by Roni Ben-David, Chicago
Shvat 5763 - January 2003
I've had some strange experiences in taxis. Nonetheless when my driver suddenly sent the car in reverse while on the highway I was taken by surprise. Gripping my seat, I calmly asked him what he was doing. He continued to take us backwards, slowing finally to squint in the direction of a man pedaling his bike along the side of the road. "Do you know him?" I asked. Now he looked at me, smiled, and explained. While driving by he thought he had seen the man drop a parcel by the road. "You see there is a school nearby, we must be careful," he said. For the first time I looked closely at my driver, a middle-aged man with an embroidered kippah clipped to his sparse hair. I thought to myself, of course he went back to check because he is an Israeli. I don't even have eyes trained to notice such things, having grown up in a country where I don't need to. Moreover, I don't interrupt what I'm doing to follow up on suspicions. The rest of the ride was in silence, only broken when I thanked him at my destination.
I can't claim that this man was a typical Israeli-Israelis are too varied to be defined by broad generalizations. But he displayed a characteristic that all Israelis seem to share: a sense of collective responsibility. This tendency to look out for one another may have been magnified as a result of the current situation but it has clearly always been a trait of Israeli society.
I've experienced this cultural phenomenon to a great extent since my move three weeks ago. Like all Otzma participants, I have moved out of the immigrant absorption center and into an apartment in a development town, where I have begun full-time volunteer work. I split my time between two locations, Netivot and Kiryat Gat, both relatively small towns situated in the Negev Desert. Occasionally, someone will tease me about the lack of nightlife in these places. As a matter of fact, I respond with great pride, I get asked out every single Friday night (more than I could say for myself in America!) That's right, I explain, nearly every person I meet invites me over for Shabbat dinner! What my new home lacks in entertainment, it makes up for in the warmth and hospitality of its residents. As soon as someone finds out that I am a newcomer from abroad I am offered everything from a cup of mint tea to a date with their son!
I have a group of students studying English at one volunteer site that particularly embodies this quality of Israeli society. I only get to see them twice a week because they are busy the other mornings-shopping at the outdoor market and preparing to spend Shabbat with their children and grandchildren. The class is made up of older woman, ranging from sixty to eighty years old, who have chosen to study now because they were denied the opportunity to study as children in their countries of birth-mainly Morroco, Tunisia, and Iran. I constantly pause our lessons to listen to their stories-of marriage as a young teen and of sons dying in the Israeli army-or laugh at their jokes. They stroke my cheek, feed me fresh-baked lachmanyot (rolls), and urge me to come over for some of their spicy couscous dishes. "You're mother, she worries about you here?" they sometimes ask. "Tell her you're okay, you have lots of Imas (mothers) taking care of you." And I know I do.
Thinking about my lifestyle in America, I realize that I often went through the day on cruise-control-consumed by personal worries with no consideration of the world outside my own. This just isn't possible in Israel, where the fate of the country's very existence is constantly threatened. Moreover, it is counter-intuitive for Israelis-from the crib to the army they are socialized to be concerned with the welfare of their fellow citizens. By volunteering here this year I'm not doing anything exceptional, but rather fulfilling a duty that people here accept everyday.
Sometimes my group takes off from our regular schedules to volunteer where there is a particular need. Such is the case this Sunday, when I will join other Otzma participants to pass out gas masks at a community center in Ramle. Again, the country is being tested-not by terrorism from within but by hostility from surrounding countries. I'm certain that Israelis will overcome the crisis by supporting each other as they have always done. This time, I will join them in the effort.