They came bearing a bottle of Coca-Cola, the same stuff that turns bones into rubber and melts pennies. The same stuff I have come to love secretly, as I know all of the awful, health ramifications of drinking soda.
Wesam, a handsome Bedouin boy who looked suspiciously like a member of some boy band, offered me soda on the first day of our two-day encounter at the Joe Alon Museum of Bedouin Culture in Rahat, Israel. I almost said I wasn’t thirsty, but I accepted my plastic cup of soda and drank because I knew it was my obligation. I drank because I didn’t want to offend anyone. I drank because I knew we were off to a good start and I didn’t want to screw it up by unintentionally breaking a Bedouin social code — rejecting their hospitality — thereby plunging Israel into a deeper state of conflict or in the more personal sense, missing the chance to make new friends.
Last summer I attended the Nesiya Institute’s program in Israel, a six-week program for Israeli and North American Jewish teens from different denominations. We spent two days hanging out, debating, feeling intimidated and learning from Bedouin teens in Rahat, a village near the Negev desert. The program included community service projects, arts workshops, touring, lectures and discussions with a special emphasis on community building and personal growth.
Nesiya Institute is unaffiliated with a religious movement and “committed to exploring differences among diverse Jews in order to develop Jewish leaders and invigorate Jewish life,” according to its literature. The places we visited became the lenses through which we discussed our religious affiliations, personal doubts and communities. Rahat was one of many places that inspired discussions and provoked Nesiya participants to look at things differently.
In Rahat, Bedouin and Jewish teens tried to break the ice in spite of the language barrier. The Bedouins spoke Arabic and the Jews spoke English and Hebrew. We were divided into pairs. Rita, a Hebrew teacher at the high school in Rahat, helped us by translating and chiming in with details of Bedouin culture. (Participants in the Bedouin Encounter pictured on left.)
I found myself struggling to communicate with my Bedouin partner, a girl named Miriam. She was far more comfortable in Arabic and I was far more comfortable in English. Both of us struggled in Hebrew to have a basic conversation. I tried asking her simple questions; I got complicated answers.
“Miriam, how many siblings do you have?”
I was floored. I soon learned that polygamy occurs in the Bedouin community. I learned that Miriam is alone despite her large number of siblings since she is her mother’s only child. This exchange was only one of many that revealed the deep cultural differences we had to bridge in our conversations.
In a group discussion one of the Bedouins said the Torah was “made up.” Yet afterwards every Bedouin, American and Jewish Israeli agreed that we should recognize faith for what it is: belief without proof. We needed mutual respect and were willing to give it to one another. We understood that each of our communities has positive and negative attributes. Most importantly, we learned that we are not so different. Judaism and Islam are similar in a variety of ways, from dietary restrictions to fast days.
I visited the house of Mazdi, one of the Bedouin teens. Mazdi’s parents stood by the door to greet us and ushered us into their living room. Soon Mazdi’s whole family brought us plates of food. When one plate was finished, another was brought out — homemade pita, cake, cookies, fresh fruit, juices and mint tea (piping hot, a sign of welcome, according to Rita).
I found myself stuffed, but with a gigantic plate of watermelon in front of me. These people, who didn’t know me and had every reason to dismiss me, were being kind to me. As we left they gave us key chains that wished us good lives in Arabic and pens with the Islamic prayer for a safe journey written on a tiny, pull-out scroll.
I kissed Mazdi’s mother on the cheek. I shook his father’s hand. I couldn’t ever thank them enough for what they showed me. They showed me a vibrant, happy family. They shattered every assumption subtly nailed into my head by my Orthodox Jewish background.
I have attended day school for my entire life. I have spent summers in religious Zionist camps. I have often heard extreme, blanket statements about the evilness of non-Jews living in Israel. Though I like to think I never believed what I heard, those negative ideas stayed somewhere in the back of my mind.
My time in Rahat and with Mazdi’s family gave me hope that everything in Israel can be OK. I can’t wait for more opportunities to have all my preconceived notions challenged and to come out stronger and more willing to grow. As I complete high school and go on to college, I am seeking positive, growth-oriented and challenging dialogue with people of varying backgrounds and faiths. I am an aspiring writer and actor and can’t wait to write about and perform my experiences — to capture moments of change and growth in essays, theater pieces, fiction, poetry and music. My time making friends with teens thousands of miles away made me sure of this.
As the magic of summer fades and the school year progresses, I constantly think about my time in Israel. I learned so much about myself and grew in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.
My perspective changed. I eat hummus daily. I have become a pescetarian (I no longer eat chicken or beef, just fish). I approach every discussion with communication techniques I learned from Nesiya. My list of changes goes on and on.
Unfortunately, after 28 remarkable years, the Nesiya Institute cancelled its programming for this winter and summer due to a lack of funding. It saddens me that no other teens can have the opportunity to grow and change in the way I did thanks to Nesiya. I hope my article sparks the interest of someone, somewhere to do something about this. I sincerely hope the Jewish community comes to recognize the value of programs like Nesiya and finds some way for Nesiya to continue impacting the lives of Jewish teens.
In light of recent events in Israel, my experiences on Nesiya and in Rahat feel more significant. I can only hope that the broader Jewish community doesn’t lose sight of people like Mazdi, his family, Miriam and all the other Bedouin teens who participated in Nesiya 2012’s Bedouin Encounter. These are genuine, kind, real people who opened up their homes and hearts to struggle in another language with a group of strangers. They exist; I’ve met them.