The Israel We Don't See: Social Action Issues

Today, Wednesday, was field trip day at the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) convention. In my capacity as co-chair of the RA Social Action Committee I thought it would be interesting to participate in one of the two field trips that highlighted those concerns. Our day started in a high school boarding school, funded by the Jewish Agency, for children from broken or difficult homes. This youth village known as Kiryat Ye'arim is located just outside Jerusalem and is one of 5 such Jewish Agency funded villages. 55% of the youth are from Ethiopia, 25% are from the former Soviet Union, and the rest are native Israelis. 90% are boys. They all come from complicated home lives - parents who don't speak Hebrew, homes in impoverished neighborhoods and all the corollary issues that go along with that, and learning difficulties. The woman who spoke to us who can't be more than 35 directs the program. She is the most loving and caring person to those children. She gives them all hugs, teases them affectionately, and constantly supports and encourages them - all things they don't receive at home. Their goal is to enable these children to go into the army when they are 18 and hopefully pass the requisite high school matriculation exams. With her energy and passion it is no wonder that they are successful.

From there we went to a neighborhood of Tel Aviv that the average tourist never sees. The area around the new bus station isn't the most friendly. It is rather seedy and houses many poor and on-the-edge residents. We went there to learn about what is being done for the refugees from Darfur and Eritrea who somehow make it into Israel. We learned of the complex legal issues regarding political asylum in Israel and how the several thousand refugees are managing. Obviously they aren't faring well but there is an organization that is working to provide money, housing, and legal representation. Though everyone agrees that Israel should set a moral and religious example, especially since our history is one of persecution and exile, it isn't clear how to carry that out.

It was very moving and provocative to have been part of this trip today. Most of us when we travel to Israel prefer to act the tourist. We want to shop, see the sites, etc. and that is definitely our right. But Israel isn't just a tourist attraction - it's our homeland. Therefore, we need to know everything that is going on and how Israeli society is managing. What are its challenges? How do they treat their criminals? How do they treat the poor and disadvantaged? All of these are Jewish issues, taught in the Torah millenia ago, and meant to be lived in the land of Israel. Is Israel carrying out its mission and if not, how can we get involved?

I'll highlight some of these groups in the charities for next month - the month of Adar. But in the mean time lets hope and pray that Israel always strives, and especially the new government when it is formed, to be a "light unto the nations".