A different experience

A few weeks ago, I was a part of an Israeli delegation at an international debate tournament held in Bratislava, Slovakia.

THE ISRAELI delegation in Slovakia 370 (photo credit: Michael Szczupak)
THE ISRAELI delegation in Slovakia 370
(photo credit: Michael Szczupak)
An article written by Barbara Sofer in The Jerusalem Post two weeks ago (“What’s in a baseball cap?,” Magazine, April 26) described a very different experience from the one I encountered. Sofer described an Israeli baseball team hiding all signs of their Jewish and Israeli identity on a trip to Prague, for safety reasons.
A few weeks ago, I was a part of an Israeli delegation at an international debate tournament held in Bratislava, Slovakia. The tournament was the Bratislava Schools Debate Competition.
This was the third year that the tournament was taking place, under the auspices of the Slovak Debate Association.
This year’s tournament included 44 teams from 12 countries.
Our delegation consisted of nine teenagers from nine high schools. A debate team is made up of three to five debaters, so we were split into two separate teams. We made no attempt to hide our Israeli and Jewish identity.
The boys on team Israel wore kippot – on the flight, traveling around the city and during the tournament. And how were these Israelis received? Was it uncomfortable, or embarrassing? The reception we received, both in the tournament and around the city, was excellent.
At the tournament, we encountered teenagers from Zimbabwe, Singapore, Turkey and Eastern Europe. After getting to know them, we realized that we had much in common with the participants from around the world. We enjoy the same movies, listen to the same music and grapple with the same existential questions (why isn’t the WiFi working?).
All of the debaters were given prepared motions to debate, concerning development aid, climate change and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. But we had to be ready to discuss additional questions, such as “What’s wrong with the food here? Why did you bring so much tuna fish?” The debaters from around the world were curious about Jewish customs and Israeli life, but there wasn’t a trace of hostility or conflict in their tone. These were people who wanted to understand us, to accept us for who we were. There was no anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism to be found.
IT WAS not easy for us to bring our religious Jewish lifestyle to a city with only a handful of Jews. It took careful preparation and planning to make sure there would be enough kosher food to eat and that Shabbat could be observed properly. The tournament organizers were extremely helpful and accommodating, caring for everything, large and small, that the Israelis needed. The other participants were also very useful on Shabbat, turning on bathroom lights and carrying things to and from the debating venue.
Some of the debates took place on Shabbat. This meant that we had to debate without writing, leaving us at a competitive disadvantage. Each Israeli speaker had to remember what the opposing speaker said, in order to offer refutation. We knew this in advance and practiced “Shabbat debates” as part of our training. Despite the handicap, each of the Israeli teams won one of the “Shabbat debates,” and were competitive in close losses.
But we did not merely survive the religious aspect of the trip, we embraced it. On Friday night, we held a festive Shabbat meal, complete with kiddush and joyous singing. We reached out and hosted a few other Jews who were attending the tournament.
There was Jacob, the coach from Slovenia; Andrej, one of the Slovakian organizers; and Meyzi, one of the debaters from Turkey. On Remembrance Day, we observed a moment of silence for fallen IDF soldiers, at the same time that all of Israel came to a stop 2,400 kilometers away.
Unfortunately neither Israeli team made it past the qualifying rounds.
Only eight of the 44 teams broke into the quarterfinals, and neither Israeli team made the cut. But nobody left disappointed.
One of the Israeli teams beat the second-place team from Turkey. The other team put up two great fights on Shabbat, both ending in close losses. One of the losses was against the eventual championship team from Slovakia, and the other was against one of the semifinalist teams from Romania.
As opposed to the curiosity and uncertainty at the beginning of the tournament, the end of the tournament was full of understanding and caring. The final debate and closing ceremonies took place in a palace in the old city. After the tournament came to a close, we said goodbye to our new friends with warm hugs, and promised to stay in touch on Facebook. The team from Singapore wrote us a postcard, and signed it “L’chaim.”
In addition to the tournament, we got a chance to tour the city of Bratislava. On the first day, we navigated the bus lines to buy bread at the only kosher bakery in the city.
On the last day of the trip, a gorgeous spring day, we walked around the old city, with its beautiful central- European style. All of the locals we encountered were warm and friendly, doing their best to give directions in their broken English. It did not matter to them that we were wearing kippot and came from Israel – they just wanted to be helpful.
The city of Bratislava itself symbolizes the modernization that is taking place. In the early 1940s, under a Nazifriendly regime, Jewish graves were dug up to make way for a tram system.
In the ’90s, the democratic Slovakian government rerouted those same tram tracks in order to build a beautiful, sleek mausoleum over the grave of the Hatam Sofer.
I MADE aliya five years ago, and I certainly agree with Barbara Sofer that more Jews should do the same. I worry about extremist Muslims in the UK and Europe. I have friends who represented Israel at the baseball tournament in Prague, and I know that they are good guys who are neither embarrassed nor ashamed of who they are. But my personal experience representing Israel abroad showed me that many people in the world are moving forward, and that the place of anti-Semitism in Western society is certainly debatable. ■
The writer is a high school student in Jerusalem. He made aliya from Boston to Beit Shemesh in 2007.