Visitors from Upper Galilee eye Jewish, Palestinian activism here

Last week, 10 Israelis got a crash course on Jewish life in America.

All from the Upper Galilee, the partner community of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the 10 are all in their late 20s or early 30s. They are a combination of religious and secular, kibbutzniks and city dwellers.

"The Upper Galilee isn't a community; it's an area," explained one of the program's participants, Jonathan Freedman, an educator from Kibbutz Hulata. He added that the group's participants have more differences among them than commonalities.

Called MAGA (the acronym stands for Upper Galil Leadership), which means "to touch," the group has been meeting together for the past year. Participants did not know each other before the program started, with funding from the overseas committee of the JCF.

Group members share a deep commitment to the development of their region. The JCF and the Israelis also hope that by making personal connections, they will be better able to help each other.

While in San Francisco, MAGA participants visited synagogues and Jewish agencies such as the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. They listened to presentations by rabbis and educators. They attended the opening of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. And for many of them who were visiting the United States for the first time, they got an up-close look at what it is to be a Jew in America.

"It's opening our eyes much wider," said Freedman.

Smadar Sela, a drama therapist from Kiryat Shmona, said that as an Orthodox woman, she was amazed to find that in San Francisco, representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and gay and lesbian communities can all get together and converse on friendly terms. "In Israel an Orthodox and a haredi can't be in a room without screaming at each other," she said. "It's my dream that I can take some of this back home and we can create a common space."

Several participants commented on the hospitality they received here, saying that it rivaled what they believed was unrivaled Israeli hospitality. "It's nice to see Jews are Jews no matter what," Freedman said.

Sela said she was moved by visits to local social services institutions, which showed that the U.S. Jewish community really looks after itself. In Israel, most social services are handled by the government, which until now she thought was the best way. The fact that the Jewish community supplements such governmental programs here "shows that it's not just bureaucracy; people are doing it from their heart."

The participants said they were shocked upon learning how the unrest in Israel, which has been affecting their lives so greatly, was playing out in the Bay Area, specifically on the U.C. Berkeley campus.

Berkeley's Hillel Director Adam Weisberg spoke to the group about pro-Palestinian activism on campus, as well as the campaign to divest U.C. funds from Israel.

When she heard that Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley felt under siege, Sela thought she was going to explode.

Said Sam Elhadef, a Metullah store owner: "I knew the Jewish American community is affected by what happens in Israel, but I didn't know how much. I want to bring the IDF [Israel Defense Force] to protect the Jewish students here."

Sela also believes Americans don't have a balanced picture of the Mideast conflict. "The propaganda works," she said. "The Palestinians do a good job."

While emphasizing that he did not intend to be political, Freedman said, "I would like to see the Palestinian students be more concerned about their final exams rather than with this kind of anti-Semitic protest."

Of the current situation in Israel, Sela, Freedman and Elhadef, who joked that they were "born on Katyushas," said the fact that the violence has moved from their region, with the withdrawal from Lebanon, to the rest of the country did not make it any easier.

"It makes us apathetic," said Elhadef. Sela agreed, saying she bought a newspaper only once a week to catch up, and she never listened to the radio.

Because she is a therapist who works with the mentally ill and the disabled, Sela said the people she sees have more immediate problems. In a way, she believes she has to save all her empathy for them.

Elhadef remarked on the trademark resilience of Israelis, who have become accustomed to living in a war zone.

"It's crazy that we can adjust to such craziness," he said. He described a period when he could see the Katyushas falling from his living room window, as he watched television.

"There is no word for this," he said. Running to a bomb shelter is useless, because "if it doesn't get you in the living room, it will catch you on the way."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."