Josh, one of our 5 month Social Action track participants, recently wrote the following blog post about a group day trip to Jerusalem's Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood:
This past Sunday our program took a trip to Jerusalem for the day. The purpose of our visit was to tour some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Now, we currently live in a fairly Orthodox neighborhood, but evidently there’s a pretty big difference between “pretty Orthodox” and “ultra-Orthodox.” We went to a neighborhood called Mea Shearim, which is fairly well known. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I felt intially very uncomfortable. Why? Well, this is what you see when you enter the neighborhood:
It felt like it was still the late 19th century in there. The manner of dress, the lack of most technology, the seemingly simple lifestyle. Evidently, these super-Orthodox (technically the term is “Haredi”) do not have televisions or computers or the internet for fear of coming across any immodest images. They all have cell phones though, which seems slightly out of place given the rest of the environment, but whatever floats their boat.
In addition to the interesting sign that greeted us upon entering Mea Shearim, we also saw this one:
Overall, I found the experience to be a positive one. It was certainly uncomfortable at times, and there were parts where I didn’t want to be there at all. For example, we went to a supermarket at some point to see all the crazy hullabaloo happening in preparation for Pesach. Um, a supermarket? Really? I left and waited outside. It felt like we were treating these people like animals in a zoo. Despite ridiculousness like this, there were some good parts. We had an opportunity to watch some people make handmade matzot for Pesach. It was quite the operation and extremely hot inside the bakery (for lack of a better word.) The guy running the place was happy to let us stand inside and watch and even spoke to us for a little bit. This made me feel more welcome and less like an intruder, which for all intents and purposes, we were.
After our tour of this neighborhood, we had some free time in the big shuk in Jerusalem. I remember going there on Birthright. It’s quite a bit bigger than the shuks we usually go to in Tel Aviv. Jon bought some chopped liver there that was ridiculously good.
After our break at the shuk, we actually went to a small synagogue and spoke to a Heredi Jew about their lifestyle. This was very educational. The man, Ellie, was funny and eager to talk to us. I got the feeling he was among the more liberal members of the ultra-Orthodox community. We all spoke together for well over an hour. We all had a lot of questions for him and he answered them quite honestly. Abby asked him at one point about his opinion on increased settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. He said that although he felt that the land belonged to Jews and not Arabs, he felt like the settlements served no purpose other than to antagonize and thus were not a good idea. I liked this. It was honest and thoughtful and realistic. I don’t feel like I hear this response very often, and I did not expect it from a member of the Haredi community.
Our group headed back to Tel Aviv after this, but a few of us stuck around. It was a pretty last minute decision to hop off the bus, but I figured if I’m already in Jerusalem, I might as well check out the Old City and the Kotel. So, Alana, her friend Elisa from home, Evin, Josh M., and I wandered around the Old City for a while. We saw touristy stuff like King David’s Tomb, the Last Supper room, Zion Gate, and of course, the Kotel. Here are some pictures:
As many of you know, its tradition to leave a note or prayer in the wall, which I have happily done each time I’ve visited the Wall. As I was finishing writing my note this time, an Orthodox woman with a little boy asked to borrow my pen. I had a silly pencil in my bag that one of my supervisors had given me at one of my volunteer placements, so I gave the boy the pencil to keep. He didn’t say much and mostly just stared at me, but hopefully he gets more use out of the silly, colorful pencil than I did.
And so after our visit to the Wall, we headed home. Well, Evin and Josh M. and I did. Alana and her friend Elisa stayed the night in what appeared to be a pretty sweet hostel in the Old City. As we were leaving the Old City, we saw this displayed on the outer walls by Jaffa Gate:
It was thousands of little light bulbs lit up in the shape of the Israeli flag. It was HUGE. I think they were testing it out for something future event, because it was literally only on for 30 seconds. We lucked out when we nabbed pictures for ourselves. It was a great ending to an occasionally uncomfortable, always interesting, very hot, and very long day.