My most recent visit to Israel, by far the longest, provided more of an immersion experience than did earlier stays. Most of my time was spent in Jerusalem, a city both spiritual and cosmopolitan, and in Bnai Brak, a center of the Hareidi or ultra-Orthodox community.
My strongest impression was of the diversity of this tiny country, the size of New Jersey. At Ben Gurion Airport there are customs booths for “foreign passports” and “Israeli passports.” In the lines for Israeli citizens stood both religious and secular Jews. There were also Arab families, and people of African background.
On the route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the road signs are trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. In the streets, buses, trains, cafes, restaurants, shopping malls and hospitals, I saw Arabs and Jews, light-skinned and dark-skinned people, and heard Hebrew, English, French, Russian, Arabic and other languages. Conspicuous among the young soldiers who stroll the streets and congregate to chat were Ethiopians and other Africans. On one occasion I saw a young Chinese woman in Israeli army uniform. Several times black men with side-curls, carrying books and wearing Orthodox-type garb, walked by.
A manifestation (and perhaps a consequence) of this diversity and openness is the freedom with which people practice and express their religions. In Jerusalem, standing at the foot of the Western retaining wall of the Temple (the Wailing Wall), one frequently hears the call of the muezzin summoning Muslims to prayer. Magnificent churches, clerics walking in all sorts of habit and pilgrims from all over the world attest to a healthy Christian presence in this country. In Haifa is a magnificent temple and monumental garden, a center of the Baha’i sect that was driven from its homeland in Iraq and Persia.
Besides the diversity, I was impressed by acts of kindness that I encountered unexpectedly. When an elderly woman with packages or a pull-along shopping cart had difficulty boarding a bus, a young person, sometimes a teenager, would usually get up, walk to the front and help her to get on. Just as in our country, younger passengers offer their seats to older ones who are standing. I’m not young, but consider myself reasonably sturdy, yet on several occasions young people, even children, insisted on my taking their seat. In the highly Orthodox city of Bnei Brak there are large wooden chairs, firmly attached to the sidewalk at corners, bearing the inscription “To Honor the Elderly.”
I’m often asked if I feel nervous in a place that so many associate with violence. Quite honestly, I never have. It’s like the weather in Western New York. We all know that any winter could bring a catastrophe that would shut down whole communities for days. Yet we learn to live with this as background to the larger picture, confident in the experience of our snow plowers to get us through. I would say that Israelis have much the same mindset, confident in their government and citizen army. I spent time near the Lebanese border, and sensed no nervousness among the people living there.
As you wander through Israeli cities, it’s not surprising to see many bomb shelters, unobtrusive and often multipurpose, but there nonetheless. What you also find, however, is a remarkable number of children’s playgrounds, often quite elaborate. These appear to me emblematic of a people’s strong faith in their nation’s future.