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A Shabbat Picnic Showed Me Jerusalem’s Diversity

A Shabbat Picnic Showed Me Jerusalem’s Diversity

The author and a friend in a Jerusalem park on Shabbat

During Shabbat in Israel, everything and everyone slows down. Very few cars are on the road, only a couple of shops are open, and Israelis take a break from their usual hurried pace to breathe. Shabbat in Israel also provides a chance for people to share space in ways that they otherwise might not.

On a recent Shabbat, I spent the afternoon with friends over a picnic in Gan Sacher, one of the largest parks in Jerusalem. We packed up a lunch of fresh fruit and cheese from the Machane Yehuda market, challah and hummus from the previous night’s meal, Bissli (a popular Israeli snack food), and rugelach, and sat under a tree chatting, reading, napping, and soaking up the Jerusalem sun.

We weren’t alone in our Shabbat rest. Within a few steps of our picnic blanket, we watched people from every corner of Jerusalem spend some time.

When we arrived at Gan Sacher, hundreds of tsofim, or scouts, were spread around the park. These teenagers, mostly secular and all in uniform, were participating in a weekly meeting. They listened to music, ate lunch, and played games, including some that we recognized from the scouts that spend their summers at Reform Jewish summer camps in North America.

Eventually the scouts moved on and were replaced by other teenagers, speaking English. We watched as a number of groups from BBYO’s International Leadership Seminar in Israel participated in reflections as their trip ended. Behind these teens, a group of Israelis sat around winding away the afternoon playing guitar and games. One person in our group even ran into a student of hers from when she was a JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) Fellow in Latvia!

Soon, an Argentinian-Israeli modern Orthodox family sat near us, their two young kids running around and playing. They were not the only ones: dozens of families were scattered across the park from all parts of the secular-religious spectrum. We chatted with a few of the English-speaking families, sharing in the joy of a peaceful Shabbat afternoon.

As the sun started to wane, more and more people arrived. Americans threw around a football, and secular Israelis tossed a frisbee. Israeli children wearing tzitzit kicked a soccer ball, and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) kids rolled, laughing, down a hill. Groups of children from the neighborhoods nearby wandered around, enjoying the time between Shabbat lunch and Havdalah (the service that separates Shabbat from the new week).

As we left Gan Sacher, the pavilion where the scouts had eaten lunch overflowed with a group of Ethiopian Israelis, from babies to grandparents, enjoying a barbeque. We heard laughter and shouts in many languages from the playground as we returned to our apartment to conclude this holy day.

One of the markers of holy time, according to Elizer Schweid, an Israel professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is that it should guide or change how we live out the normal periods of time in our life. That Shabbat reminded me of the beauty, joy, and holiness that comes from the intermingling of stories, identities, and communities. Sharing space, even if only a park on a Shabbat afternoon, is something we too often fail to achieve. Our daily responsibilities and routines lead us to encounter only the same people over and over. Having spent holy time in Gan Sacher on Shabbat, I hope to bring the joy and opportunities of sharing space with diverse people into the rest of the week.

Aaron Torop, a first-year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, most recently served as a Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) in Washington, D. C. He is a former member of the NFTY-STR Regional Board and an alumnus of URJ Camp Coleman, where he was a camper, counselor, and unit head.

Aaron Torop
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