Off the Beaten Path

Anyone who has taken a standard Israeli tour of Jerusalem is familiar with the drill. You walk through the Jaffa Gate, perhaps stop at the Hurva Synagogue or the rooftops viewpoint, visit an overlook of the Kotel, descend to the main Kotel plaza, pray, and leave the Old City. However, anyone who looks at a guidebook for Jerusalem is amazed at the wealth of incredible sites that they may not be familiar with—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Austrian Hospice, Zedekiah’s cave, the Temple Mount, Robinson’s Arch and many more.

Understandably, the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth has never been a key destination for Jewish youth groups. While Birthright trips and Israel gap-year programs flock to Jerusalem, they merely glaze over Christianity’s holiest site as a passing reference in a lecture, and never actually pay a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However, licensed Israel tour guide and NOAM Olami director Reut Yahav disagrees. “It’s important to remember that most people in the world look towards Jerusalem as a Holy City. Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and this is the holiest site for the Christian faith. You can’t understand Jerusalem without understanding religion, and you

can’t understand the city without understanding Christian and Muslim history and their connections to the holy sites.” Reut maintains that as a pluralistic movement, we owe it to our young leaders to educate them about Jerusalem in the fullest sense—not just about the Kotel, but about what Jerusalem means to Muslims and Christians as well as to Jews.

Reut’s personal connections to Jerusalem and the Old City are deep. While she grew up in French Hill where she was active in NOAM in the Ramot Zion congregation, she spent much of her time with her grandmother in the Old City’s Jewish quarter.

Her grandmother, Marietta Samuel is an 86-year-old Olah from California who made Aliyah shortly after the Six Day War. Originally living in Rehovot, she moved to Jerusalem to be closer to her grandchildren, settling in the Old City in 1982. She moved into one of the surviving 500-year-old apartments in the Jewish quarter tucked behind the facade of a used book store. She is always sure to tell her guests that “the Old City is only one square kilometer. And for the most part, its residents get along—I have Palestinian neighbors across the courtyard for me, and my other neighbors are ultra-Orthodox. We get along just fine, and if we can do it here, then there is hope for the rest of the country”.

Reut took this influence and love for her country to heart, and following her IDF service and university studies, she dedicated two years of her life to the intensive training process to become a licensed Israel tour guide—learning geology, botany, zoology, archeology, religion, history, and politics of Israel from pre-historic times until this very day. While she no longer leads tours for a living, she still loves to be able to show groups around Israel, and the highlight of her year is the Onward NOAM Olami group that comes to Jerusalem each summer.

Onward NOAM Olami is a six-week summer program run as a partnership between Onward Israel and Masorti Olami. Geared towards Masorti youth leaders, the university-aged participants spend six weeks of their summer vacation living independently in apartments in Jerusalem, working as interns at Israeli companies, and learning about Masorti Judaism and how to become leaders for the NOAM youth movement.

The cohort of 10 participants for Summer 2018 hails from Chile, Kenya, Sweden, Uganda, UK and Ukraine. They have scored particularly prestigious internships—including jobs at the Knesset, research in hospitals, high-tech companies, special-needs kindergartens, and organic farms etc.  They have met with the leaders of the Masorti Movement including Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institutes, Rabbi Mauricio Balter of Masorti Olami, Rabbi Andrew Sacks who heads the Israeli Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in order to discuss the ideology of the Masorti Movement, and they receive regular speakers discussing themes pertinent for the movement.

Furthermore, once each week NOAM Olami participants do a NOAM Olami seminar where they discuss challenges that they have in their home chapters, and strategize as a cohort and share ideas as how to best address them. Participants also have a weekly meeting with Reut Yahav, director of NOAM Olami where they develop a work plan for the coming year and strategize how to increase their chapter’s activity in the coming year—be it starting a semi-annual conference, or upping the group’s meetings from monthly to weekly. Participants remain in close contact with NOAM Olami staff throughout the year and consult with them regularly regarding the implementation of the year plan the conducting activities. Furthermore, they also have a network of other NOAM leaders from around the world—their cohorts from Onward—who they can consult for advice.

The other central component of Onward NOAM Olami are the educational days. Once each week, NOAM Olami participants, along with their Madricha, Jeane, take an educational field trip to a different region of the country, each one with a different theme. The day in the south focused on interfaith collaboration in the south of Israel between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Negev, while the participants spent an entire day in Tel Aviv examining graffiti and learning about contemporary issues facing Israeli society via slogans spray-painted on walls in southern Tel Aviv—from illegal immigration, to gay rights, from to the Occupation to Sarah Netanyahu.

However, the group’s first educational day focused on their new home city—Jerusalem. Many Onward Participants experienced a visit to the Kotel—Judaism’s holiest site—for the first time. They had the opportunity to rest their heads on its cool, ancient walls and connect their thoughts and prayers with those of so many other Jews before them. While at the Kotel they also saw ultra-Orthodox religious coercion first-hand when the group was confronted by women from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who gruffly insisted that women in the NOAM group were not wearing sufficiently modest sleeves and need to cover-up. Following this run-in, the group paid a visit to the Ezrat Israel egalitarian worship plaza at Robinson’s Arch, and contemplated the differences in the experience between the two prayer spaces and the place of religion in the public sphere in Israel.

Having visited the main Jewish and Christian sites of the Old City, the group sought out some well-needed shade Reut’s grandmother’s bookshop and cooled off with popsicles in her living room as they debriefed the day and what they saw and felt during the tour. Though the Muslim sites and the status of the Temple Mount are clearly central to any understanding of Jerusalem and the religious conflicts surrounding it, current security regulations cordon the Temple Mount and the entire Muslim Quarter of the Old City off as a zone prohibited for youth tour groups. Therefore, the group took the opportunity to discuss the significance of Islam and its holy sites to the sanctity of Jerusalem—as well as its role in the conflict over the city.

As the Onward NOAM Olami participants continue their session in Jerusalem and their summer in the city, they have gained an increased appreciation of the diversity that the city contains and what makes Jerusalem so unique.