Jewfro: Twelve Lesser-Known Tribes Of Israel

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By Ben Falik

It’s a new day in Israel — a remarkable, daily occurrence. It’s 3:30 in the morning back here in Michigan and I’m up, feeling the gravitational pull with a twist of Daylight Savings Time. My heart, mind and feet are still swollen from the trip, my first since the 1998 Teen Mission 2 Israel.

I know just enough about Israel to be dangerous, so I’ll lean on something I heard repeatedly over the last two weeks: This is a tribal place. Beyond the ancient 12, the present ones — ultra-Orthodox, Bedouin, Yemenite — bore at least passing resemblance to how my tour guide Leon Uris described them in his sprawling, sparing novel Exodus. But I identified far more tribes, fluid as their membership may be, than I could have possibly imagined. Among those that accepted me as one of their own — even though I had little to offer other than a healthy appetite and a suitcase full of Repair the World shirts — were these 12:

  1. Loddites. Like Detroit, the city of Lod has suffered from population loss, blight and segregation for years. And like Detroit, Lod refuses to go gentle into the night. To stem the tide of young leaders leaving for nearby Tel Aviv and beyond, Project Re:Lod is building a tribe of college students to be the change they wish to see in Lod. I walked through the city with some of them, and we discussed the challenges and opportunities of respectfully entering a community and focusing on its assets rather than its deficits.
  2. The West Bank. Through Encounter, a group “dedicated to strengthening the capacity of the Jewish people to be constructive agents of change in transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” I experienced the warmth and hospitality of Christians and Muslims living around Bethlehem. I heard the same sense of hope, frustration, purpose and fatigue as I did in communities throughout Israel.
  3. Hapoel Jerusalem B.C. Distinguished by their elaborate red and black regalia, fans of professional basketball in Jerusalem pledge fierce loyalty to their tribe, especially as they look to defend their first national championship against perennial favorite Maccabi Tel Aviv. I rooted extra hard for Eli Holman, the University of Detroit-Mercy alum
    playing his first game for the Lions.
  4. Ore to Excellence. Young tribes of high school mentors and middle school mentees (just like PeerCorps!) gather in Ashdod and other marginalized communities around Israel’s periphery through Ore to Excellence. They invited me into their safe space and found my answers about Lacoste and Leatherman sufficient to indulge me in a Rock Paper Scissors tournament in which I fared poorly.
  5. American-Israelis. Whether they made aliyah 30 years ago or last month, this tribe has possibly the hardest kind of dual citizenship: explaining, if not defending, American politics to Israelis and Israeli politics to Americans.
  6. In Transit and Traffic. Roving tribes form and disband throughout congested commutes across Israel, bound together by a deep devotion to Waze, a GPS app created in Israel that aggregates user tips about accidents, traffic jams and speed traps. I am told the way I drive would make me a natural member of their tribe.
  7. Kfar Tikva. This “Village of Hope” serves more than 200 Israeli adults with special needs. The tribe is proud of the crafts they make to sell, their animal care facility and Tulip Winery. Interviewed for their TV station, I talked about how proud the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit is to support them and about JARC. Then I day drank.
  8. ArtSpace. Nomadic by nature or necessity, this tribe — artists from a variety of backgrounds working in as many media, including street art — has turned an old industrial area in Tel Aviv into a rich district of studios and galleries that they are well on their way of pricing themselves out of.
  9. Interns. I joined this humble tribe for a day in the mayor’s office in Jerusalem. The last mayor I interned for had something in common with the last two in Jerusalem: bribery. Mayor Nir Barkat, though, runs a clean shop. He and his staff focus on service delivery and economic development across Israel’s largest city, toiling under a global microscope.
  10. Strangers. As captured in the Oscar-winning documentary Strangers No More, South Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School has students from 48 different countries. I spoke the universal language with their students: bad dancing. Large populations that escaped to Israel from Sudan and Eritrea, as well as guest workers who overstay their visas — neighbors for some, infiltrators according to others — live in a state of uncertainty in Israel.
  11. IDF. Of all the places soldiers are present in Israel — many places — I got to see the uniformed tribe in their element: gardening, dancing and playing dominos as part of a volunteer program at a senior center.
  12. Saftas and Sabras. These tribal elders from across the global diaspora came together in their ancestral home over decades. Yisrael Kristal, the 112-year-old Holocaust survivor and former confectioner was recently named the world’s oldest man. At the center, an air force pilot and I joined them in singing songs from their youth, mostly in Hebrew and Russian, in preparation for their Passover concert. We sang only one line that I recognized — though I never recognized it as a lived experience, plucked from the pages of Exodus and Exodus, of Israel as a lifeline in a hostile world: Let my people go.
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