Close encounters of a different kind

For residents from the North, refuge in Jerusalem was an unexpected opportunity to meet their neighbors.

druse feature88 (photo credit: )
druse feature88
(photo credit: )
The men were dressed in black baggy britches, long black coats and tall white turbans, the women in dark robes and flowing white gauze-like veils. Last week a group of Druse from the northern Galilee joined the usual guests at the Prima Kings Hotel. Realizing it just wasn't enough to supply 5,900 hot meals and 13,000 shelter kits complete with toothbrushes and toothpaste to senior citizens from the North, Prof. Yitzhak Brick, director of the Joint Distribution Committees's Eshel, a nonprofit organization that addresses the social service needs of the elderly, decided to provide a respite vacation from the agitation and loneliness of living in shelters along the northern confrontation line. "There's nothing like a week's vacation to relieve the stress of the war, especially when it's on the prime minister's tab," quipped Masoud Kayat. In all, over the weeks of fighting Eshel worked with nearly 50 northern Jewish, Arab and Druse localities. In coordination with the municipal social welfare departments, Eshel put the shell-shocked residents up for five-night stays at the Novo, Olive Tree, Knesset, Old Windmill and Prima Kings hotels. By last week, Eshel had hosted well over 3,100 people for five- to six-day respites in the hotels of Jerusalem. By the end of the project, they intended to provide vacations to close to 5,000 people, Brick said. "The first four consecutive groups of 1,500 senior citizens were funded entirely by JDC-Eshel and the United Jewish Communities and then the Prime Minister's Office allocated another NIS 1 million," said Tuvia Mendelson, spokesperson for Eshel. Two groups of 40 Druse senior citizens from Beit Jann and Horfeish arrived at the Prima Kings Hotel last week. Abraim Ally from Beit Jann said, "After the first night [in the hotel], everyone said it was the first night they had slept the whole night, uninterrupted. No sirens, shelling or explosions." For many, this was their first visit to Jerusalem. For most, it was the first time that they had ever stayed in a hotel - and figuring out how to use plastic keys and electronic air conditioning units was a complicated feat. Some were disappointed that the hotel's television viewing package didn't include Al Jazeera and all were relieved to discover that, contrary to rumors they had heard, the televisions in their rooms actually did work on Shabbat. The Prima Kings Hotel is a favorite choice among haredi Jews from Israel and abroad, especially the United States. Ethel Rosenblatt, a Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn who said she was in Israel to visit her grandchildren, struck up a special friendship with a Druse woman, who, she thinks, is about her age. "Our eyes met, and we noticed that we both cover our heads - she with a long kerchief, I with a tichel (headcovering in Yiddish). She wore black robes and I, too, prefer dark colors, because of modesty. We couldn't talk at all, since I speak English and Yiddish and she speaks Arabic and, I guess, Hebrew. But we could look at each other in knowing ways. She's probably a grandmother, too. I don't know how to put it into words, but we understood something about each other. I don't even know her name, but we took pictures together, and I will remember her shy, friendly smile. "I come to Israel often, but mostly I see my daughters and my family. I have never been with non-Jewish Israelis before. In a way, it made being here during the war much more real." In some cases, the unfamiliarity led to fear. When the Druse first arrived, the dozen or so American teenagers staying at the hotel bombarded the front manger's office with questions. "Until I sat them all down and assured them they [the Druse] were OK, the American children were afraid," said hotel front manager Kobi Cohen. Hana Berkovich from Nahariya who had lost some of her teeth from a Katyusha explosion, said that she paid attention to both the similarities and the differences between the Jewish and the Druse guests. "We're mostly religious Jews here and seeing them disembark the bus was alarming. But they all fitted in wonderfully. We all got on fantastically. We both wear black - yet we're different." Eshel arranged social and psychological group counseling, providing the Druse guests with an opportunity to cope with their fears and anxieties, and guided city tours. They also added early morning gymnastics, rounds of dominoes and even palm-reading sessions to calm the nerves and allay worries about the future. And there was, says Salah, a Druse leader from Horfeish, a certain camaraderie among the Jewish and Druse. "It's funny," he observed after returning to his home. "There were Jewish people there from Nahariya. It's not so far from Daliat al-Carmel, but we would never meet in normal times. Most of the time, we are Druse and Jews, very separate people. But this time we were connected by something else - we were all residents of the North, trying to get away from the bombing by coming far away to Jerusalem." Initially, the different groups - evacuated Druse, evacuated Jews and tourists from abroad - kept their distances, congregating in areas of the lobby that each group had staked out for itself, talking and planning among themselves. Over time, the distances broke down a bit, especially among the men. "Druse women don't go out of the house much," Salah explained, "so they didn't go out of their space in the lobby much, either. But we men did meet some of the Jewish men, especially the men from the United States. Religious people understand each other in a way. I even learned that religious Jewish men won't shake a woman's hand, either, just like religious Druse men. "It's not like we became best friends or anything, and I don't have their phone numbers. But it was nice."