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(photo credit: Rory Kress)
It starts with one man and a sign. Shai Rose, 27, stands at Rabin Square - one of the busiest intersections in Tel Aviv - and yet, he is completely alone, waiting for someone to take him up on the offer hand-painted on the sign he carries: Want a hug?
As he waits, a tour bus filled with Mexican teenagers pours out onto the sidewalk, trailed by several plainclothes armed guards. The teens are appropriately quiet, verging on somber, as their tour guide begins to explain the tragedy that happened in this otherwise nondescript patch of pavement between City Hall and a parking lot.
Rose waits, holding his sign, watching fashionistas on cell phones buzz past without even a glance; smiling at the children who point and the parents who tug them away before they can reach him.
Nearby, the tour guide finishes his speech and attempts to shepherd his charges back onto the bus, but is foiled as the kids take notice of Rose and his sign. Cautiously, they approach him, hovering in a circle around him, snapping pictures but unsure of whether or not to take the plunge and hug him. Finally, one boy breaks the ice and hugs him, prompting the crowd to cave in around him, creating more of a mass huddle than a hug.
Mai, 29, one of Rose's fellow huggers, explains the preliminary hesitation: At first it's easy to argue with the idea, to question it, but seeing other people do it makes it less uncomfortable for some. Nobody argues with us now. At the beginning, people would ask if we didn't have anything better to do with our time, but our answer is: 'What could be better?'"
And many agree. Every Tuesday night, Rose and his ever-growing team of huggers take to Rabin Square for two hours during the post-work rush hour. In only two hours, they have hugged up to 1,000 people though they usually average around 500 to 600. They are the last group in Israel to still meet: There had been a group in Jerusalem as well as others in Binyamina and Beersheba. Over time, however, they stopped meeting and popularity waned. But here in Tel Aviv, rain or shine, they never miss a week
The Mexican tour group is still encircling Rose, chirping "YouTube!" over and over again, their armed guards laughing from a safe distance, their tour-guide shouting "vamanos" and gesturing with annoyance toward the bus. Needless to say, he didn't accept Rose's open-armed offer.
The Free Hugs Campaign - of which Rose is just the Tel Aviv representative - is now a worldwide phenomenon, owing its fame primarily to YouTube. In September of 2006, a clip of the movement's founder, Juan Mann, appeared, showing him standing on a busy intersection in Sydney, brandishing a FREE HUGS sign, hugging anyone who would give him a chance. Since then, the movement has spread around the world. Once banned in various cities across the globe because of its potential to violate public liability, the notion of making physical contact with strangers has not always been welcome.
Locally, Rose decided to push the boundaries of the Free Hugs campaign by repainting some of his signs in Arabic and setting up shop in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Jaffa. "We were a little afraid at the beginning because maybe Muslim tradition wouldn't accept us but [in Jaffa] people hugged us with all their heart," he says, so satisfied by the warm welcome that they returned several times and hope to do so again in the future.
While Rose insists that there is no symbolism to the fact that he has stationed his huggers at the Rabin memorial - he chose it for its convenience and highly-trafficked location - the fact remains that they are hugging in a very secular spot in a very secular city. In fact, for the first half-hour of this day's hug-fest, there were only men offering their open arms to passersby.
How, then, does this movement find its place in a Jewish state, where according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2004 53.7 percent of the country self-identified as religious or very religious - many of whom abstain from all physical contact with the opposite sex until marriage?
Tchiya, 17, was raised in an ultra-Orthodox household and today, she sits on a bench by the Rabin memorial, wearing a floor-length skirt, waiting to pounce on a potential hug-recipient. Raised in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, her family was evacuated to Nitzan near Ashdod during the disengagement of 2005. She explains that the Free Hugs movement would be considered wrong by the ultra-Orthodox because "the Torah saysâ€¦ it can cross a border, a line to be something else. But this," she says, indicating Rose hugging a woman pausing on her bicycle, "this does not cross that line, I think."
Tchiya is interrupted by a clash of car horns, as one female hugger runs to a beat-up white sedan stopped at a red light to hug the people inside through the window. As she turns to dart back to the sidewalk, a man in a silver Mercedes-Benz SUV honks and opens his car door to receive a hug until the light changes and forces them apart. Tchiya laughs but then admits, "My parents don't like it. They think it's dangerousâ€¦ But I'm only seventeen, I need to find myself."
As for hugging men, Tchiya says she has no problem with it but she understands when religious men thank her and politely refuse, saying that they have someone else to hug. "It's important to have someone to hug," she says.
Making physical contact with complete strangers is not uniquely problematic for the religious community. Rose concedes that he has had men take advantage of his secular female huggers, attempting to turn what he sees as a pure gesture into something less innocent. To protect his female huggers, he tells those who abuse their trust, "It's not that kind of hug, it's not what you're looking for," after which, he says, often these people reveal the truth as he sees it. "Everyone wants a hug, everyone wants to feel some love," he says.
But not everyone wants a hug.
Just as the hug-fest is reaching its climax, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai descends from City Hall into Rabin Square, trailed by a young assistant. For the first time, the huggers turn off the smiles and roll their eyes, their attitude approaching a taunting pitch as they open their arms, challenging Huldai to hug them. Unperturbed, Huldai smiles and waves like a beauty contestant to a crowd of adoring fans. Every Tuesday it's the same story: Huldai walks by and refuses a hug with a polite "No, thank you." This is a sore point for the huggers who, long after Huldai's exit, when listing their "regulars" sarcastically include Huldai as a "regular" who always refuses.
"But we'll get to him," says Rose before jumping from a bench as another tour group arrives, blurting "Oh! An opportunity!"
For him, the Free Hugs campaign will never be a political opportunity. "We don't care about your opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We're just people. I don't feel the need to explain or convince anyone," says Rose of others' attempts to hijack the campaign for political intentions. They had considered hugging in Sderot but "it got too political and it all seemed so artificial. We don't come for the statement: 'let's hug the people of Sderot.' Everyone needs a hug in the end. It doesn't matter if you've just been bombed or if you're just walking through the streets of Tel Aviv. People are just people everywhere."
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