Zvi Sonenstein, AMIT Nachshon Yeshiva teacher, writes about South Africa bike trip
"We are embarking on a shared journey, to build our nation - a better and more unified and more just nation."
No, this wasn't taken from a speech by a battalion commander before the soldiers set off for their beret march, nor by the head of the Histadrut at the start of some of protest march. It was, in fact, a head of a yeshiva in far off South Africa who gave an address before the start of a bicycle ride which connected creeds, religions and peoples, a week-long bike ride across South Africa. The ride's participants were religious Jewish school students and South African students from nearby Soweto.
We, a group of five students and a teacher from the AMIT Nachshon Yeshiva in Mateh Yehuda, were invited to take part. We knew we were going to take part in a bicycle trek which was designed to bring disparate groups together, and to bridge gaps between opposites of South Africa's population. We were delighted to join the cultural encounter. We wanted to meet local people and we wanted to connect and integrate with the Jews living there. Not for a moment did we think we were going to take part in a trek which aimed to build "our nation", the South Africa nation…
It was the first time I had met a Jewish community in the Diaspora. Actually, I had previously visited Poland and the Ukraine where I met communities, but they were always dead communities, communities that had been decimated and murdered or, in the best case, had run away. It was the first time I had met a community of Jews living in the Diaspora.
And they live well, very well. There, they have not heard of the consumer price index and are not aware of the housing shortage. Their grand houses are surrounded by fences within which employees and servants provide for their every need. The synagogues are full - of ultra-orthodox, religious and quite a few "born again" Jews. We attended prayer services, we read about the tribulations of the Diaspora in the Torah, about expulsion from the Land of Israel, about how this was a severe punishment of our people after we became estranged from God. After the service we sat down for Kiddush will lots of singing, Torah wisdom and a lavish spread of food.
And this is the Diaspora, the pinnacle of the Diaspora. It is not only that God expels you from Israel you also believe it is a normal state of affairs. You are religious, study the Torah and keep the commandments but, when you read from the Torah, you don't even notice that God is telling you that you are distant from Him, that your situation is, in fact, the punishment…
The winds of the month of Elul are blowing and washing over the world, and we are coming back. The wheels of the plane are about to set down on the Ben Gurion Airport landing strip. Our group is about to return to Israel, to our home. We have mixed feelings - it was great fun, beautiful and fascinating. We had a very special vacation. But we encountered such a different life reality there, so remote. We nurtured some glimmer of hope that, possibly, at least for the Jewish students there it was a meaningful encounter, meeting youth who live in Israel, in a country to which they truly belong, a country whose army they are about to join in order to protect its independence. Maybe next year, when they once again read the Torah portions about the Diaspora, maybe then some of them will note that the punishment of expulsion is really what they are living, and that they have the power to change and correct the punishment, with all the difficulties that entails.
On the way home from the airport social justice was still a news item. Someone on the radio said that we are embarking on a shared journey to build our nation - a better and more unified and more just nation. I still don't know whether I agree with him, and I want to join in on this journey but, at least, I know that this voyage is truly our voyage, of our nation.
To Naveh and Partnership2Gether - thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to take part.
To Amit, Gabi, Uri, Amihai and Azaria - thank you for the wonderful experience!