We started with the complete 4000 year history of Israel, covered in one hour. Our lecturer was Ben Reis from Kol Voice Seminars, a group that provides Israeli History lectures to young Jews. Most of the lecture was review but Ben said something that I had never thought of before: the number of Arabs expelled from Israel (~600,000) in 1948 is similar to the the number of Jews expelled from Arab countries over the following decade. Like the Arabs in Israel, some left by choice, but most were dispossessed of their property and land and told to leave the country.
We left the classroom for the street and hopped in a shuttle for the hour long drive to Jerusalem. We shuffled our way through the Shuk (market), following our young guide, a ninth generation Jerusalem resident. Traditionally, each ethnic group has its own section of the Shuk: Moroccans, Yemenites, Iraqis, etc. With the advent of hipsters, the Shuk is a bit more chic and the ethnic sections are mixed in with sleek new espresso bars. We tried a bunch of traditional foods, including chat (or qat for you scrabblers) – the African leaf which laborers chew during their toil; it provides a low level buzz. We also tried stone ground Tahini and wood fired pita straight from the oven.
After a lunch break we boarded the shuttle for the Masa Opening Event. Masa is the umbrella organization for our 10 month program, they contribute money to dozens of programs with young adults from all over the world. At the event we heard French, Russian, English, Ukrainian, and Spanish. We filled the auditorium and listened to quite optimistic and zealous speeches. I was moved by Natan Sharansky, who suffered a decade of solitary confinement in a Soviet gulag for spying for the USA. After release he made Aliyah to Israel and became an activist for Russian jews.
Next up to the podium was Benjamin Netanyahu, the center-right Prime minister of Israel who gets along so well with the Obama Administration. He convinced us that we belonged in Israel, that this is our country. He also asked us to go home to our communities and universities and stand up against the lies Israel faces abroad. I asked my Israeli colleague what he though about Bibi and he said, “I voted Avodah (labor).”
The highlight of the day was something Bibi said. While lauding Masa, Bibi expressed pleasure at all the different groups present. He said, “There are so many great groups here: The Tech Fellows, the English Teachers…” He went on to list two or three other groups but we couldn’t hear because our group was screaming so loud. Bibi mentioned us first amongst hundreds of groups and thousands of participants. I felt honored, but I also felt a huge weight placed on my shoulders. We have such a reputation that we are on the tip of the prime minister’s tongue. I hope this will push us even harder to succeed.
I was most excited for the act following Bibi: The Idan Raichel Project. Idan Raichel, is incredibly popular among young jews in the USA and, since being exposed to his music, I’ve been a huge fan. His music is diverse and features musicians from Morocco, Sudan, Ethiopia, Spain, and all over the world. There is a wonderful Middle Eastern and African synthesis in his music with an emphasis on Semitic languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and Amharic. We left our seats and crowded near the stage to dance; it was a great bonding experience for a group still getting comfortable with each other.
The rest of the week will be a little less cultural/historical and a little more technical. We will learn about Cloud Computing, the Internet, Cyber Security, and Linux.