in Dallas didn’t matter.  

So, when I had the opportunity to go back to Israel with JDC Entwine, I jumped at the chance. I loved my first trip with Entwine to St. Petersburg in 2014 and had since become active in the Dallas Learning Network. On the Israel trip, Entwine was piloting an on-trip giving circle model which I was very interested in. As a young professional, I try to give as much as I can to organizations I support, but it had never occurred to me to pool my donation with others. This seemed like a great way to make more of an impact. A chance to visit a country I loved and an opportunity to make an impact? It seemed perfect. What I couldn’t have predicted was  that while Birthright ignited my love for Israel and reinforced for me my decision to convert, this trip challenged me to think more deeply about  Israel, and even more so, my Jewish identity.

Each of the communities we visited is, in some way, part of Israel’s minority, people who exist on the periphery. We had the opportunity to meet the people who run TEVET, an employment initiative run in partnership between JDC and the Israeli government,  that is currently helping the Haredi and Arab communities in Jerusalem and Hura. We also visited Project Wadi Attir, a model for sustainable, community-based agricultural enterprise that combines Bedouin tradition and values with modern day science and technology, and JDC’s new Social Hub in Lod, which encourages social entrepreneurs to come together to solve Israel’s social issues through entrepreneurial community projects. I am still in awe of the dedicated people who run these organizations. They are shining examples of what Israel has to offer the world and to know that JDC is helping to develop these leaders and organizations makes me proud to support JDC’s work in Israel and around the world.

But perhaps the visit that affected me the most was with the Ethiopian community in Ramla. As Amos Levi, Resource Development Manager for JDC Israel, spoke about the difficulties and racism the community has encountered and how they are trying to keep their culture and heritage alive in the younger generations, it struck me how much I had in common with them. I never really had to think about something like the color of my skin until I entered the Jewish community. My status as a “super minority” has become increasingly painful for me as I’ve tried to find my place within the Jewish community that doesn’t yet know how to best welcome someone who doesn’t fit the typical American Jew profile.

Several times a day, I go from loving this community unconditionally to wondering if I will ever really fit in, because, after all, I didn’t grow up Jewish, I didn’t go to a Jewish summer camp, and I still have a hard time finding places to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays. Some people have asked me why I just don’t walk away. But, like the Ethiopian Jews, I can’t just drop something that is so important and integral to my identity. In fact, by exploring the vast cultural mosaic of Israel and in turn my own place in this landscape, I was able to develop a deeper relationship to the country than I had in the past.

We quipped that the the theme for the trip was “it’s complicated.” But in all seriousness, the trip illuminated the complexity and dynamism of Israel’s social fabric. Israel’s relationships with its minority communities - the Haredim, Arabs, and Ethiopian Jews to name a few - are complex. This theme also describes how I feel about Israel, a country I wanted to believe was infallible when it came to social issues, but I now understand is still very much in its growing stages and is not perfect, much like the wider Jewish community.

We are taught that while we are not obligated to solve all of the world’s problems, neither are we allowed to just ignore them.  JDC, with its amazing professional team, leaders and fellows, embodies that sentiment in action. JDC takes innovative, fledgling social programs and helps transform them into organizations that are tackling some of Israel’s (and the world’s) most dire social and economic issues. Being a part of this trip and the giving circle has reminded me that, despite any negative experiences I have had or will have, I do have a place in the Jewish community.

Through participating, I was able to understand Israel and my connection to the country on a much deeper level. I was able to connect with other Jews of color and understand how these minority groups make up Israel’s complex social landscape. After having seen some commonalities between myself and these communities, the trip also reinforced my commitment to continuing developing my Jewish identity in a way I can be proud of and, hopefully, in a way that can help break down some of the issues to which JDC is responding.

 

 

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June 2, 2016 at 2:17 PM

 

 

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