At the end of a year dominated by the headlines we’ve had, one might wonder why anyone would want to live here. Meeting countless young Israelis determined to get us back on track, one might ask why anyone would want to live anywhere else.
Twenty minutes out of Jerusalem and I was beginning to worry I’d made the wrong turn. Just south of Efrat the traffic of yellow license plates began to thin.
By the time I reached the signpost for Kiryat Arba, nine out of 10 cars coming toward me bore white or green numbers, designating their owners as West Bank Palestinians.
As I realized where I was, during the “days of rage” following President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I won’t deny having felt somewhat anxious. But who was I to argue with Waze? And this was how it was directing me to Shaqib al-Salam, or Segev Shalom, a Beduin town of 10,300 just outside of Beersheba. It’s a strange feeling venturing out of one’s bubble, but that was what this day was all about.
I’m going to frame it as the story of Amal and Adva.
Once upon a time, a brave little Beduin girl, not yet 11, told her mother she wanted to be a doctor. She was only in sixth grade at the time, but already knew in her heart what she was meant to be.
The society in which she was growing up knew otherwise. At the end of eighth grade, Amal was sent to work to help support her single-mom family and six siblings.
Nine long years would pass before she was able to carve out an opportunity to get back to any formal education.
Though she would never become a doctor, she did manage to become involved in another sort of healing altogether.
The inner voice telling her as a child that she wasn’t cut out to live the life convention would impose upon her was never silenced, and the passion burning within her to awaken that voice in others was never extinguished. It would take some time, but eventually she and several other gutsy Beduin feminists established Ma’anad, a social initiative dedicated to empowering Beduin women.
YOU’D NEVER guess it from looking at her. Amal greeted us, cloaked from head to toe in traditional garb, not a single strand of hair showing, and sat us down on mattresses covered with handwoven rugs. But when she began to speak, sharing her story and that of the collective she’d founded, she might have been firing up a crowd of feminist activists on an American college campus.
Ma’anad is the Arabic word for the curtain that has forever hung in the Beduin tent, separating the section where men sit and entertain from the area where women cook and care for the children.
Amal removed that curtain, providing an open space where Beduin women are given the opportunity to go beyond what their society has traditionally permitted – turning their time-honored skills into money-making endeavors, encouraging them to study and emboldening them to follow their dreams. She raised the money to launch the enterprise by selling the gold bangles that were her dowry.
“I did it so that my children wouldn’t have to go through what I went through,” she said. “The woman’s voice needs to be heard in our community, and if we don’t speak up ourselves, it never will be.” Still, she consciously strives to minimize the threat that the menfolk of her community might naturally be expected to feel in response to her efforts.
Fortunately, it turns out that there are those among them who are actually encouraging her. One of the first was Ali.
Sitting barefoot alongside Amal, there was nothing to suggest that he too was part of this social revolution – until he opened his mouth. His first foray into the arena came when, as a fiery young man, he helped his own sister overcome the numerous obstacles to obtaining a higher education. He’s been assisting others in myriad ways ever since.
Another layer of this heartening tale is that Amal and Ali and the Ma’anad Center for the Heritage and Culture of the Beduin Grandmother they run, are now being mentored by idealistic young Jewish Israelis who are assisting them in establishing the venture as an economically viable enterprise. Full disclosure: What brought me into this circle of inspiring crusaders – consciously committed to fashioning Israel as an enlightened, progressive and tolerant society – is that this is happening within the framework of the social activism unit of the Jewish Agency. As deputy chairman of the organization’s executive, I was on a tour of our projects in the field. Next stop: Café Ringleblum.
A SHORT EIGHT kilometers away in Beersheba, I found myself in another world – far more familiar, but no less inspiring. This very with-it bistro was established by Tor HaMidbar, an NGO dedicated to developing Israel’s geo-social periphery by mentoring urban communities that run socially minded businesses. This one hires at-risk youths counseled by social workers who help them navigate their way into the mainstream.
Evidence of their success? Over 90% of the youngsters under their supervision end up serving in the army.
Though the choice of the eatery for lunch was not accidental, our primary reason for being there was to meet with other young idealists and hear about the projects they are involved in.
One of them was Adva, a medical student from Petah Tikva studying at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
That she happened to be living out Amal’s original dream was not the only curious twist to this story. As a participant in “Choosing Tomorrow,” another Jewish Agency framework, through which university students are mentored in their efforts to effect change in Israeli society, she’s launched a socially oriented initiative of her own. Ironically, and coincidentally, the project she undertook was to teach mixed groups of Jewish and Beduin schoolchildren about basic medical matters relevant to them. A convenient segue to “Youth Futures,” right around the corner.
Again, a group of young, dedicated Israelis on a mission: mentoring children identified as having greater potential than their schools are able to cultivate.
Engaging with them and their parents, the 300 or so specially trained counselors in 36 communities around the country are doing their damnedest to ensure that the 12,000 youngsters under their care won’t end up needing the support of a Ringleblum’s.
At the end of a year in which: probes of corruption among our political elite dominated the news; promises that Israel would be fashioned as the home of all Jews were broken; legislation amounting to religious coercion was aggressively advanced; Palestinian violence over America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital mounted; one-third of our children were reported as living below the poverty line – at the end of that year, one could be excused for wondering why anyone would want to live here. Venturing behind the headlines, meeting the countless young Israelis determined to get us back on track in fulfilling the Zionist dream of creating an exemplary society, one could just as easily ask why anyone would want to live anywhere else.
My New Year’s resolution? To spend more time out of my bubble meeting with the Amals and Advas among us. Their personal example will serve throughout 2018 as my inspiration to keep dreaming. Only when those dreams have been realized will I agree with Waze when it tells me I have reached my destination.
It’s bound to be a long journey, but it’s worth mentioning that in Arabic, Amal means hope.The writer is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, a member of the Zionist Executive, and the senior representative to Israel’s national institutions on behalf of the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement.
The views expressed herein are his own.
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