In the aftermath of a deadly attack, a vigil and an act of hospitality

One day with Rabbi Blum from Chabad Columbia on the first Shabbat after Chabad Poway shooting

It’s barely past lunchtime on Friday and already four big tables are all set for the Sabbath dinner at Chabad, the student and community organization for Jewish life at Columbia University. On the opposite side of the first floor, one can hear the clinking of a computer keyboard and the ringing of cellphones. Rabbi Yonah Blum, the head of the Columbia Chabad House, twisting his long beard with his fingers, is absorbed on his computer.  He has a speech to write.

Today is the first Shabbat a week after the Poway attack, where a man opened fire in a synagogue of the Chabad House near San Diego, leaving one woman dead. In a few hours, Chabad will be hosting a vigil on campus to light candles and commemorate victims of Anti-Semitism. The other sponsors include the University Chaplain, the General Studies Student Council, and a group called Students Supporting Israel.  For Blum, it’s a teaching moment.

“God has his reasons for things to happen,” Blum said as he was thinking through his message. “But one thing is for sure, these people didn’t die just so we have an opportunity to mourn. One step backward should mean 10 steps forward. When something negative like this happens, there must be an emphasis for us to transform this into something more positive.”

The Rabbi’s words echo with the terms used in his bio on Chabad’s website: “idealism, positivism, and genuine love of his fellows.” In light with Chabad’s vision, he believes that the response to antisemitism should be to spread the word to Jewish communities on campus, instruct them to be more Jewish, not to be afraid of wearing Jewish symbols, such as a Jewish star or a kippa.

“Hiding from our religion and spirituality is not the response,” said Blum. “We have to act as ambassadors to light, hope, and godliness.” Even though he says that at Chabad, they are “not really into vigils,” he decided to organize the gathering anyway, most importantly to try to communicate a “call of action.”

As Blum prints his speech, his wife Keren, one of his daughters Chana and an undergraduate student member of Chabad sit in the living room to listen to him and give him feedback. The Chabad house functions as a proper family home where visitors are welcomed to learn and socialize around Judaism. “Please listen to the whole thing before commenting,” Blum says.

His right hand in his pocket, the other holding his script, Blum starts to read off with a vigorous voice. Barely a minute into his speech, his wife snaps her fingers above her head: “That’s the sentence you should start with!” she says. “Those two sentences. They are going to grab the audience.”

As the rehearsal goes on, Keren acts as a severe editor and doesn’t let go of an idea until it’s perfectly reshaped into a clear message. She leads her husband from abstract ideas to direct injunctions.

“What does it mean to add light to your Friday night?” she asks the Rabbi without leaving him the time to reply. “You have to sit with community, sit with your neighbors, care enough to listen to them instead of talking about them.”

Keren Blum, Rabbi Blum’s wife, edits his speech for the vigil held on campus. by Eleonore Voisard

As Keren takes a pen to amend the Rabbi’s draft, he thanks her. “You’re so talented Keren, you should do this speech.” Keren winks, waves her hand over her head in slow motion to express her detachment and turns back in the direction of the kitchen. There’s still a vegetable soup and challah bread in the making for tonight’s Shabbat dinner.

The rest of the Rabbi’s day is spent printing out documents for the vigil, such as letters from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Columbia University faculty staff. With another Chabad member, he also folds flowery cardboard cases containing tea lights, matches, and a Shabbat prayer to hand out on campus for students to do “Mitzvah.” Songs chanted by the Rabbi’s three daughters resonate from the kitchen on the top floor down to the living room.

Keren Blum takes challah bread out of the oven. In Ashkenazi tradition, it’s custom to bake key-shaped challos to enjoy on the Shabbat after Passover. By Eleonore Voisard

Once everything is printed and ready, Blum picks up his hat from the fireplace behind his desk. On the way to campus, he and his daughter Shoshana buy some matches for the candle lighting. A few people are already gathered in the lobby of Earl Hall when they arrive. Students at Columbia, alumni or faculty members wait for the beginning of the ceremony in silence.  Blum sets up the candles on a rectangular table in the corner of the lobby. As he prepares the ceremony, a student from South Korea comes to him and expresses “solidarity with my Jewish friends.”

At 6:30, the vigil starts, right in time to make sure to light the candles before the beginning of Shabbat. Ian Rottenberg from the Office of the University Chaplain welcomes the growing crowd of about 50 people. “I know that it is good, in the face of violence, in the face of antisemitism to not be alone, but to gather and to stand in solidarity from our different traditions, together,” he says before reading Governor Cuomo’s letter to the audience.

One after the other, Columbia students, including a sophomore whose family attends the Poway Chabad, as well as, Columbia professors and faculty members share words of solidarity, equality and hope. The crowd is emotional, but revitalized by the positive speech.

Columbia student from the Chabad Poway community at the vigil. By Eleonore Voisard

“I want to challenge your idea of a regular Friday night,” says Blum to the audience. “To think about what was shared today, and transform tonight into just not any Friday night, but a Friday night of love, light and inspiration. Join communities, sit together, instead of talking about people, sit and talk to people.”

Rabbi Blum addresses the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

At the end of the ceremony, Rabbi Blum invites the crowd to light the candles, “to bring peace in the home and bring peace in the world.” He also invites everyone to join his family for Shabbat dinner, as an echo to his call to sit with and listen to people.

Candle lighting and prayers at the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

Candle lighting and prayers at the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

Back at the Chabad house, guests start to arrive and chat in the dining hall. On the other side of the floor, one of the Rabbi’s daughters plays chess with a guest from her sister’s high school. Just next to them, Blum and a fellow member of Chabad recite their prayers in front of Torah Ark, their eyes closed. Apparently not bothered by the ongoing conversations surrounding them, they seem to be in an elevated state.

The call of the Rabbi draws the crowd to their respective seats. Presiding over the large oval-shaped table at the center of the dining room, Blum opens the Kiddush with a few words honoring Lorie Gilbert-Kaye, the woman who died as she shielded the Poway rabbi from  the shooter. Then, flanked by his two sons Zaly and Gavy, he pours wine into his cup up until it overflows, and carries it to his lips.

As the guests enjoy the challah bread, Blum speaks about the weekly portion of the Torah, which recalls the death of Aaron’s sons while bringing a sacrifice in the ancient Jewish temple. Although he had issued an invitation to all at the vigil, the guests at dinner were mostly Jewish Columbia students who seemed to enjoy his Biblical references.

The rabbi said that there were no coincidences in life and death. “The fact that this portion of the Torah comes after someone entering a shul (synagogue) and firing on people has a reason, the name itself is striking. The lesson we can learn is that we can be upset about all of this, but we shouldn’t be upset in silence. We have to speak up, raise our voice, put our fist on the table so that antisemitism does not exist anymore.”

The dinner goes on, interrupted sometimes by chants launched by the Rabbi and carried out by the rest of the crowd. As it gets late into the night, some of the guests start to leave. Some students from Chabad remain at the table drinking wine and debating how to reconcile religious practice and belief with modernity. With his guests still at the table, Blum stands up, and goes to the nearby sofa to lay down. A few minutes later, he seems to have fallen asleep, soothed by the background noise of voices of these students, who can call this place home.


Israel's first female Reform rabbi with a government salary approaches retirement

Jerusalem — In a small kibbutz outside the central Israeli city of Ramla, Rabbi Miri Gold enjoys her last few months as Israel’s first female Reform rabbi on a state salary. “I’m on sabbatical, and I will retire at the end of this year at the age of 70,” said Gold.

Rabbis in Israel draw their salaries from the
government - but only if they are Orthodox. In 2005, Reform Judaism’s legal
arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, decided to challenge this longstanding
policy in the Supreme Court. They choose four Reform rabbis to petition the
court, including Rabbi Gold. The Court eventually found in favor of the rabbis,
and Rabbi Gold became the “poster child” for this major Supreme Court victory.
“The state agreed that rabbis of non-orthodox communities should be entitled to
salaries,” said Gold. “It was an historic precedent.” According to the IRAC,
the first annual salaries were paid in December 2013 to just those four rabbis.
Rabbi Gold is hopeful about the precedent set, even if the state has slowly and
reluctantly expanded funding for more congregations. “At the time there were
maybe five of us who were eligible. Today there could be 15,” said Gold. Still,
the right-wing Likud government drags its feet on fully implementing the “Miri
Gold Decision,” as the IRAC now calls it. Gold and her colleagues were not paid
by the Ministry of Religion, but instead by the Ministry of Culture. “The ministry of religious
services - traditionally controlled by the ultra orthodox parties - was not
willing to be in charge of the matter, so we agreed that the ministry of
culture would be in charge,” said Orly Likhovski, the director of the IRAC’s
legal department.

This is not the only case of the government failing to fully implement the court decision. Funding for city neighborhood rabbis are still reserved solely for Orthodox rabbis. This was partially due to the Ministry of Religion’s proposed changes to the entire system, which were first announced in 2014. “The state declared that no new rabbis would be employed as neighborhood rabbis and that rabbis who retire would not be replaced. However, there are still 120 neighborhood rabbis serving all around Israel – all of them Orthodox men,” said Likhovski. After the IRAC petitioned the court again in 2018, the Ministry of Culture announced changes that would finally allocate funding for non-Orthodox rabbis in the cities. However, Likhovski still found these changes to be insufficient and plans to challenge it again. “The criteria were drafted in a way which would result in a very little funding and not all of the reform congregations would be entitled to it,” said Likhovski. “This is why we are submitting another petition, demanding that our rabbis would be paid the same salary as neighborhood rabbis, as long as neighborhood rabbis continue to be employed by the state.”

Rabbi Gold’s story begins in the United States. Born into a Conservative family in Detroit, Michigan, Gold was inspired by the communal living she witnessed at an Israeli kibbutz on her first trip to the country. After college she joined a gar’in - a name for a group of diaspora Jews planning to make aliyah to Israel as a group. Rabbi Gold’s gar’in chose an abandoned collective farm named after the ruins of the nearby Biblical city of Tel Gezer. “Part of their reasoning for going to this abandoned kibbutz was one - it was in a great location,” said Rabbi Gold. The kibbutz is only minutes outside of Ramla and a short bus ride to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But Rabbi Gold and her gar’in had another
major motivation for starting their settlement from scratch. “We had the
freedom to create our own policies. Which is sort of a liberal approach to
Judaism and left-of-center approach to politics,” she added. From the very
beginning, Kibbutz Gezer pursued any egalitarian approach to communal living.
“We wanted equal opportunities for women, which in the end become equal
opportunities for everybody,” said Gold. “Meaning - if the man wants to work in
the children’s house - great! But it was more in the direction of women who
wanted to do things that were not necessarily traditional women’s roles.”

Eventually, Gold decided to attend Reform rabbinical school. In 1999, Gold became the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel. Gold founded her congregation, Birkat Shalom, immediately afterwards. Birkat Shalom is a “regional” congregation, which she says means : “it’s not of the kibbutz but it’s at the kibbutz and there’s involvement by those who are interested.” This immediately put Birkat Shalom in a precarious position with the government. The rabbis of regional congregations are paid by the state of Israel, but the state refused to recognize non-orthodox rabbis. Therefore, non-orthodox rabbis were limited in their legal functionality and unable to receive state salaries. Instead, Rabbi Gold’s congregation paid her salary out of their own pockets.

At Birkat Shalom, Rabbi Gold directed her
congregants in many social justice-oriented initiatives to further Kibbutz
Gezer’s greater goals of egalitarianism. Nearby Ramla is probably most famous
for being the location of no less than five high security prisons, including
Israel’s only all-female penitentiary and Ayalon Prison. Ayalon is particularly
notorious - Adolf Eichmann was executed there in 1962, and the assassin of
former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was held there for years while serving a
life sentence. Given the proximity to the prisons, Rabbi Gold’s congregation
felt compelled to direct its social outreach to the incarcerated population.
Birkat Shalom found a group working with prisoners in one of Ramla’s lower
security prisons. “We started to work with prisoners in rehabilitation from
Ramla. People who were likely to get out of prison in the next year or so. And
that went until the prison closed,” said Gold. Part of Rabbi Gold’s outreach in
the prison involved bringing in rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College in
Jerusalem. “We wanted to do some kind of a project that would be
mitzvah-oriented,” said Gold. “We’d get usually two students who were musical
and had a little bit of Hebrew knowledge. They would work with the prisoners,
play some music, and interact with them.”

After the prison closed, Gold wanted to continue working with students from rabbinical seminary. “We found out from another Reform congregation in Modi’in was working with this place called Beit Eden, which is a residence for very special needs kids,” she said. According to Gold, the children at Beit Eden all have severe cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome. After going to school, the children return to Beit Eden for additional care. Rabbi Gold, her congregation, and her rabbinical students focus on providing religious service for the children at Beit Eden. “They come once a month and do a little Kabbalat Shabbat who range in age between seven and 20.” Despite the severe handicaps, the children at Beit Eden have knowledge about their faith. “When you’re with them, you have a feeling that you’re in a nursery school, where they know enough that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. You can’t say the next holiday is Tu BiShvat when the next holiday is Pesach,” said Gold.

Rabbi Gold’s replacement at Birkat Shalom is
already leading services, but she remains involved in her community and in her
outreach programs like Beit Eden. Her replacement, Rabbi Steve Bornstein, will
benefit from the government salary Gold fought to secure.


Single Orthodox women in Israel look towards motherhood

This article was first published on The Forward.

Yael Ukeles always wanted to be a mother. “Growing up, it was just something I thought about,” she said. “Kids were always important to me. But when I hit a certain age and still didn’t have a partner, I had to figure out a different way.”

Ukeles, an Orthodox
Jewish woman, lives in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. A few
years after moving to Tekoa from Jerusalem, Ukeles started doing research on in
vitro fertilization options in Israel. “I read about women who had done it
before, about rabbinical responses, and what my options were,” she said.

The National
Health Service in Israel provides three free rounds of in vitro fertilization for
women up to age 45, and Ukeles started thinking about the possibility of Jewish
donors. “But I was also kind of frustrated,” she recalled. “I was nervous about
doing this on my own, and didn’t really know that many people that were in the
same place as I was.” Even before Ukeles underwent the procedure, she also knew
that there was stigma surrounding her decision, especially among the members of
her insular Orthodox community.

It was during
her pregnancy with her son Amitai that Ukeles started thinking about other
women in her position. In 2011, Ukeles co-founded the group KayamaMoms with
Dina Pinner and Dvora Ross in order to better support other women like them –
that is, observant Jewish women who are single mothers by choice. Kayama is the
Hebrew word for existence, and the group was inspired by a famous passage in
Aramaic that translates to say, “We exist through our seed.”

Though KayamaMoms also hosts public awareness events and talks across the country, it is primarily a group for members and by members. The organization now has approximately 100 participants, and they stay connected even though many of the women live in Israel and the West Bank. The mothers communicate via a WhatsApp group and Facebook page, and plan monthly meetups where they picnic, hike, and hang out with each other and their children.

A lot of time is also spent discussing their faith, and how their religious communities have reacted to their decisions. Though it’s happening slowly, Ukeles thinks that some Orthodox communities in Israel are getting on board. Between 10 to 15 percent of the population in Israel identifies as Orthodox, and there has been a lot of rabbinic discussion about the halachic nature of in vitro fertilization. Generally, supportive rabbis reference a quote from the Book of Genesis, and say “And G-d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’”

In vitro
fertilization has long been used in Israel by single secular women, but the use
of it by single Orthodox women is still relatively new. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow,
one of KayamaMoms’s advisors and the head of a modern Orthodox yeshiva in
Petach Tikvah, has become one such advocate for these single mothers. He
advised Ukeles through this process as well, and believes that it’s a decision
that has become less stigmatized. “There are more of us now, and we’re becoming
more accepted,” said Ukeles. Though there is no data to support this theory,
Ukeles also believes the number of Orthodox single mothers by choice is on the
rise.

“I think it’s a
growing phenomenon in a certain niche of modern Orthodoxy,” said Yardena
Cope-Yossef, a halachic fertility counselor, lecturer in Talmudic and Jewish
law, and legislative advisor in the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s Jewish law
department. “There’s nothing in Jewish law that expressly forbids in vitro
fertilization,” she said. “So people are slowly coming around to it, and
realizing that their issues with it primarily lie with their concerns about
traditional family structures.”

While this
acceptance might be taking place in certain communities or spaces, much of the
country still struggles with the idea of single orthodox mothers and in vitro
fertilization. In June of 2018, after a lawsuit, an ultra-Orthodox hospital in
Netanya was forced to allow in vitro fertilization for an unmarried woman.
However, this procedure was only allowed if a male partner was in attendance,
prohibiting the treatment for single women.  

With or without acceptance,
there are still more hurdles to overcome. As more women turn to sperm banks and
in vitro fertilization, the lack of regulations has become a concern for many
of the women in KayamaMoms and around Israel. “At the end of the day, people
are nervous about possible incest,” said Ukeles. The concern centers around the
possibility, however unlikely, that the sperm donor could help produce multiple
children that could eventually meet and form future unions without knowing they
were related.

The suggested solution is somewhat counter-intuitive. “Paradoxically, if a sperm donor’s identity is anonymous, it’s better halachicaly to get a non-Jewish donor,” said Cope-Yossef. “The Jewish identity goes through the mother anyways, and if a woman gets an anonymous Jewish donor, there could be issues with the history of that donor’s parentage, and more. It’s actually better for it to be non-Jewish and anonymous.” The Ministry of Health is currently working on a sperm bank law, and in proposed legislation there will be an anonymous and non-anonymous track for sperm donation for this very reason.

“There is no
where near enough data on these sperm banks, where they’re coming from, and how
it’s managed geographically,” adds Ukeles. “This is our next big struggle, which
is why it is so important to make these conversations less taboo in the Orthodox
community.”

On a Saturday night in March 2019, a few hours after Shabbat had ended, Yael Ukeles and her son Amitai sat on the couch poring over a Jewish prayer book. Amitai, 8, had recently learned the prayer “Anim Zemirot,” and was practicing it with his mother.

“This might be a prayer his friends are learning with their dads,” said Ukeles, after Amitai went to bed. “But in our house, he’s learned it from me. I think that’s pretty special.”

This article was republished courtesy of The Forward.


Ethiopian Jews Protest Police Violence through Art

This article was first published at Religion Unplugged:

SDEROT, Israel – From the walls of an art gallery of a public college here, the portrait of a young black man soberly gazes down as onlookers pass through the gray halls. He is known simply by his Ethiopian mother’s name, as Mamye’s son.

His real name is Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old Ethiopian Jew who died earlier this year in a confrontation with Israeli police. His shooting is the latest case to spark demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the discrimination Ethiopians face in Israel.

But the portrait here is another kind of protest, this one in art rather than on the streets. It is part of a new show, “The Color Line,” created and curated by a group of Ethiopian Jewish women artists. Their work is on view until April 24th in the gallery at Sapir College near Sderot, a city a mile east of the Gaza border.

“If there is no racism, I would not be making this art,” said Zaudito Yosef, a 35-year- old artist from Ashdod, who, alongside her cousin, Tagist Yosef Ron, and Dana Yosef, Tagist’s sister-in-law, are curators and artists for the show. Police officers in the Biadga shooting have been cleared of wrongdoing, but Ethiopian Jews, including the Yosefs, see it as yet another case of police brutality in the country.

Mamye’s Son by Tagist Yosef Ron

The show at Sderot is not the first time the family has been featured together. Their work has appeared alongside each others in books exploring issues of Ethiopian Jewish identity in contemporary art. But this time, things are different. An Ethiopian would have full control of the gallery and pick artists to showcase the police issue through the eyes of Ethiopian Jews themselves. After Zaudito was given the go-ahead from Sapir College, she immediately called Ron, who threw her hat in the ring.

Zaudito, second left, and Ron, second right, with other featured artists at the show in Sderot, Sapir College 

Their artistic talents trace back to their mothers and grandmothers, all artists in Ethiopia. “It is probably genetic,” said Zaudito. Like most of the 144,000 Ethiopian Jews in the country, the family’s story is one of displacement, aimless wandering as refugees in Sudan, and finally, a union with the land of their dreams.

But
life in Israel has come with its own set of difficulties. Although they are now
part of the Jewish religious majority, the family continues to contend with
their reality as ethnic minorities in an Ashkenazi and Sephardic dominated
Jewish society. “We didn’t know our color there,” said Zaudito, “It’s only when
we came here we realized we were black.”

According
to Pew Research Center, roughly a third of Israeli Jews say Ethiopian Jews face
“a lot” of discrimination in society. It’s something that’s even felt by Rabbi
Sharon Shalom, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent who leads a partly Ashkenazi
congregation at Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat, a city about eighteen
miles north of Sderot. As a religious leader who deals with repeated questions
on the authenticity of his Jewishness from congregants, he says race triumphs
religion in Israel. 

The
Yosefs themselves can list a litany of incidents when they have personally
encountered discrimination, from being physically assaulted as children near
immigrant absorption centers to companies turning them away at job interviews.
There are lots of things that worry them in Israeli society, but the main
problem is always the police.

“There
is a lot of pain that should be everybody’s pain,” said Ron, “the whole
society, not just Ethiopian Israelis.”

She
focuses on “the boys,” young Ethiopian Jews, like Biadga and Yosef Salamsa, whose deaths protestors say links to
police violence and neglect.

Four years ago, a video showing two police officers beating Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, brought the issue to the forefront of Israeli society. After the video was circulated, mass protests erupted at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and several people were arrested.     

“Many Ethiopians feel insecure in their neighborhoods or out of their neighborhoods when they see policemen,” said Shoshana Ben-Dor, the former Israel Director for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, in Jerusalem.

“days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

The community makes up merely 2 percent of the country’s population, but they account for 40 percent of the public discrimination complaints filed to the Ministry of Justice’s government unit against racism. And according to police data, they are also twice as likely to be arrested.

Some
of the family members are a part of closed Facebook groups where young
Ethiopian Jews talk about their personal experiences away from the gaze of the
wider Israeli society. “They compare it to the African-American experience in
the United States,” said Ofir Abu, a researcher into Israeli policing in
minority communities at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In fact, some of the inspiration for the art and protests comes from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. “A lot of young people saw that, and felt a connection,” said Batya Sisay, a 35-year-old Ethiopian artist also featured for the gallery. There are many pro-black themes at the show: women flaunting their natural kinky hair, little girls holding black dolls, and older women in traditional Ethiopian clothes are prominent throughout the paintings.

The
name of the art show itself, the Color Line, borrows a concept coined by the
African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, and worries on the policing of their
young men sound similar to fears often raised in the United States. “I’m
concerned for my children,” said Dana. She follows police issues closely, and
when reports of incidents flood in, she lays her three children to sleep and
channels her anxiety through watercolors.

Their
hearts ache for the mothers of “the boys.” In a perfect world, they say their
art would not exist. But for now, it’s their sole way of fighting back.

“We’re different because of the color of the skin,” said Ron. “We will always be different.”

Some quotes have been translated from Amharic.  

Top photo: “days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

This article was republished here courtesy of Religion Unplugged.


16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections : A Photo Essay

As published in The Forward

In Israel, Judaism alone boasts a spectrum of denominations, affiliations and nomenclatural religious-national identifiers. 93 percent of Israeli Jews would say they are proud of their Jewish identity, according to a recent Pew study, but the way they understand and describe that identity - and what it means to be Jewish - can vary drastically, whether it be “Israeli Jew” or “Jewish Israeli”, along with labels like “ultra-Orthodox”, “modern Orthodox”, “Conservative”, “Masorti” or “secular” to name a few.

But how do other religious communities identify themselves in Israel and parts of the Palestinian territories?

We travelled from the northern Druze village of Beit Jann to a cluster of Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion, to interview and photograph 16 people of different faiths about the way they self-identified. In a land where even calling a country “Israel” can be construed as a political statement, those we interviewed described themselves very intentionally while describing their relationship with the state.

Our interviews came at a critical juncture as the country prepares for what is expected to be one of the most closely contested Israeli elections in recent political history. The incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likkud party, is looking to win his fifth election on April 9th and eclipse David Ben Gurion’s record as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. He is challenged by the newly-formed centrist Blue and White led by Yair Lapid and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.

With the growing political clout of extremist parties on the right like Jewish Power (“Otzma Yehudit”), this won’t be the first time the country’s identity has become a topic of national discourse. The Knesset’s passage of the nation-state law last May, which affirmed that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in the State of Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” has provoked similar discussion and controversy.

In this election, identity is everything.

Maayan Mankadi, Beit Horon

Maayan Mankadi is from Beit Horon, an Israeli settlement located a few kilometers away from Ramallah. Mankadi identifies as a modern Orthodox Zionist, and recently got married in Jerusalem. “I’m at the Kotel to pray and to thank God for helping me get to where I am now,” she says. “I appreciate the sanctity of the Torah, but I’m also a regular member of the country’s workforce. We earn a living and serve in the army or complete national service. It’s somewhere in the middle of the two extremes we find in Israel.”

Sawsan Kheir, Beit Jann

Sawsan Kheir is a psychology PhD student at the University of Haifa. Born and raised in Peqi-in, a Druze village in the Galilee, her research focuses on the effects of modernization and the value of faith in Muslim and Druze students across Israel. She defines herself as Druze, Arab, and Israeli. “Since the establishment of the State of Israel,” she says, “the Druze have been loyal to the government and had very positive relations with the Jews because of our shared history of persecution. There is a mutual understanding.” With the recently passed nation state law, Druze like Kheir are nervous. “We are loyal to the land we are born into,” she says. “There are three basic elements of our faith: the land, honor, and religion.”

Avi R, Haifa

Avi, a security consultant from Haifa, considers himself a masorti (traditional) Jew. “I go to synagogue for all the festivals and keep our traditions,” he says. “I am first Jewish and then Israeli.” For Avi, his identity won’t change in the upcoming elections. “My family and I always vote for Likkud.”

Sheikh Jamil Khatib, Beit Jann

Sheikh Jamil Khatib is one of Beit Jann’s four imams. “I am an Israeli Druze,” he says. “First, I am a Druze through my mother and father, then I am an Israeli because I am connected and attached to the land of the State of Israel. I am prepared to do anything for my country and to perpetuate its existence.” Politically, Khatib explains, the Druze in Beit Jann are somewhat divided. “Some support Likkud, some support Meretz, some follow Chadash - you see us in every single political party and this election won’t change that.” Khatib himself is committed to Druze education and cultural workshops for his community, and served as principal at a local elementary school before becoming an imam.

Chaftzivah Bitton, Tzfat

Chaftzivah Bitton lives in Tzfat, and works as an advisor to newlyweds and a supervisor at her local mikveh. “I am an Israeli from a religious household,” she says. “My father was a rabbi, my husband is a rabbi, and we are continuing the traditions of the Jewish people. My identity will not change at all in the upcoming elections. I am Jewish, religious, and Israeli.”

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas, Nazareth

Born and raised in Nazareth, Sheikh Sami Abu Anas is the head imam at the city’s White Mosque. “I am a Muslim Palestinian, living in the State of Israel,” he says. “Though I would always describe myself first as a Palestinian, I was born in Israel. I respect the laws of the state, and respecting the state you live in is a principle that goes all the way back to the time of the Prophet himself.” Anas’ mosque is open to all, but he fears that increased polarization has pushed Israeli Jews and Arabs to more extreme sides of the political spectrum. Nazareth is the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, and to Anas, this indicates that many different kinds of people can live in the same place. “I truly hope that whichever government is formed after the elections makes us feel more included, even if it is Netanyahu’s government. I also have the freedom to express myself here as a Palestinian Muslim, unlike in Gaza or Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example.”

Sami Shalsha, Nazareth

Sami Shalsha is a caretaker of the White Mosque. “I am an ordinary and simple human,” he says. “I don’t like discrimination or hate, and my religion teaches me that we all must live together in harmony, whether you are an Arab or Israeli or English or Jew or Christian or Muslim or whatever - it does not matter.” Though he lives just around the corner from the White Mosque, Shalsha is originally from the north. “I take care of the mosque every day from 10 in the morning until 7 at night…I also guide the tourists who come visit talk about the history of the mosque. I try and change their perception of Islam because some of them see groups like ISIS as Islamic. ISIS does not represent Islam, and Islam is not a religion that condones murder.”

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta, Jerusalem’s Old City

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta know each other from yeshiva, and come to the Old City together almost every week. They both identify as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and Zengoltz, originally from Tiberias, sees his Israeli and Haredi identity as inextricably linked. Guetta feels slightly different: “I am from Jerusalem,” he says. “I am first a Jew, then a Haredi, and then an Israeli, because Judaism has been around the longest, before Haredim and before Israel. No election will change my identity.”

Ahmed, Nazareth

Ahmed makes some of Nazareth’s best knafe, doling it out from a small corner of the famed Mahroum sweet shop. “We are all human beings at the end of the day,” he says. “I don’t like that everyone categorizes themselves as either Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, or Muslim. We all belong to the human race.”

Dr. Maria Khoury, Taybeh

“I identify as a Palestinian in spirit, but I’m Greek Orthodox in blood,” says Dr. Maria Khoury, a Taybeh resident. Along with her Palestinian husband and his family, Khoury runs the popular Taybeh Brewing Company, the Taybeh Winery, and The Taybeh Golden Hotel. “No matter what the election results are in Israel, I think our situation here in the West Bank will pretty much stay the same. I do not think the wall is going to go away. I do not think the checkpoints will go away. I do not think the Israeli settlements are going to go away. We suffer from the Israeli occupation because our freedom of movement is limited.”

Pastor Munther Isaac, Bethlehem

Serving at the Christmas Lutheran Church in the old city of Bethlehem, Pastor Munther Isaac is acutely aware of his own religious and national identity. “I am a Palestinian Arab Christian,” said Isaac. “I am a follower of Christ. And when I think of the elections, I just hope that people choose someone who is willing to have a serious conversation about making peace. Right now, current Israeli rhetoric is reflected by the recent Nation State law. I’m hoping for people who will make the country more inclusive.”

Isaac Simanian, Tel Aviv

Isaac Simanian’s spice shop in the bustling Levinsky market is always full of customers. “My parents were born in Iran,” he says from behind the counter, “but I am an Israeli Jew. I wear a kippah, but it’s important to me that all religions are welcome here.” Simanian plans to vote for the Likkud party in the upcoming elections. “I choose Netanyahu,” he adds. “No one is better than him.”

Zahi Khouri, Ramallah

Born in Jaffa, Khouri is one of Ramallah’s best-known businessmen. He has lived all over the world, and is the founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company and produces Coca-Cola for the region as well. He opened up the Palestinian Beverage Company as a way to not only encourage local business in the area, but also to provide hope to the community. He is outspoken against Israeli occupation, but doesn’t think the elections will change much. “First, I am a human being,” he says. “Second I am Palestinian. Third, I am a Christian.”

Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, Shiloh

Born in Chicago, Rabbi Dov Berkowitz now lives in Shiloh, an Israeli settlement almost 30 miles north of Jerusalem. “I consider myself a Jew, a father, and a husband,” he says. Upon moving to Israel, Berkowitz never intended to move to a settlement. When he and his wife first arrived, Berkowitz says he was “the leftie here - the peacenik.” But after the first intifada, Berkowitz started to change his mind. “I deeply believe in creating peace with the Palestinians,” he says. “For me, Zionism means many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is that the Jewish people came back to Israel not to be killed.”

Omar Hmeedat, Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Omar Hmeedat calls himself a Palestinian atheist. “I do not support any political party,” he says. “I am even more critical of their agenda and the way they work. I also do not think this conflict should be religious.” Though he does not live there now, Hmeedat grew up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, just a few miles from the old city of Bethlehem. He is now actively involved in non-political community organizing and urban planning research. At Al-Quds University, Hmeedat is majoring in media studies. “The elections won’t change anything,” Hmeedat adds. “I am Palestinian and will remain Palestinian. Whether I live in Palestine, Israel, or in Europe. This won’t change my identity.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Gush Etzion

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder of Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice) and previous President and Senior Rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, is recognized around the world for his commitment to human rights and social justice in the region. He is originally from Pennsylvania, but he moved to Israel in 1994. “I identify as a human being,” he says, “and my Jewish identity and faith are not my wall with the rest of the world, but my bridge.” Ascherman is committed to inter-faith dialogues, and has previously been on trial for acts of civil disobedience. “As a human rights leader,” he adds, “I don’t tell anyone how I’m voting and I don’t affiliate with any political party, but I will vote and I will ask others to vote for a party that is honoring God’s image and every human being.”

Jonathan Harounoff is a master’s student at Columbia Journalism School, an alumnus of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and an incoming FASPE Fellow. Some of his work has featured in The Jerusalem Post, Religion News Service and The Harvard Gazette.

Leah Feiger is a religion, gender, and culture writer living in New York City. She is currently an intern at The Forward, and was previously a freelance writer based in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has appeared in Ozy, Fodor’s, and Culture Trip, among others. Follow her on Twitter @leahfeiger.

Leah and Jonathan reported this story during a trip to Israel as part of a Columbia Journalism School religion reporting class that is sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

This story "16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections: A Photo Essay" was written by Leah Feiger and Jonathan Harounoff.

Photographs courtesy of Leah Feiger.