Last week, the six North Americans from the Yahel Social Change Program spent a weekend with eighteen Ethiopian-Israeli young adults from the NGO, Friends by Nature. Young adults from Yavne, Bet-Shemesh and Gedera (where the Yahel volunteers live) traveled up north to stay at Kibbutz Hannaton – a picturesque Kibbutz overlooking the lower Galilee. It is also the only Kibbutz in Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement.
Also present that weekend were a variety of rabbinical students from Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College and the Hartman Institute. A quick glance at the group revealed the idiosyncratic ways these American Jews had come to celebrate their Judaism: there were women wearing kippot and tzitzit and men who wore neither. There were women who led services and read Torah. There were lesbian and gay couples with adopted children.
That Friday night, our group partied together: we smoked hookah, listened to music, and danced. No matter our race or age, we were all there to have a good time. The following morning, we gathered for a brief tour of the Kibbutz, led by a British man named Johnny. As Johnny started his tour, we passed by the other groups on the Kibbutz and Johnny found himself unexpectedly launching into a full-blown explanation of Conservative Judaism. Our Ethiopian counterparts were stunned. To them, it was blasphemous to say that humans could change Halacha, change the word of God, to whichever way they deemed fit or fair. As the tour continued, the reactions intensified, and our differences—the liberal American Jews and the traditional Ethiopian Jews—became more pronounced. The one group of young adults who partied the night before stood divided by differences the morning after.
Later that night, we gathered in a room downstairs and were instructed to give feedback on the weekend. Intense comments circled around the room until they hit Shiran, the Ethiopian girl sitting next to me. “Well, to be honest, today I feel like I underwent trauma. I’m serious, some of the things that Johnny talked just really shocked me. But,” she said, turning to me, “it wasn’t until I sat down with Shoshana, and we talked, and she explained to me what it was like growing up, what the customs were in her family, what was normal, what it means to be Jewish in America that I started to understand and things started to make more sense.”
Two weeks ago, when I was volunteering at the high school in Gedera, one of English teachers talked to me about Yahel’s work with th Ethiopian community. “It’s very hard,” she said, “because the Ethiopians are a very closed community. They keep to themselves and they don’t really let others in.”
That has not been my experience. On the contrary, I have felt that Gedera’s Ethiopian community has welcomed us with warm, open arms. On Kibbutz Hannaton, we were six Americans with eighteen Ethiopians and there was nothing but open acceptance and a genuine desire to hang out. It’s not that Ethiopians are a “closed, self-contained community,” it’s that there is a major lack in this country of true cross-cultural exchange. If you don’t learn about one another, you condemn yourself to binaries of us and them. Rather than acknowledging the nuances of culture, you constrict your view to a rigid two-dimensional understanding of the “other.”
Three hours north from Gedera, our Ethiopian peers found themselves knee-deep in American Jewish culture. Before debriefing, it was indeed, “traumatic.” Together, however, we discussed our backgrounds, and through conversation we tried to understand each other. We emerged at the end of the weekend as better friends. Without exchange, we fall victim to our difference. With exchange, we create the possibility of growth.
At first glance, our Kibbutz Hannaton group was a motley crew: religious, secular, Zionistic, apathetic, liberal, conservative, Ethiopian-Israeli, and Ashkenazi- American. One of the beauties of a cross-cultural experience is the opportunity to learn new things—new histories, new customs, new languages, new values. At the same, while there is growth in acknowledging the differences, there is beauty in recognizing the similarities. Because at the end of the day, if we deconstruct the labels, we are all just Jews in our many forms and faces.