Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Happy Birthday, Israel. I got you a tent.

Asylum seekers waiting to register in Bnei Brak, 2018, photo credit: Faigy Lifschitz
Shelter from the sun, asylum seeker registration center, Bnei Brak (Photo credit Faigy Lifschitz)

It’s not always easy to celebrate birthdays, and I’m not just talking about ticking clocks and time’s wingèd chariot. Ten years ago, two days before my 48th birthday, my husband Peter, zichrono livracha, may his memory be for a blessing, died of a heart attack while playing squash. I didn’t celebrate my birthday that year, and I haven’t wanted to celebrate it since; the association with Peter’s death remains overwhelming.

I guess it’s my personal variation of the Yam Suf (Red Sea) dilemma: My creatures [the Egyptians] are drowning, God said to his angels in a midrash on Exodus 15, and you’re singing?

The Israelites escape over the Red Sea, while Pharaoh and his army drown, Add.27210, f.14v
Israelites escape over the Red Sea while Pharaoh and his army drown, British Library.

I had that Yam Suf feeling about Israel’s 70th birthday. The birth and growth of the modern state is miraculous; we should be celebrating. Do we ignore our children’s birthdays because, like all other human beings, they’re not perfect? (Well, mine are, of course, but you get my point…)

Yet it’s hard, for me at least, to disconnect Israel’s birthday from what died at the same time and has been dying ever since: another people’s future hope. We are all God’s creatures.

I’m not about to tell a story of how I managed to resolve the Yam Suf dilemma just in time to deck the halls in blue and white for Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day last week. I didn’t. Nor will I tell a story about the compassion owed even to our enemies, the Egyptians who drowned in the Sea of Reeds.

This is a story about our obligation to care for victims of wars in which we were not involved, and who came to us as survivors of a grueling escape from persecution – precisely the people we once were.

And it’s the story of a few short exchanges and small events in the days leading up to Israel’s 70th birthday that made me proud to be a citizen of Israel and reaffirmed my conviction that there’s nowhere else in the world I would rather live.

My friend Michal Shilor, a young social activist who works for the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, sent me an e-mail. Michal grew up in America, the daughter of Israeli parents. She decided to come back to Israel to do her army service and brought her family with her. Michal is my express link to Jerusalem as I wish it was and hope it will one day be.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling
Michal Shilor, Jerusalem Intercultural Center

Michal’s e-mail contained a video link to an Israeli news channel. Did I know anyone who could help, she asked? I watched the news clip and couldn’t believe my eyes. A small group of Hasidim from Bnei Brak, Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox heartland, were engaging panim al panim, face-to-face with African asylum seekers waiting outside Israel’s one and only asylum seeker registration center, located near a Bnei Brak supermarket.

Here’s the 11 minute video Michal sent. Please watch it. English subtitles start after a few seconds.

The spokesperson for this small Haredi group, a sheitel-wearing woman known as Faigy Lifshitz (not her real name), was figuring out what needed to be done to make the waiting area fit for humans. She had gone to the ‘super’, seen the refugees and the deplorable conditions at the compound (a zoo in the developing world would be better than this, she said), and taken that obligation upon herself.

Daniel, a fellow Hasid, was supervising the erection of a canvas shelter to protect the refugees from the rain and (more likely) burning sun as they wait, and wait, and wait …

Michal didn’t e-mail me out of the blue; she knows I care about the asylum seekers. My husband’s daughter, Elisheva Milikowsky, has devoted ten years of her life to their cause. Her commitment began in 2007 when, for lack of a better plan, the army were collecting the refugees who entered Israel illegally from Sinai across the Egyptian border and abandoning them to the kindness of strangers in downtown Beer Sheba.

They couldn’t have dreamed of a kinder stranger than Elisheva, who was studying Social Work at Ben Gurion University at the time. Like Faigy, Elisheva didn’t think – she just responded. She helped organize food and shelter for the shell-shocked refugees (later it emerged that many had been brutalized, and others killed, by human traffickers in Sinai); she co-founded ASSAF, an aid organization for asylum seekers; and, among her other activist work, she now volunteers with Come True, an incredible project enabling children who were at school in Tel Aviv before Israel’s government deported them to war-torn South Sudan, to complete their education at boarding schools in Uganda. (I wrote about Come True here.)

My own sons, Jacob and Jonah, each spent two years in Sierra Leone, and their connections with the country and the many friends they made there remain deep and strong. Jacob worked as a special assistant to Sierra Leone’s foreign minister. Now co-Director of the Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law School, he’s been intensely involved – along with other young Jews, I’m proud to say – in issues of race and inequality at the Law School.

Jonah conducted the fieldwork for his PhD in anthropology in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. He was there for much of the Ebola crisis, which became a focus of his research. Jonah completed his PhD two months ago, and to celebrate I gave him a kiddush cup engraved with words that are chanted at demonstrations against the deportation of asylum seekers: kol adam hu adam; ayn hevdel beyn dam l’dam, every person is a human being; all blood is blood.

As it happened, it was Yom HaShoah when Jonah and went to Iris Tutnauer’s Jerusalem workshop/studio to pick it up. What a day for these words, Iris said.

I don’t know their origin of those words (they seem to be related to Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5), but when I hear them now, I think of the amazing little girl, sitting on her dad’s shoulders at a demonstration a few months ago, calling them out clear and strong: kol adam hu adam ….

I want to be her when I grow up. (Photo by Toby Freilich)

As a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge in the late 1990’s, I was intensely involved efforts to make sure that girls like her grew up where they belonged: on top. I visited schools and taught in special summer programs on behalf of Cambridge University. And I supported student-led efforts, such as the first annual Yong Black and Asian Achievers Challenge Day for a hundred black and Asian 14-year-old’s from inner-city schools, which I conceived and oversaw.

As a student myself, I joined just one undergraduate society in my first year at Oxford – the Joint Action Committee Against Racial Injustice. My contribution was to spend an afternoon a week with a family who’d come recently from Pakistan, helping the kids with homework, filling out forms with their mother, and sharing the traditional tea they prepared especially for me because I’m English – red hot chilli bajjis and sweet milky tea. I have my own history of activism against racism.

I think I know people who can help, I replied to Michal’s e-mail, but can someone figure out how to add English subtitles to the video for non-Hebrew speakers? The answer, as you saw above, was yes. A woman called Julie Fisher, the wife of former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, had already organized subtitles, and was just waiting for permission from the TV channel to put the video up on YouTube. Julie emailed me herself the next day: success!

Haredi, Ultra-Orthodox, Jews do not deserve to be stereotyped, any more than Africans do, but still this is rare footage. Haredim tend to focus on the needs of their own communities, or at least other Jews, and other charitable works are likely to take place quietly, behind closed doors. Faigy’s decision to take a nom-de-plume and request that her face be concealed in the TV news report reflects, among other factors, harsh disapproval in her own community.

If Faigy ever had an easy life, her work with the asylum seekers has, to say the least, complicated it. When I spoke for the first time to Julie Fisher, I learned she too had needed to take account of other people’s sensitivities. Only when her husband Dan handed over the ambassadorial reigns could Julie fully follow her heart in the work she does on behalf of Israel’s African refugees.

My first step towards helping Faigy was to e-mail a few friends. Naomi Schacter shared names among her many contacts in the NGO world. Ruth Ostrin, whose daughter Yael conducted her MA fieldwork in Ethiopia and who has her own significant professional links to the developing world, wrote an extremely helpful set of guidelines about raising money and how to proceed in general. This is Ruth’s latest update. Please help if you can.

Right this minute, there is a tremendous need for donations for the following:

Chemical toilets (2): NIS 2,200 per month

Benches (10): NIS 8,000

Fabric covers for shade (3): NIS 12,000 (3 X NIS 4,000 per cover)

Water cooler (1000 liters): NIS 1,500 for installation: NIS 4,000 per month for service and maintenance

Cleaning the area: NIS 3,000 per month (2 X per week)

Printing information sheets: NIS 1,000 per month

There are two options for donations

If you do not need a tax receipt, Faigy Lifshitz at will put you in touch with the service provider and the donation can be made directly.

If you would like a receipt, donations can be made via BINA. If you make a donation using this link, please choose the project labeled Refugees and Asylum Seekers and then e-mail Faigy Lifshitz at telling her how much you’ve donated.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a prophet for our times with her own connections to maintenance and (from her student days) with Africa, put me in touch with Shana Roskies, the former director of the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York and an experienced activist. Everyone was moved and impressed. Everyone wanted to help.

In the meantime, my husband and I spoke to Faigy on the phone (she’s a human dynamo with speech patterns to match and I knew I wouldn’t catch everything on my own.) We asked her to send us a list of the improvements she and her team hoped to make at the Bnei Brak registration center, along with estimated costs. The list arrived by e-mail a few hours later.

Since we knew that the makeshift tent we’d seen in the video had collapsed in a rain storm soon after was erected, we offered to donate new tents. Within a day or two, Faigy sent photos and videos; the tents had been erected. They were beautiful, like a sukkah, and I found myself humming u’fros aleinu sukkat shelomecha, spread over us the shelter of your peace, to the tune we sang as a round in the years when I volunteered as Head Teacher of the Reform Synagogue’s Hebrew School in Cambridge, England.

The new tents, asylum seeker registration center, Bnei Brak (Photo credit Faigy Lifshitz)
Shelter from the sun, asylum seeker registration center, Bnei Brak (Photo credit Faigy Lifschitz)

This week’s parasha, Emor, includes the instruction that all citizens of Israel should spend the seven days of Sukkot living in booths (tents), so they will remember from generation to generation that their ancestors lived in tents when they came out of Egypt (Leviticus 23:42,43).

Maybe this reflects my reservations about camping … but I’ve always understood this commandment as a way of reminding us how fortunate we are to live within four walls and a roof when others, including our own ancestors, have no more than a piece of cloth or animal skin between them and the elements.

But this year, thanks to Faigy, I read it differently. It’s not that God made our ancestors live in tents while other refugees lived in palaces. It’s that God enabled our ancestors to live in tents when other refugees had no protection at all. We need to remind ourselves seven days a year, every year, forever, that we were sheltered from whatever storms were out there. This made us eternally obliged to shelter others.

I’ve often heard my husband’s frum family members say they’d had the ze’chut, the merit, to do this or that, but I’d never found quite the right occasion to use the term myself. Now I have: we merited the opportunity to help Faigy and her team fulfil the obligation we all share.

Faigy had a question for us. A Haaretz journalist had been in Bnei Brak to watch the new tents going up. The reporter’s presence there, I discovered later, was thanks to Julie Fisher; it’s not trivial to get the attention of a press in a country where there’s never a shortage of news. Would we be willing to be interviewed for the article, Faigy wanted to know? I agreed, with the proviso that I probably wouldn’t want to be named.

Allison from Haaretz called a couple of days later. Between preferring to give charity anonymously, or at least quietly, and worrying that my words could be mangled or taken out of context, I wasn’t keen to be identified. But Allison said – and I knew she was right – that the piece would be more powerful if I ‘came out’.

For two reasons, that turned out to be the right decision. First, Allison is a great reporter. She accurately condensed what I said about the importance, for me, of seeing overtly religious Jews supporting African asylum seekers. As we learn from this week’s parasha, caring for the ger, the stranger in our midst, is a religious commitment (Leviticus 23:22). Yet it often seems to me that the kippot and head-coverings of religiously-observant men and women are under-represented when it comes to fighting the deportation order. You’re worth a hundred, I told my black-kippah-wearing husband at the last demonstration in Jerusalem.

The second, and infinitely more powerful, confirmation that I was right to give Allison permission to use my name came the next day by e-mail. A woman I didn’t know – I’ll call her Amelie – wrote that she’d read Allison’s article and had a few small questions. I gave Amelie my number, and this is what she told me: I am a nitzolat ha’shoah, a Holocaust survivor. I received money from the German government, but I don’t want to spend it and didn’t know what to do with it. I’m thinking of using it to help the Haredi effort for the asylum seekers.

Amelie has longstanding, close connections with the world of the asylum seekers; this was very, very far from her first encounter. But Faigy’s work in Bnei Brak struck a powerful chord for Amelie. I don’t know what she’ll decide to do, but I can’t begin to articulate the range of powerful emotions I felt as I struggled to absorb the remarkable words she’d uttered a few days after Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and a few days before the birthday of the Jewish State.

I didn’t resolve my Yam Suf dilemma. But in the days leading up to Yom Ha’atzma’ut, I figured out that saying happy birthday to Israel doesn’t have to mean you think everything’s perfect here and there’s nothing to be unhappy about. It’s saying happy birthday to an insanely complex country that is, always has been, and I pray always will be full of people like those named and ‘named’ above.

Happy Birthday, Israel.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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