The next several posts will be excerpts from a week spent in Israel as a participant in the Wexner Heritage Program. In reporting what I saw, and not so much what I think, I hope to convey the vivid and incredibly complex patchwork that is life in a state that doesn't know the meaning of "normal".
While our group of Wexner program participants was visiting Israeli communities around Gaza, another group went to visit Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. The idea of these trips was to give we American Jews some sense of the "many faces of Israel": yet other groups met with Arab Christians, with Palestinians whose lives and communities had been sundered by the security barrier, with Muslim spiritual leaders in the Muslim Quarter of Jersualem's Old City, and with settlers in West Bank communities. Although all our trips included some risk, it was the group of Jews who visited this Mea Shearim that wound up feeling most threatened.
Our friends in the group reported it this way (quotes are my attempts to reconstruct from memory what was said):
They made sure we were dressed modestly, so as not to offend. Women in our group had their hair covered, and they wore long sleeves and skirts. Men had on shirts past their elbows, and long pants.
As we were walking through the community toward the yeshiva we were going to visit, people were glaring at us, and some shouted at our tour guide, asking did he make sure we were modestly dressed, asking us what we were doing there, stuff like that.
When we got to the front door of the yeshiva, things got really ugly. As we walked up the steps to the building, a crowd started to gather. They began shouting and pushing us away from the door. Then a bunch of them -- young men, mostly -- physically blocked the doorway with their bodies. I really thought it was going to get physical there, with these guys shouting and pushing us back, and people hemming us in on all sides.
Our tour guide explained that we'd been invited by the rosh yeshiva [principal of the yeshiva] to visit the place. Just then, the principal steps out and begs people not to behave in this way, to let us in, that we'd been invited. The crowd of men moved back to let the men in our group in, but they would not let the women through the door. So the women stayed outside while we went in to visit with the principal.
So we go in, hoping to talk to him about the community and the school, and their attitude towards Jews like us who aren't ultra-Orthodox. We had our answer soon enough. There's shouting outside and something starts flying through the windows of this guy's little office.
At first we were scared, but then it turned out that somebody was throwing kugel at us through the window! Big gobs of it are splattering against the window pane and flying onto the floor. The principal goes over and shuts the window, but pretty soon bigger and bigger gobs of kugel are slamming against the window.
At that point, we all agreed to cut our visit short.
At the end of the week, the group received from the principal of the yeshiva a profound apology on behalf of his school and the entire community. The tour guide also returned the check that was to have paid for his services.
It was clear to our friends who experienced this that it was a non-representative minority of ultra-Orthodox "Jewligans" who perpetrated this near-violence. That reassured our friends, but it also saddened them that this community, which sees itself as a guardian of Jewish values, couldn't or wouldn't control its most confrontational element, in whose view the shaming of fellow Jews was entirely justified.