The interplay of cultures in Israel creates a nuance that is almost impossible to explain to those who aren’t living it. On Sunday, during Pesach, we decided to spend our last free day at the beach. We enjoy going to Ashkelon and headed there for some sun and fun.
As we got there, the kids remarked that there seemed to be a number of police boats in the area. Then they noticed a few scuba divers. What was going on? We had no idea, but it didn’t seem to be infringing upon anyone’s fun or anyone’s time in the water, and we soon ignored the distant action.
Then, about an hour into our time at the beach, we noticed a huge crowd of fully clothed men from teenagers to elders congregating on the beach. There must have been at least a hundred of them, and by the end of the day I would say there were more like a hundred and fifty. There were five scuba divers who were about to return to the water, Jewish police officers in rescue boats, and Zaka members around. (Zaka is an incredible volunteer organization started by a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. They arrive at the scene of bombings and disasters to ensure that every body part is collected for the sanctity of the burial.)
Clearly, someone had drowned and they appeared to be trying to find him. There were two things that were most interesting about this drama.
1. They weren’t closing the beach to perform their search and rescue.
2. An entire Bedouin community had come to the shore. They were not needed for the rescue effort, but they milled about and walked up and down the beach for hours.
We tried to carry on having fun, but it was certainly difficult not to be moved by the process happening around us. As we played, I looked into the faces of these young men pacing at the shore. They clearly felt out of their element walking along the beach, and you could see the pinched, worried expressions on their faces as some caressed their prayer beads.
Finally, I asked a rescue member what was going on and he explained, vaguely, that three people had died there last week and that they were still looking for one of them.
The search continued.
Then, about an hour later, when I took Zeli to the bathroom, I noticed the enormous procession leaving the beach. There were well over a hundred of them, all walking away. And I prayed for them that their community member had been found and that they could move forward from whatever tragedy had occurred.
We played for another hour. Two scuba divers came walking up the beach, and I took the opportunity to ask.
“Did you find him?”
“Yes,” they said, and moved on.
We continued the rest of our time at the water, trying to balance explaining to the kids what had happened and enjoying our day.
As we got into our cars, we were surprised to hear that the lead news story of the hour was about Ashkelon and the search and rescue efforts. Apparently, as we learned, last Thursday three brothers (aged 16, 19 and 26) drowned exactly where we were. They had found two, but were still searching for the third. And that day, while we were at the beach, they finally found the oldest brother.
I was moved beyond words by the scene. Here was an entire community that had come to the shore day after day, waiting for the body of their friend/brother/cousin/son/neighbor to be found. They stood by the shore and waited, showing a sense of community and respect for the dead that was profoundly moving.
Similarly, I was moved by the nuanced and complicated inter-workings of our community in Israel. Jewish-Israeli police officers and scuba experts were searching for the body of a Bedouin man while Orthodox volunteers from Zaka stood by to be of assistance as needed.
A day in the life of a complicated, nuanced, incredibly interesting place called Israel.
At the water’s edge.