My unusual Chol Hamoed day with a Palestinian and a Syrian

Yesterday was the first time that I spent a full day hosting Arabs in my house. I lived in Israel for eleven years and it was only when living in the densely populated Jewish suburb of Thornhill, Canada that I ended up spending the entire day with two Arabs; Ahmed, a Palestinian from Nablus and Maher, a Syrian from Damascus. (Both moved to here over a decade ago.)

My wife and I needed to hire some workers to do some urgent work on our house. As soon as the couple of workers arrived, I immediately recognized that they were speaking Arabic. Perhaps even sooner, the Palestinian recognized our mezuzah and Judaica in the house and picked up that I was Jewish. I said ‘Salaam Aleykim’ and they both smiled and replied ‘Aleykim Salaam’ and that set the tone for a very pleasant day of Jewish/Muslim co-existence.  When I asked them not to bring bread into our house and showed them our matza, the Palestinian shared with me his knowledge of Judaism. Interestingly, he told me that he used to be neighbors with a few Samaritans in Nablus and confused their religion with Judaism. He said that as a child, his old neighbors would  often asked him to be their ‘Shabbos Goy’ (I can see why he confused the two!)

Maher from Syria showed me pictures of himself when he fought in the Syrian army and showed me his relatives who have high ranks in Assad’s current army. Due to the sensitivity of the topic and his limited English, I didn’t ask too much about the current war or any previous wars that Syria and Israel fought against each other. I certainly didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to share my political views on Israel.

I didn’t have much food to offer, though I shared a few kosher for Passover snacks including Elite chocolate from Israel with them. Ahmed (from Nablus) was happy to eat the nostalgic chocolate and told me that he sometimes shops at grocery stores with a large kosher section so that he can give his children Bamba, Bissli, Krembo and other Israeli treats that they remember from their hometown. His sister currently lives in Bet Jala. He is very proud of her and told me how good of a quality of life she and her family have as Israeli citizens. He shared his memories from the 1980’s when he and his friends would go to the beaches of Netanya and ‘live the good life’ before politics and violence ended that era (i.e. the First Intifada).

Neither of them considered themselves to be very religious Muslims. However when I told them that I needed ten minutes to daven Mincha, they both showed great respect and alluded to Allah several times before I prayed. Before they left at the end of the day, Maher (from Damascus) told my wife how he had such a nice day working in our house and that he felt the angels in our home (whatever that means?). The three of us must have said ‘Inshalaa’ (God- willing) about a hundred times.

I realize that Palestinians often spend days working on homes in Israel, though I rarely hear about such positive interactions between Jew and Arab. Had you asked me previously how I would envision such a day, my answer would probably be filled with much stereotype along with a sense of historical and political weariness towards the two. After all, in my university days, I was a pro- Israel activist and lived in Israel during several wars and waves of Palestinian terror. However, yesterday I truly experienced a deep realization that despite our differences, we have much in common. Living in times with such tensions between Jews and Arabs, it was really special to spend a day of coexistence with fellow human beings. It is moments like these where I am inspired by the ideals of peace and coexistence and am filled with hope that One Day…

About the Author
Rabbi Shaanan Scherer currently lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and 3 children. After spending over a decade living and learning in Israel, Shaanan brings his Israel experience to both his classroom and on his child- centered Israel tours that he guides in the summertime.
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