On today’s “enrichment” journey, we toured a few parts of Ashdod that not all of us have had the chance to explore yet.
During our first stop, at the New Immigration Municipality, we had the chance to learn more about the social and cultural makeup of Ashdod. Ashdod has relatively large Ethiopian, Russian, French, and South American populations, and a representative from each gave a presentation, including their own personal immigration stories. The Ethiopian representative only just scratched the surface of his incredible story: trekking a year on foot at the age of seven, travelling at night to escape government eyes, living on little food and water, and avoiding danger and death at every turn. This threat to Jews is not something just of the past, either. Most recently, Ashdod has been preparing for an incoming wave of 6,000 French immigrants, due to the rising antisemitism in Europe. It is amazing to realize the kind of sanctuary that Israel represents for Jews all over the world.
We then took a quick visit to a Russian marketplace, and observed the differences in wares (mostly food) and signage. While here the signs were mostly in Russian and Hebrew, everywhere else has signs predominantly in Hebrew and English.
English, we learned, is attractive and “cool” to have on your signs, because it represents the wealth of America, the “land of gold.”
For our trip, we were told that we would be visiting some Orthodox neighborhoods, so the girls wore long skirts and dresses, and the men wore long pants and shirts. Turned out we would just be driving through these parts of Ashdod. As we drove through, I realized how very rarely I encounter Orthodox Ashdodians on the streets where we live and work. Our tour guide, Shahar, said that these Orthodox areas were actually recognized as “ghettos” – isolated neighborhoods – and while the term usually has negative connotations, Orthodox populations actually embrace the term, preferring to be kept separate from the outside world. The street names we passed here (normally named after historical leaders or magnificent natural structures) were all named after great rabbis.
I had mixed feelings about seeing these neighborhoods. At first, I was frustrated that we had made the effort to dress appropriately to visit the area, only to be stuck peering through the glass at passing families and synagogues, like fish at the aquarium. It felt very much like we were tourists in our own city, and intruding on these spaces. My picture of Ashdod was changing, and I struggled to find a way to fit the very open way of my Ashdodian families with these new, closed settlements. This is not to say I find Orthodox families unwelcoming at all – just a few Shabbats ago, Todd and I were invited to and dined in Michal’s home. But most Orthodox families do not even use the internet, without which I would have never got in contact with Michal. There are many walls in place between the cultures that are difficult to make connections through.
The Orthodox separation from contemporary society is crucial for their dedicated religious lifestyle, and such divisions can be found throughout Israel. I am in awe at how they continue to lead their lives this way, upholding their traditions and particular communities’ values. I find it, in a way, beautiful, to have such spiritual awareness. Still, I can’t shake the estrangement I felt today.
Especially as we departed from these developments to experience the natural dunes and parks, I remembered the Orthodox separation not only from society, but also from nature, that their religious practices often dictate. In Israel, I have felt that there is so much awareness and action to protect the land and the environment, and I’ve thrived in it – but this is not a priority for all of Israel. I don’t want to be so frustrated by this difference. Instead, I will continue to take part in the beautiful and compassionate relationship with nature that is offered to me, and benefit from it in a way I can only find here.