During this semester, we have not been able to take students to four locations in Jerusalem for free time due to security considerations: The Jewish Quarter of the Old City; The First Station – Renovated Train Station dating to the end of the Ottoman Empire; The Mahane Yehuda Market; and Ben Yehuda Street. As the result of recent security changes, last night marked the first time students had free time on a Thursday night that was not restricted to a mall. Instead, they got to spend time on the famous Ben Yehuda Street! They could not have been more excited.
On Thursday night, Ben Yehuda Street is normally filled with teens from North America here on a variety of programs; Taglit Birthright Israel participants; single tourists and families visiting Israel; as well as a wide range of Israeli teens. Lately, however, the street has been quiet as it has been off limits to teens and to Birthright groups. Now, however, it is returning to its regular, busy self. Cafes and ice cream parlors, pizza places and shawarma/falafel stands fill the promenade and are full. Stores selling souvenirs, kippot, and all kinds of other items are busy again. I watched the group wander up and down, listened to them laughing and saw them smiling.
Along the way, our students were able to see the variety that makes up the rich, wonderful and often challenging tapestry that is modern Israel. Half way up Ben Yehuda Street, there was a group of Israeli teens playing loud music and having a dance party. There was a small drum circle. Back on the main drag, sadly, there were many people asking for tzedakah. At the bottom of the promenade, in Kikar Tzion, a large group of people sat listening to an Israeli Arab Priest from Nazareth talk about a trip he led to Auschwitz. The group was made up of both Israeli Jews and Arabs. The goal was to listen for through listening comes understanding. This was how the sponsoring group chose to end Yom HaShoah. And this was what our students saw.
Friday, we were suppossed to go to Sderot, a town that is very close to the border with Gaza and has suffered rocket and missile attacks on a regular basis for the past fifteen plus years. Unfortunately, the border has been a little “hot” the past few days as Israel is using new technology to find and destroy tunnels. Instead of Sderot, we went to Ashkelon, a larger city, which was approved by the situation room of JAFI. There, we heard from Ariella Kronish’s husband, Amit, who spoke about the history of Gaza and Israel, from the early years of the State through today. Moshiko, a builder and business man from Ashkelon, talked about daily life in Ashkelon and a vision for its future. All this while sitting and gazing at the beautiful Mediterranean!
From the coast, we traveled to an absorption center to hear from Roni Kedar, one of the leaders of Another Voice, an organization dedicated to building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians through dialogue online and over the phone. She has an incredible story to tell and message to share and our students were fascinated.
In the end, students heard about the beauty and the challenges of the Gaza border communities from the military, local, and grassroots perspective. They learned about the security measures taken to protect citizens, the stress of living under the constant threat of mortar, rocket and missile fire, how one goes about daily life, and how people are trying to find common ground between two peoples. It was an intense morning.
After our three presenters, students had free time to get lunch at an outdoor mall. Then, they were off to the beach where I am sure they had a great time!